Please don’t be put off by the non sequitur, idiotic headline. It’s early in the morning and I’m not quite to speed. Then again, regular readers of this column will vouch that I am never “up to speed,” so this all fits together at the usual level.
Do you read a cocktail menu and become thoroughly confused? Do most of the ingredients ring a bell but a few make you say "what's that?" Can you, in the taste buds of your mind, figure out what something is going to look and taste like after reading a description?
While I think we are happy living in a new age of designer cocktails – freshly made with sometimes exotic ingredients – there are those moments when some old standard, like a Gin & Tonic, just sounds reasonable, simple and necessary.
Over the past few years, as we have celebrated the new birth of the cocktail culture (not really a rebirth since this new movement is eons removed from the staid old days), we have also managed to confuse ourselves with a plethora of new processes, ingredients and allowable outcomes.
I am not suggesting a return to the days of the Fuzzy Navel, however, we might just want to get a better handle on what’s out there. I think many of you are tired of wanting to be avant garde; ordering a complicated drink with more than 8 ingredients, tasting the first sip, being asked how is it and you answering unenthusiastically, “not bad.” All at $14 a pop.
Here are a couple of random thoughts about this topic rattling around in my head:
Names Have Meaning: I am so tired of ordering a cocktail that uses a common name and getting a big surprise in my glass. The lame answer from the maker of the drink, “Well, that’s our version,” has got to stop. When a drink has a name, and it is commonly associated with a set group of ingredients, please stick to it. If you wish to make a variation, fine. I’m on board. Just let me know before I make a decision. Note on your menu, “Our version of the _____ (fill in the blank here with the name of the more well-known and traditional cocktail)."
Never Break the Cardinal Rule: When I enter a bar, it is for a purpose. Sitting and waiting for the bartender to get his act together while moving bottles or cutting fruit is not my idea of a floor show. Get to me as quickly as possible, take my order and bring me my drink. Any bartender worth his apron knows to serve a patron as quickly as possible. Let’s get the first drink on the coaster, then we can become best friends, or you can go back to that pretty girl at the corner, or you can refill the beer bin, whatever. But first, let’s take care of why I came into the place.
Educate Me: It is amazing how many bartenders and servers pass up the opportunity to share knowledge. Somebody at this bar made the decision to include Amaro, now who is able to tell me about it and what it tastes like, not to mention what it will do to the drink? May I try just a drop before I spend a wad of cash on a drink that has it or some other ingredient, equally mysterious, that I won’t like at all?
And Finally, a Word about Ice. Cocktails are supposed to be cold. I get that. I have had cocktails that were improperly chilled and they do not taste as good. But we have to come to a better arrangement as regards ice. First of all, many bartenders use too much. It becomes a fill for the glass, alleviating the need to make a bigger drink with the expensive ingredients. Plus, in our climate, a glass full of ice does the damndest thing: it quickly melts and the drink becomes watered down. All of those wonderful ingredients and that hard work to achieve balance are for naught. Lately, I have seen attempts by some professionals to alleviate the scope of this challenge. They make very large, hard-frozen ice balls which are added to the drink after it is dry-shaken. Those big chunks of ice are so cold that they don’t rush to melt and the drink is made cold in record time.
Being a cocktail professional is not easy, it’s hard work. Believe it or not, some of us – not me of course – on the other side of the bar can be real jerks. The bartender must tolerate every smart comment, every attempt at inappropriate flirtation, every “I’ve forgotten more than you will ever know” attitude.
Without everyone playing well in the sandbox, the entire transaction collapses. So let’s be nice to each other. Let’s play our respective roles to the best and nicest of our abilities, in full consideration that someone is paying for the effort and someone is being paid to do a good job.