Lush Life

Retro Cocktail Club Shakes It Up

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Apr. 16, 2008

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Tres sophisticate!: Hosts Rufus, Sarah and Shonni say viva la bon vivants.

"Why throw a party if you aren't going to make it special? Why open a bag of Doritos and let people graze? A party should be more than just awkwardly drinking from a keg," says Rufus Fowler, one-third of the force behind the Society for the Promotion of Extraordinary Cocktails (SPEC). Fowler also rails against typical party invitations, like evites that listlessly list: party, my place, saturday.

Joining Fowler in his crusade against thoughtless, impersonal, come-as-you-are affairs is his wife Sarah Noble and the couple's girlfriend Shonni Enelow. Six months ago the trio conceived of the Society during a boozy evening in Pittsburgh's Kelly's Bar, famous for its noir ambience and killer sidecars. "How can we create this atmosphere in Philly?" they wondered. Thus, SPEC was born.

The Society's mission is "to evoke the golden age of American elegance as expressed through the art of extraordinary cocktails, to promote the appreciation of vintage glassware, and to create an atmosphere of joie de vivre." In other words: no chips, no beer, no red plastic cups, no haze of hours hanging out making dreadful small talk over blasting music.

The threesome landed in Philadelphia after long stints in New York City spent migrating from one trendy bar to the next in a city where home entertaining largely doesn't exist in the thirtysomething set. They were living in Brooklyn, in the middle of what Fowler calls the "uber-hip white belt, white shoes scene."

Noble explains, "I felt like I was fighting every moment to carve out space for myself, either practically--like on the subway or sidewalk--or theoretically, with friends and socializing."

They are far less interested in hating on New York than loving, drooling over, Philly. Noble says Philly is ideal for what they're trying to accomplish. "We're creating a community and space where people can relax and feel special," explains Enelow.

"The events are manageable," says Fowler. "It's not like we're trying to bring Jay-Z."

Together the trio come off as a modern-day Three's Company (Enelow lives down the street). But when you come and knock on their Graduate Hospital door, what greets you is unmitigated enthusiasm, genuine shrieks of delight, beaming grins of ecstatic hosts who are overjoyed that you've RSVPed, arrived, brought conversation and a positive attitude, and aren't wearing your weekend sweatpants.

"We ambush you with attention. What we're trying to do is impact people in a more personal way," says Fowler. "We're going to give you a handmade invite sent via post and a menu. We want people to feel like, 'I've been paid attention to. My presence matters.'"

Tonight's SPEC menu features three libations from the roaring '20s. Guests are first served a Fleur de Mai amuse bouche. It's a dense, fruity shot of vodka, sauternes and peach nectar with an elderberry flower juice. The rest of the evening visitors redeem their four drink tickets for Mint Mayfairs or French 75s. The former is a muddle of lime, simple syrup, cucumber, mint and Hendrick's gin (a spirit so adored that it may be considered SPEC's mascot). A World War I French pilot is said to have concocted the French 75 (so named for his field gun), a mix of gin, champagne, lemon juice and simple syrup. Served in a champagne flute, the drink's dainty presentation belies its potency.

Partygoers mingle and play get-to-know-you games. Noble tends the bar, hand-shaking over a hundred cocktails made with fresh-squeezed citrus juices. Fowler is on cleanup duty ("organized chaos," he says, careening into the kitchen with a tray of martini glasses) while Enelow welcomes guests and hands them informational packets.

The society is looking for new members and the qualifications are few: intelligent, creative, thoughtful, kind and open-minded.

"The best way to say thank you is to come back, and to mean coming back," says Fowler. Something tells me the host of the basement bash down the street wouldn't care so much, and didn't lick their invitation envelopes closed.

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1. anonymous said... on May 1, 2008 at 11:31AM

“These guys (Rufus and Sarah, aka "Rowhouse Productions") throw amazing events. They do a little film series too, and something call Grrls Tea -- both in addition to SPEC, this cocktail society. They are truly unbelievable hosts & event organizers. Philly shouldn't let these guys go ... and we should be thankful for their contribution to the our fair city. You rock! ;)”

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2. Kathy Kross said... on Jan 14, 2009 at 07:23AM

“I would love to do SPEC here in Pittsburgh. Any suggestions on where to start?”

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