If you're one of the brave souls who set out to knock every drink off Anvil Bar & Refuge's now-famous list of 100 Cocktails to Try Before You Die and you actually accomplished this goal, congratulations. Having given your kidneys and liver a rest (hopefully), you may be looking for another challenge. Or perhaps you're just a cocktail buff with a history problem. Either way, Chris Frankel has just the thing at his new Midtown bar above Cook & Collins, Spare Key.
2416 Brazos St., Ste. C, 2nd Floor
Unlock the States is the name of a new drink menu that challenges customers to enjoy a classic cocktail for each of the 50 states plus Washington, DC, and one that could only come from a man like Frankel, possessed of a history degree from Princeton with an emphasis in American studies and a passionate travel buff, who—like his menu—has covered the entirety of the nation. "In September 2014," Frankel says, "I took a trip to Anchorage, visiting Alaska and checking the final state off my list."
During the three years it took Frankel to travel to all 50 states, he made it a point to explore the local food and drink scenes in each new location. "Through that, I discovered a lot of fascinating things about the culture and history of the different states I explored," he says, including the fact that not all states have as rich a cocktail culture as, say, Louisiana or New York. "A lot of states, particularly in the West and Midwest, have primarily blue collar drinking cultures that revolve mainly around beer and whiskey."
It was upon returning to Texas and opening Spare Key, a bar of his own at long last, that Frankel decided to marry his passions for history and travel with his cocktail expertise. As one of the original bar managers at Anvil, Frankel witnessed first-hand the draw of a list like the bar's 100 Cocktails to Try Before You Die.
"I've always enjoyed the idea of using a contest or checklist program as a way to get customers excited about trying all your different offerings. Before we rolled out our 100 cocktails list years ago at Anvil, I had also worked at Little Woodrow's, who used to have a 'Big 50' beer menu to work through, and Flying Saucer, whose UFO Club gives customers their own plate on the wall for drinking 200 different beers," he says. "It's an idea that’s been done many times before, but there are always different and fun ways to present it."
In the case of Spare Key, Frankel wanted his list of libations to present as much a challenge to himself as to the patrons—and that meant sticking with classic cocktails with roots in each state. "I made a rule that I couldn’t just invent a drink myself," Frankel says. "I had to research an existing drink recipe and make it fit on the menu." In some cases, this was simple. In DC, for example, the gin rickey is said to have first been created in the 1880s at the notorious Shoomaker's, and currently enjoys an elevated status as the city's first and only official "native cocktail"—an honor bestowed upon it by no less than a city proclamation in 2011.
In other cases—particularly in California, New York and Louisiana—Frankel encountered an embarrassment of riches that forced him to make tough decisions about what would ultimately make the cut. "In cases like that, I tried to pick drinks that would help balance out the menu," he says. "For example, the Grasshopper probably isn’t the first New Orleans cocktail that comes to mind, but it has a well-documented history there and has been enjoying a bit of a comeback in the past year or two. It also filled a need for a sweeter dessert drink on the menu, whereas a Sazerac or Vieux Carre might have seemed redundant on a menu that already has a lot of stiff whiskey and cognac drinks."
Those states in the West and Midwest, meanwhile, presented a different sort of challenge. "For Nebraska, I tried to replicate a cocktail I enjoyed at this really cool Omaha cocktail bar called The Berry & Rye," Frankel says. "For Wyoming, I found an old Savoy Cocktail Book drink called the Wyoming Swing, which probably doesn’t have much real history in the area, but could be worked into a really tasty aperitif cocktail." In some states, such as Michigan and its Last Word (first served at the Detroit Athletic Club in the 1920s), the cocktails are well-known. Other states, such as Arizona and its Strip and Go Naked (a classic tiki concoction served at the height of Dean Short's empire of tiki bars in 1960s-era Phoenix and Tucson), provide insight into long-forgotten cocktail cultures which Frankel hopes will inspire patrons to consider the history inside their highball glasses.
For those who're just in it for the challenge, however, Spare Key provides incentive there too: Frankel promises a prize for whomever is first to drink their way across America by ordering all 51 cocktails. That prize? A 52nd cocktail, of sorts, named for the winner, to remain on the menu for the duration of 2015. But in case you're considering pounding all 51 cocktails in a week, consider this caveat: Spare Key will only serve you two drinks from its Unlock the States menu per night. We suggest kicking off your travels with—what else—a margarita, Frankel's cocktail of choice for his home state of Texas.