Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel - Photo by Daniel Krieger

Reliving Classic New York with The Plaza’s Head Mixologist, Brian van Flandern

Brian van Flandern had given up. After moving to New York to become an actor, he been to the National Shakespeare Conservatory, and supported himself as a bartender. 20 years of that life, however, grew tiring. So, he went back to school to get a “real job”. But when the restaurant he was working at folded just before his last semester, a guy called and van Flandern took one last gig opening a new restaurant in Columbus Circle.

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Left: Brian van Flandern, Right: Geoffrey Zakarian

That guy was Thomas Keller and that restaurant was Per Se. Recent bad press notwithstanding, Per Se was the first and last word in American dining. While there, Brian van Flandern earned three Michelin stars as a mixologist, the highest possible rating.

But van Flandern owes his fame, quixotically, to tonic water. When he was trying to put a fresh spin on classic recipes for Per Se, he realized that nobody had thought to improve on the gin and tonic.

“I bought some raw quinine powder, this was in 2004,” van Flandern says. “Now it’s passe, but back in 2004 absolutely nobody, and I mean nobody, was making their own tonic water. I went ahead and put together and came up with a recipe. That recipe is still on the list at Per Se to this day. A full year after, I released it and got some international press.”

The Palm Court restaurant interior design

Photo by Daniel Krieger

Eventually, van Flandern departed the restaurant to start his own mixology consulting business. My Mixologist offers training and consulting on everything from bar layout to cocktail list design. He’s appeared on Bar Rescue, The Barefoot Contessa, and Food(ography), to say nothing of his multiple published books and many press mentions. He’s also designed cocktail lists for some of the best hotels in the world.

So when Geoffrey Zakarian from the Food Network, asked him to redesign and open a new bar in the Palm Court in the iconic Plaza Hotel, van Flandern didn’t hesitate.

Moscow Mule by Brian van Flandern

Photo courtesy of The Palm Court

He says that designing a cocktail list for such an establishment comes down to four factors.

First, a makeover on classic cocktails.

“You can expect one of the best Cosmopolitans, one of the best Mint Juleps, one of the best Negronis you’ve ever had, just because we’re using quality, premium spirits,” he says. “We’re using fresh ingredients and balancing the acids with sugars just like a chef seasoning food on a plate.”

Second, van Flandern curates a list of modern craft recipes.

“These are original recipes of my design, but they use more esoteric ingredients and they are refreshing and delicious and not in the mainstream, but all very, very well balanced and tasty,” van Flandern says.

The third is to recreate aspects of Trader Vic’s, the tiki bar with a location in the basement of the Plaza.

While the original Trader Vic’s featured a lot of sugary rum drinks, van Flandern wants to use fresh ingredients and higher-quality spirits to create a more modern experience.

“We’ve done two different cocktails, a whole coconut and a whole pineapple cocktail using fresh squeezed Hawaiian pineapple juice and in the coconut case, fresh extracted coconut milk and coconut water,” van Flandern says of the cocktails which he has designed to share.

Finally, van Flandern introduces some luxury by using ultra-high-quality liquors in cocktails designed to highlight their strengths.

That includes a using a $30,000 bottle of Louis XIII Remy Black Pearl or Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. He cites a $3,000 sidecar, a cognac drink, as an example of the potential largesse.

Sidecar cognac by Brian van Flandern

Photo courtesy of The Palm Court

“The reason we’re doing that is traditionally using super high end spirits in cocktails was considered a crime,” van Flandern says. “It was considered disrespectful to a master distiller and a waste of a really good spirit. Now, with today’s modern craft mixology movement, the best bartenders in the world are using quality spirits in cocktails.”

When you’re stepping into the Palm Court, you’re stepping into a taste of history with a modern flavor. Whether it’s Zakarian’s menu or van Flandern’s cocktail list, it seems impossible to conceive of a more up-to-date take on old-school luxury.