A Toast to the Nifty Fifty

At Midtown bar Spare Key, there’s a drink—and a story—for every state.

By Katharine Shilcutt January 5, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Repping Texas: The Margarita

Chris Frankel, the proprietor of eclectic Midtown bar Spare Key, is a man who does his research. Starting with Hawaii and ending with Alaska, he visited every single US state to compile his establishment’s pièce de résistance: a menu of 51 cocktails, each named after and inspired by its state of origin (plus, of course, one for Washington, D.C.). The goal for customers is to “unlock” the Spare Key menu by trying them all. What do they get for completing the mission? “A special prize,” Frankel hints.

What most interests Frankel, who has a history degree from Princeton, is each cocktail’s story. The cognac-based Picon Punch, fortified with an unusual, bittersweet French liqueur called China-China, represents—of all places—Idaho, where Frankel discovered a large Basque population among whom the drink is popular. “There’s a Basque square in Boise with a seal embedded in the old bricks,” he says, plus “a Basque restaurant, Basque shops…”

Frankel found Missouri’s drink in the pages of The Ideal Bartender, the first known cocktail manual written by a black bartender, Tom Bullock, who worked at the renowned St. Louis Country Club and published his still-classic tome in 1917. The Whiskey Punch features a tropical twist of pineapple syrup that remains as delightfully unexpected today as it must have been back in the pre-Prohibition Midwest.

Other states were easier to create or track down cocktails for—the Hemingway Daiquiri out of Key West, the Gin Gin Mule from the famous Pegu Club in New York City, and the Alabama Slammer out of, well, Alabama. As for the Texas entry, it’s a platonically perfect margarita.

At press time, only seven customers had unlocked the Spare Key menu, a number that is sure to grow. Meanwhile, Frankel has already set a new task for himself, which may or may not result in a new cocktail menu: visiting all 31 Mexican states. Six down, 25 to go.


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