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What makes a city good for cocktails?


Alchemist
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I am trying to figure out what makes a city able to sustain a high-end cocktail bar, or two. And which cities in the United States might be ready. Some of the things that I see as necessary are:

1. A thriving culinary community

2. People with disposable income

3. Bar rents that lend themselves to 20-25% liquor costs.

4. Acess to wide variety of liquor.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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I agree with everything you listed, but there must be some other element, because Dallas has all of the above, and while I may just be going to the wrong places, I don't see this as a great city for cocktails. Perhaps some sense of history is necessary on the part of the consumer? Or at least a willingness to drink brown liquor? Here in Dallas, it seems many bartenders and patrons alike don't know or won't try bourbon, rye, brandy, etc. A bartender at a place I frequent said she thinks one strike against Dallas is that it is a "skinny city." Not that the people here are actually thin, but that there is a superficial sort of standard of svelteness that our residents are after, and that they perceive liqueurs, brown liquor, sugar, etc. as standing in their way. Thus, vodka and soda or vodka and sugar free Red Bull are the standard drinks...

Tim

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I'd modify your #1 by saying that it's best if it's a thriving culinary community for locals, and it's even better if there is a significant presence of middlebrow and higher level restaurants that are patronized by locals. Tourist trade is not going to sustain a cocktailian community in a town like it can restaurants, and cocktail culture is consumed more by people who have an interest in a "white tablecloth" trattoria or bistro as opposed to those whose interests are more centered on barbecue or a really good Italian beef sandwic. They need to be willing to spend $9-$12 on a cocktail, and not be primarily interested in getting loaded for a low price.

I'd add:

5. It helps if the town has a tradition connected to spirits and cocktails.

6. Good public transportation/taxi availability helps.

7. Overall, cocktail culture may fall on more fertile ground in a town that it is not a "blue collar town" and if there is some interest in so-called "highbrow culture."

With cocktail culture and high-end cocktails, we're still talking about the leading edge of the curve -- so we're talking about early adopters.

--

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They need to be willing to spend $9-$12 on a cocktail, and not be primarily interested in getting loaded for a low price.

So, basically, what you're saying, well, maybe if the Saints started winning again, I guess. But right now, well, ummm, bring on the Taaka and Tonic down here. You'll see. :wacko:

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I think the potential exists in Houston, and in fact I am vaguely aware of the presence of some places that are probably worth looking into, but though in all reaslity if any city in Texas can handle it would probably be Austin, so long as its situated somewhere remote from the 6th street scene.

I really just wish my fellow Texans would get over thinking that Crown Royal is the end-all, be-all of whisk(e)y. Such a light-flavored dram to have such a reputation as a manly tipple.

-Andy

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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I wonder a bit about Austin, which I perceive (perhaps wrongly?) as largely dominated by the college scene. College kids, by and large, aren't going to spend ten bucks on a cocktail and probably aren't ready to appreciate a perfectly made Sidecar.

Houston may have some possibilities. One of the things I see as a potential problem for Houston, which is true of many automobile-age American cities, is that it is very spread out and required automobile travel. There is (hopefully) no driving for 45 minutes after a three cocktail evening. On the other hand, there are some places where restaurants and homes are within comfortable walking distance or a short taxi ride from potential good cocktail bar locations. The Rice Village comes to mind, for example. One place in Houston that would seem ready for a cocktail bar would be Houston Heights, which is a reasonably affluent (and rapidly gentrifying), young (but not too young), fairly close-together, "hip" community.

Boston maybe? There is certainly the necessary affluence, culture and public transportation there. But, on the other hand, that city (where I grew up) has always been somewhat frustrating in its inability to sustain things one would think would be naturals. For example, Boston has never had the restaurant or social community one would think it should have, and one would think that a city with the Boston Symphony could sustain at minimum a high-level regional opera company.

How about Milwaukee or Madison? There is certainly a spirits culture up in Wisconsin, and the last time I was in Milwaukee I went to a bar & grill place across the street from the opera house that had a liquor inventory any cocktail bar would be proud to have. The place was packed, and people were drinking cocktails. And yet, there literally wasn't a jigger to be found in the place and, despite having a bottle of Luxardo, no one had ever heard of the Aviation. I remember thinking that that place was one committed, cocktail-tradition-savvy manager away from being a serious cocktail spot.

--

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Boston maybe?  There is certainly the necessary affluence, culture and public transportation there.  But, on the other hand, that city (where I grew up) has always been somewhat frustrating in its inability to sustain things one would think would be naturals.  For example, Boston has never had the restaurant or social community one would think it should have, and one would think that a city with the Boston Symphony could sustain at minimum a high-level regional opera company.

Actually, Boston is good for cocktails, in the same way as New York and San Francisco are: at most places, they suck, but know where to go and you'll get a drink as good as any poured on earth. And the number of places to go is increasing every year, as bartenders, managers, owners and customers catch the fever.

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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Actually, Boston is good for cocktails, in the same way as New York and San Francisco are: at most places, they suck, but know where to go and you'll get a drink as good as any poured on earth. And the number of places to go is increasing every year, as bartenders, managers, owners and customers catch the fever.

I think this touches on two crucial points (or maybe it's just two sides of the same point) -- when there are enough customers who care about the quality of cocktails that they seek out the one or two best places, after a while the bar managers and bartenders start noticing that. When that happens, they're more likely to try to improve their cocktails so they can become one of the places that customers seek out. They might not make it on the first try, but a steady improvement overall is going to introduce more customers to better cocktails, who then expect more from bars overall.

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I think this touches on two crucial points (or maybe it's just two sides of the same point) -- when there are enough customers who care about the quality of cocktails that they seek out the one or two best places, after a while the bar managers and bartenders start noticing that. When that happens, they're more likely to try to improve their cocktails so they can become one of the places that customers seek out. They might not make it on the first try, but a steady improvement overall is going to introduce more customers to better cocktails, who then expect more from bars overall.

It's really a feedback loop, isn't it. Of course, anything that can be done to increase the energy of the equation....

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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I think this touches on two crucial points (or maybe it's just two sides of the same point) -- when there are enough customers who care about the quality of cocktails that they seek out the one or two best places, after a while the bar managers and bartenders start noticing that. When that happens, they're more likely to try to improve their cocktails so they can become one of the places that customers seek out. They might not make it on the first try, but a steady improvement overall is going to introduce more customers to better cocktails, who then expect more from bars overall.

It's really a feedback loop, isn't it. Of course, anything that can be done to increase the energy of the equation....

Thank you all for the feedback. Everone has very good points.

So is there an advantage opening the first bar in the city? Or would it be advantagous to revamp the beverage program at a great resturant that has a good amount of space at the bar?

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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Actually, Boston is good for cocktails, in the same way as New York and San Francisco are: at most places, they suck, but know where to go and you'll get a drink as good as any poured on earth. And the number of places to go is increasing every year, as bartenders, managers, owners and customers catch the fever.

I think this touches on two crucial points (or maybe it's just two sides of the same point) -- when there are enough customers who care about the quality of cocktails that they seek out the one or two best places, after a while the bar managers and bartenders start noticing that. When that happens, they're more likely to try to improve their cocktails so they can become one of the places that customers seek out. They might not make it on the first try, but a steady improvement overall is going to introduce more customers to better cocktails, who then expect more from bars overall.

boston is an interesting place. one thing it lacks is a labor market. the bartenders i work with refuse to follow simple rules of making a drink. they will not stir a manhattan and they refuse to measure anything. they don't like ice because the more you use the more time you have to refill your bin. i'm nice and charismatic and i can't inspire them to anything. they watch my small cult following come in and it inspires nothing... the culture of restaurant owners is also a challenge. my owners never taste anything i do. even after having people call on the phone to see if i'm there... no curiosity. (i mix alot of cocktails on request strangely even though i'm the head waiter) a non apathetic cocktail bartender can't really get a job in a non cocktail place with older bartenders because they don't want to work with you. you challenge their low apathetic standard. vodka soda is the money maker not the vieux carre. i find many places known for good drinks are so boring as well... Hunter S. Thompson or Hemingway would not hang out there... boston does have some incredible places for the young hemingway but not many... and transportation is not very fluid. very few restaurants here are busy from 5 to close. at that spread you can make your salary quota with quality. you try to fill your quota from 7 to 9:30 and you gotta turn tricks and pump out economical crap. liquor licenses also dont' support small artisinal establishments. 200 seats to have a liquor license and a service bar that buries you. you can only be as quality as your 7 to 9 rush worst case scenario.

