The most important thing I learned at The Roosevelt Room during its Brandies of the World tasting class is that I don’t really like brandy.
I also learned — and I will bring up every time I have an opportunity — that Americans drink so much more cognac than the French that we represent the largest market for the 90 percent exported spirit. Most usefully, I learned I don’t spend enough time at The Roosevelt Room. Thankfully, I’ll have more occasions to visit in January, when the swanky, dimly lit Austin bar picks up its cocktail classes again for a more comprehensive curriculum.
Most talk about specific brandies went in one ear and out the other (mostly thanks to me being geographically challenged and suffering a slideshow attention deficit), but I retained everything I heard about the moody, classy Fifth Street watering hole from the group of devoted regulars who took me under their wings.
I snuck in late and embarrassed to have missed the introduction, basically shooting the first two samples (which, mercifully, tasted exactly like the fruits from which they were distilled: raspberry and pear). The man immediately to my left caught me up to speed: Take a cautious sniff to catch the aromatics, or “nose,” followed by a very small first sip to get acclimated, then a second, longer sip to experience the full flavor.
The listening-heavy class mostly washed over us, a surprisingly comforting experience for a Sunday afternoon, like a cool college elective you’ll never be tested on. Our only active concern, aside from shouting out the flavors we were picking up, was pacing ourselves. I arrived to a seat at the bar with a dozen pre-portioned samples on a numbered mat, a liter of water, a pen and notebook for recording interesting tidbits, and a tray of snacks. (The olives and cheeses, especially, were distractingly high-quality — and that’s not the brandy talking!)
Although noon on a Sunday felt pretty early to be burning my tongue on straight brandy, the drawn curtains, low lights, glowing bar top, and casually attentive company lulled me into a quieter world. Bar owners Matthew Korzelius and Justin Lavenue took turns improvising unpretentiously off a 39-page slideshow. Not every tasting was meant to plug a certain brand.
“I don’t know who’s drinking it,” Korzelius said dismissively of one sample. “Someone must be.”
Word on the street was that the brandies class was sparsely attended, which adds up considering the relative popularity of the spirit compared with whiskey or rum. Still, I am significantly more challenged by whiskey than by geography, and the brandy Old Fashioned served halfway through the class was much more approachable than its traditional counterpart. It was a relief not to confront my underdeveloped bitter drink palate, but the Old Fashioned was no match for the bright and flirty sidecar we all started with.
Most of the content focused on regions, production methods, and terminology — not so much in practice, like how to make drinks or pair brandies with food and mixers. From what my new friends told me, this is the domain of the Roosevelt’s Home Bartending 101 and 102 classes, which they preferred, although they did enjoy the more passive, spirit-specific classes too. After Home Bartending, they tried the recipes at home and sent photos around in a group chat. It’s certainly another tier of involvement with a favorite bar, making its cocktails at home. Although it wasn’t the focus of the class, there were recipes for both the sidecar and the Old Fashioned in the recap email, along with all the slides and notes.
The five men I got to know during the event invited me for a post-class drink and pulled out their punch cards. They explained that regulars who try one of every classic drink from the extensive chalkboard menu earn a plaque around its border with their name engraved. Those who complete the entire selection of “Presidents List” drinks — the top-shelf versions of each cocktail — are honored with a painted portrait in the back hallway. When I went to bask in the glory of patrons who had accomplished this feat, I only noticed two paintings, so it seems to remain an undiluted honor, though three more have since been immortalized.
I ordered a Presidents List milk punch, a gentle but deceptively alcohol-loaded cocktail that utilized a brandy we hadn’t tried. It was served in one of the most charming containers I’ve ever seen: a pint-shaped glass milk carton with tiny flowers and a striped paper straw. This, to me, is what The Roosevelt Room embodies. I lost any sense of what time it was outside, met some friends who couldn’t be happier to be there, and accepted a fancy old-world drink served, somehow, with the quaintest, most elevated presentation. I wouldn’t call it a themed bar, but it commits to its antiquity and invites everyone earnestly along for the ride.
The Roosevelt Room updates its website and Eventbrite to share information on monthly classes (starting at $75), breaking for the end of the year and returning at the beginning of 2022. Next up are two levels of Home Bartending, followed by two levels of Cocktail Creation & Mixology. it seems like a good way to ring in the new year!