Dan Priseman, King of the Comeback

Dan Priseman is well-known for his work at the Bitters&Twisted blog and the bar Nola. Now having worked on the comeback of Four Roses bourbon, he’s the co-author of an upcoming book about the art of throwing drinks.

“Once considered the pinnacle, you had to do it. Now the last thing bartenders learn, if they learn it at all.” Dan Priseman, hitherto known for his work as a Brand Ambassador at Four Roses, his cocktail blog Bitters & Twisted and the London bar Nola, has got throwing on the brain. So much so, alongside Forgotten Hospitality director Stuart Hudson, he’s set to publish a book on the topic – his first foray into publishing. We meet at the tail end of a photoshoot for the book in London’s Found bar – a neighborhood bar he claims is one of his favorites in the Big Smoke. So, just what happened to the jazzy, show-stopping technique?

Throwing was once the way all our cocktails were mixed. The art of pouring from a high vessel to as low a vessel as possible fell out of bartending fashion in the late 1800’s, with many suggesting that the publication of Jerry Thomas’ seminal Bartenders Guide of 1862 put the nail in the coffin. Thomas was the first person to suggest a replacement for throwing that was feasible – shaking. Priseman explains its immediate success. “As long as you can slap two tins together with ice, you can do it. Whereas throwing takes much longer to learn.”

Undone by a less complicated rival, one much easier to master, throwing was put to pasture. If throwing was the VHS of the bar industry, shaking was its DVD. Throwing was kept alive – just – as a curiosity by brief references to the Flip and the Blue Blazer made in Jerry Thomas’ tome. But Thomas wrote the broad manuscript for the cocktail world back then and throwing by and large wasn’t included.

Time for a comeback

Dan was always interested in throwing but was pulled in further by Jared Brown. Jared, owner of the Mixellany drinks consultancy and publishing company, was approached in 2006 by the team from Barcelona’s Boadas, a bastion for thrown drinks. They were worried that the art of throwing was dying out and that once they were gone, that was it for the practice. “He had a personal promise to keep to those guys,” Dan explains.

Together with Jared, Dan then held a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail on the topic. Lo and behold, it went well and they were then asked to do the same seminar at the Oslo Bar Show and at Bar Convent Berlin. Having lunch with Brown in Oslo, Priseman thought: “People seem to like this, but nobody’s ever written about it. So why don’t we write a book?’” Jared agreed to publish it, if Dan and his co-author Stuart Hudson would write it. And the book was born.

The theatrical element

He sees no reason why throwing shouldn’t be de jour again. “Once you’ve got it pre-batched, you can start throwing. It’s theatre. It grabs the attention,” he smiles. “It’s the original flairbartending.” Compared to shaking, there’s also less chance of injury.

Expect tons of history in the book – almost 3000 years worth! – but also a surprising discovery that the art of throwing wasn’t quite as finished as they feared. Alongside Barcelona’s Boadas and the Caribbean Club around the corner – owned by a former Boadas bartender – Dan contacted around 40 bartenders and found many practiced it. For instance there are thrown drinks on the menu of London favorites the Connaught, the American Bar at the Savoy and the Artesian. New York’s Employees Only also practices it.

Dan can can now see the light at the end of the tunnel – of the writing, that is. “Luckily we have done a lot of the editing and proofreading as we’ve gone along. In theory, at the end of May or beginning of June, we’ll have the first copies in our hands,” he says. Expect a release in July. For throwing? Hopefully the light will emerge again too.

The other comeback

Despite being “stuck in a hole” on his book, Dan is also keeping up his role as Four Roses Brand Ambassador, where he focuses on education and relationship building. He looks after mainland Europe, after previously having worked as a UK Brand Ambassador. And, rather akin to the art of throwing, Four Roses had to hit the comeback trail too.

Four Roses was firing on all cylinders – just like throwing was – until it wasn’t. “We were privately family owned until Seagram’s bought us, purchased us, mishandled us and nearly shut us down,” Priseman berates.

He’s not wrong. Renowned for their bourbon, upon purchase by Seagram’s in 1943 their bourbon was no longer distributed amongst the American market. Their bourbon became export only and the name instead was used for a blended whiskey made of mostly neutral grain spirits – a whiskey not even made in the Four Roses distillery. The brand then went on a veritable switcheroo, with Seagram’s being purchased by Vivendi in 2002, who shortly after shifted all their brands over to Diageo. It ended up in hands of Kirin, who refocused on bourbon, discontinuing the focus on the blended varieties.

“Until the purchase by Kirin, our bourbon was only available in Spain, France, Italy and Japan,” he says. You can understand why Kirin was interested. Four Roses bourbon was always popular in whiskey-mad Japan. It was also a fortuitous time to stage a worldwide comeback, with interest in bourbon and whiskey spiking in the mid 2000’s and on an ever-upwards scale ever since.

The Kentucky style

He describes the Kentucky style as a traditional, less experimental one. Having kept the fire burning for Bourbon for so long, it sticks to its roots. But what makes Four Roses different to its Kentucky brethren, the likes of Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark?

At 35%, there’s a higher rye content than virtually all their competitors – bar a few micro-distillers outside Kentucky. He also notes how they have two grain recipes and 5 different yeast strains, which makes the 10 distinctly different bourbons in their range. He uses the humble spud to make his point. “Imagine you give a chef one ingredient and ask him to cook a meal. If he can only use potatoes he might find nice potatoes – but it will still be potatoes,” he begins. “But if you give him ten different ingredients, the dinner will be more interesting. So we have that flexibility with the grain and yeast strains. When we launch a new product we can have something brand new and different, something that’s never been tried before.”

They are also the only distillers with single story warehouses for ageing, something that has its origins in Prohibition. Keen to make the best whiskey possible for when the end of Prohibition came around, the makers discovered that the smoothest, most mellow whiskies came from the ground floors of warehouses. “From that point, we said no more floors,” says Priseman.

He claims Four Roses aren’t interested in aiming at the super-premium prices of a Van Winkle. “We believe if we make our bourbon, make it well and sell it at an affordable price point – why would we increase the price and make it less accessible?” He continues. “We’d rather sell it for £70-80 at retail, so people can enjoy it, than do a Van Winkle,” he says. Still trying to get the word out there, Priseman and Four Roses don’t want to price anyone out. It’s working – Four Roses is one of the fastest growing bourbon brands, if not the fastest.

Name-dropping drinks

What about on the shelves? Are there any particular drinks he’s enjoyed that utilized Four Roses? He notes the odd situation of being a Brand Ambassador and having drinks tagged with your name. “It can make you feel arrogant just to drink it,” he says. He then notes an analogy of ordering the Priseman drink at the Connaught.

“One time me and my wife were at the Connaught. She orders a Priseman and we hear this guy say: ‘Who is this Mr Priseman anyway? I like his drink but who is he?’,” Priseman laughs. “The bartender looks at me, I nod, and then he introduces us to one another. It felt like a setup but I don’t think it was.”

Priseman has to go. He’s flying to Lithuania the next day to promote Four Roses amongst the growing and “enthusiastic” bar scene in the Eastern European country. He has already, and continues to, play a role in the renaissance of the bourbon brand. Now it’s throwing’s turn.

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