There's a lot of history at the Congress Hall hotel in Cape May, the nation's first seashore resort.
The prestigious hotel itself was built by Thomas Hughes, who originally called it The Big House before being elected to the House of Representatives and changing the name to attract his political pals. Although residents at the time thought it too big to succeed (nicknaming it Tommy's Folly), the stately building anchored the growing tourism market and captured the attention of not one, but four U.S. presidents who vacationed there.
Benjamin Harrison went so far as to make the hotel his "summer residence," leading to state business being conducted on its sweeping verandas and vaulted halls.
"There's so much history here, it's easy to connect it, even though we're talking about the 1800s, when there wasn't much mixology going on," says Congress Hall's food and beverage manager, Thomas Von Muester, who touts a series of mixed drinks themed to the hotel's political history. "They probably had just a few kinds of brown spirits - like rye - and absinthe. So they weren't necessarily drinking these cocktails, but we can still tie it in."
That's kind of the reasoning behind The General, an old fashioned cocktail of rye, herbsaint and bitters named for tough-guy Ulysses S. Grant. It's served in a martini glass with simple syrup and an orange-twist garnish. Think about it, just chilling the cocktail would have presented a logistical problem.
The Bachelor, named for the unmarried James Buchanan, is a stiff mix of Dewars whisky, Italian vermouth and cherry-sweet Chambord mixed with orange juice. The candied Amarena cherries used to garnish it taste similar to maraschino cherries, only with a smoother flavor that emulates their darker color.
Coming to the U.S. from Germany taught Von Muester to soak in his surroundings and work to understand what guests in that region seek. And his fun, can-do attitude has served him well in the five years he's worked for Cape Resorts Group, which operates Congress Hall as well as its sustainable-food partner Beach Plum Farm and the Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City, where he also worked.
For example, with all the election fever in the air lately, he worked with head bartender and sometime mixologist Stephen Augustine to create cocktails to toast the 125th anniversary of Harrison's election, highlighting that long-term guest's stay in Cape May.
"Stephen has a fine sense of what our customers want. No one knows them better," Von Muester says of Augustine. "If someone comes into the bar and says 'I had this drink on vacation and it was pink…' he has the patience to talk to them and say, 'Was it sweet like pineapple or coconut? No? Like rum, maybe?' or they say, 'You had this special a few years ago called the Nor'easter' and he asks what they liked about it and he remembers so much."
For his part, Augustine says he enjoys the challenge of recreating a special request. But really, he loves talking to his guests about what they enjoy and being able to serve up a custom experience they won't soon forget.
"You want to keep it approachable," he says of signature cocktails. "If it takes 27 ingredients and 15 minutes to make, in our experience, the customers doesn't want to sit and wait that long. But if we're designing a cocktail for a themed banquet or wedding, we can design it with special key ingredients. Or you can have that pink cocktail from your vacation at your wedding and we'll make it taste right."
When thinking of a drink to remind people of New Englander Franklin Pierce, Von Muester recalled offering a soda beverage called Moxie when he worked in that region. He remembered the drink, created in 1876, came from a Boston brewery and he was able to secure delivery of the oldest version of canned soda in America.
It tastes more like ginger than caramel, as compared to say, a Coke. And it's more effervescent than bubbly.
The refreshing taste adds a little jolt of moxie when mixed with gin and lime juice in the New Englander, but Von Muester and Augustine decided against the Worcestershire sauce originally called for in their "recipe." That was just too spicy, they explained, and Moxie is bold enough to stand up to the gin on its own.
And these are meant to be drinkable cocktails. While Von Muester says he enjoys working with Chef Jeremy Einhorn to match entree specials and seasonal cocktails when appropriate, these drinks were designed to sip and enjoy in their own right, as elegant and important politicians and historical figures would do.
Contact Felicia Compian: