Comedian, actor, and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia has a bit about “two-drink Mike” being the best version of himself: friendly, interesting, and fun to be around. Supposedly things go downhill from there, but I got to enjoy the company of seven-drink Mike on a recent evening, and the experience was fun, enlightening, and, at times, hilarious. We met at New York's Experimental Cocktail Club, the first stateside location of the Parisian phenomenon where bartender Nicolas “Niko” de Soto pushes the boundaries of cocktail-making in ingredients, technique, and presentation. In other words, it's the perfect place to taste a bunch of weird drinks with an interesting guy.
Comedian, actor, and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia has a bit about “two-drink Mike” being the best version of himself: friendly, interesting, and fun to be around.
Birbiglia's a bit weary from traveling, having just flown back from London, where he did a few dates of his ongoing production My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, a stage show about his love life. It’s a wonder he has time for one. He’s busier than ever these days, having appeared in Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls, and starred as Al in Lynn Shelton’s movie Your Sister’s Sister. But he’s most looking forward to the August 24 release of Sleepwalk With Me, the semi-fictionalized film version of his 2008 stage show and 2010 memoir of the same title.
As for the title, Birbiglia suffers from rapid eye movement behavior disorder, a.k.a. sleepwalking, and it’s hardly the benign, comical malady portrayed on TV. Birbiglia sometimes acts out his dreams, a condition that reached a dangerous pinnacle in a Walla Walla, Washington La Quinta hotel while on tour several years ago. In his vivid dream, a missile was headed right for him. Panicked, he jumped through his room’s second story window, which earned him an emergency room visit and 33 stitches, along with an overnight evaluation at a sleep clinic and a bill for the broken window. ("It was like $275," he says.)
He’s doing much better today, though. He slumbers in a cinched-up sleep sack – the concentration necessary to undo it is enough to wake him, he explains – and has a prescription for Klonopin, which he really shouldn’t combine with alcohol, but this is for journalism. And thus, with the debonair Niko guiding us, we begin an evening of futuristic cocktails, with Birbiglia offering his thoughts on each. When he starts visibly fading in the later rounds, we wrap things up quickly and head into the night.
(A note about the cocktails: To give you an idea of what's in these drinks, I'm including rough versions of the recipes, but you probably shouldn't attempt to make them at home. Instead, head to Experimental Cocktail Club in New York - there are also locations in London, and, of course, Paris - and let the experts take care of you.)
Cocktail #1: Kinkakuji
Recipe: Premade with coconut milk and regular cow’s milk which is curdled and filtered twice, then mixed with overproof rum and Japanese whiskey. It takes 3 days to make. “It’s like a clarified twist on a pina colada,” Niko says.
“You’re a complete artist, Niko, and you understand this in a way that I never will, but I respect it and enjoy it. This reminds me of summertime. It’s what you hope they’re going to serve at Sandals resort in Aruba, but they never do. It’s really beautiful.”
Cocktail #2: Experience #2
Recipe: 2oz Citadelle Gin, 3/4 oz homemade elderflower cordial, 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice. Bruise 5 basil leaves with a string of lemongrass, shake and serve up with a lemongrass straw as a garnish. “This one is may be the easiest drink on the menu, and we’ve put it on the menu of every bar we’ve opened,” says Niko. “It’s the most popular drink here.”
“Oh wow! Cheers! We don’t deserve these drinks! My film is not as good as this drink, and I spent years on it… years I say! Yeah, that’s really incredible. This tastes like a garden. It’s deceptively healthy tasting. I feel like I’m mowing the lawn. There’s no alcohol taste at all, unlike those times when I was a kid and took shots of Gordon’s gin from my father’s liquor cabinet and then filled the bottle with water. And I like the lemongrass straw. We’re living like kings here.”
Cocktail #3: Mancora
Recipe: Chai-Roiboos tea infused Diablada Pisco is shaken with lime juice, homemade Malbec syrup, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, and a splash of Fernet Branca. Served Up. “My hope is to create new flavors for the customers,” says Niko. “To mix things together that maybe you think shouldn’t be mixed.
“It’s a little bit celebratory. It makes me feel richer than I am, like I’m drinking this and I can’t afford to drink it. You’d expect it to be in a crystal punch bowl. It feels layered and adventuresome.”
Cocktail #4: Valhalla Rising
Recipe: Mix Linie Aquavit and Oloroso Sherry with homemade ginger syrup and lime juice. Shake and serve long in a highball, top up with Bitter End Beer. Garnish with candied ginger.
“Oh my god, is this ginger? Now I’ve got a friendly burning of the tongue. This is explosive. My palate can’t quite handle it, though I enjoy it in moderation. This is what the Queen drinks when she has tonsillitis. The only cocktail I’ve ever invented was pizza and Coca-Cola, where you dip your pizza into your Coke and drink it.”
Cocktail #5: L’Americain
Recipe: Artichoke-infused Noilly Pratt Red Vermouth, Toasted Walnut-infused Campari and Thyme Water are carbonated with CO2 and bottled. Serve in a bottle with a straw. “It’s bitter and sweet at the same time, it’s not a strong drink, it’s more like an aperitif,” says Niko.
“This is the Armageddon of drinks. It’s shocking. It’s eye opening. It’s a blockbuster. Every time I sip it I feel like bowling pins being knocked over. It tastes like weeds, it’s a rugged taste.”
Cocktail #6: Jack O’Lantern
Recipe: A whole egg is vigorously shaken with a large dose of Butternut Squash-infused Plantation Barbados 5 year old Rum, and a bit of coconut milk and homemade cinnamon syrup. Served up with some nutmeg freshly grated on the top of the drink. “It’s a flip, it’s a whole egg, white and yolk. It’s shaken really hard and it makes the coffee and creamy texture,” Niko says. “It’s named after the Spiderman character. One time a woman came to the bar and drank eight of these.”
“It’s very smooth, like a fine cheesecake. You have to trust the person who makes this for you. It tastes like you could bite into it. I feel like I could take a nap inside this drink. It feels comfy, like there are pillows in it.”
Drink #7: Black Heart
Bourbon is stirred with French African dark coffee beans, 2 dashes of Bittermen’s Boston Bittahs, and some Cynar and Maraschino Liqueur. Before pouring in the glass, spray a little bit of Laphroaig on the surface of the coupette, and garnish with some orange oil extracted from the skin.
“This drink forces you to do a Robert De Niro impersonation. That is the your-father’s-pipe of drinks. You need to spend time with it and nurse it and sit in the study with a copy of Dickens opened to a random page.”