the odds look bleak but a couple people, in boston anyhow, have beat the odds. jackson at eastern standard does an incredible job... he runs a very large bar by the standards of any city with incredible quality. they follow the proper rules of mixing a drink even though not all their bartender seem very into it. and they deal with a polarized fenway park clientelle. e.s. is a great example of whats possible. i love inheriting their clientelle.

abstract expressionist beverage compounder

creator of acquired tastes

bostonapothecary.com

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It seems to me Milwaukee might work for a place like d.b.a. (NY, NO), Hopleaf (CHI), or Alembic (SF). Serving quality local beer and food, good whisk(e)y, and cocktails along the way.

"Local" is really big in Wisconsin.

There are a few places in Madison that are trying to be "fancy" cocktail bars; but, most of the menus I've seen so far seem poorly conceived. Candy concoctions made with flavored vodkas.

Also, Madison, aside from the student population, isn't a large city, and much of its affluent population lives in the surrounding suburbs.

Edited by eje (log)

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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well, Atlanta is a good example of a city that has made a massive cocktail leap in the last year or so.

what I can't get around is why L.A. is lacking. it would seem to fit every qualification (except for good mass transit...but that applies to Atlanta and pretty much every other city besides NY, SF and Portland). Seattle is probably another.

as for Milwaukee, I lived there in the late 90's and still visit friends there pretty much yearly:

the bar near the opera was almost certainly Eagan's. like Elsa's on the Park (sister restaurant to Bar 89 in NY and AZ-88 in Arizona), it does have a reasonably solid liquor inventory and bartenders who seem to take some care. (as well as prices high for the region). also see the Hi-Hat on Brady. but none of them has anyone who knows what he/she is doing. (I think there might be some extent at a cocktail list at Roots though.)

I think the idea of a d.b.a. type place is exactly right. artisanal beer is a big player (one bar, Zur Krone, serves 450 beers)...combine that with some scotches and a cocktail list...it should work. but location will be a big deal. near the park or waterfront or third ward would work. Milwaukee nightlife is stratified between "southsiders" (their version of B&T) and the northeast side. there are several lounges serving vodka/fruit shit...like the bar at the top of the Pfister...so that could eventually morph into something better. actually, a restaurant like Bacchus might be the place to start.

that's probably true for many cities...a cocktail program works best started within the restaurant format (see Atlanta)

Edited by Nathan (log)
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A bar culture that cultivates regulars instead of weekenders and tourists. High stable incomes. Nonrestrictive liquor laws, especially import laws. Wages high enough compared to the cost of living to attract career-track bartenders.

Edited by mbanu (log)
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I think Charlotte could be ready if a great bartender at a good restaurant took the lead... there's no shortage of people willing to shell out for a drink (the nice restaurants here have lists of fruity "martinis" for which they charge $10-$12, and wine by the glass prices are out of sight.) Due to the idiotic liquor laws around here, the venue would have to be a "restaurant with good cocktails" rather than a "cocktail bar." What needs to happen to push Charlotte from a fruity-martini town into a good-cocktail town: someone needs to start a rumor that every "world-class" city has good cocktails. Then the Chamber of Commerce will fall all over themselves to facilitate cocktail culture.

"There is nothing like a good tomato sandwich now and then."

-Harriet M. Welsch

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All it would take in Milwaukee is for the head bartender at any of the listed places to make it policy to make drinks correctly. A couple jiggers and some training probably. The places have quality ingredients for the most part. Seems like it has to come to the staff from the management.

For me, until about year ago, I though jiggers were for bartenders who weren't good enough to estimate. A trip to The Violet Hour in Chicago changed my mind about that. I wonder if some people have the same mistaken belief.

Edited by MattJohnson (log)
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All it would take in Milwaukee is for the head bartender at any of the listed places to make it policy to make drinks correctly.  A couple jiggers and some training probably.  The places have quality ingredients for the most part.  Seems like it has to come to the staff from the management.

For me, until about year ago, I though jiggers were for bartenders who weren't good enough to estimate.  A trip to The Violet Hour in Chicago changed my mind about that.  I wonder if some people have the same mistaken belief.

a jigger and fresh lime juice is the definition of a cocktail bar...

abstract expressionist beverage compounder

creator of acquired tastes

bostonapothecary.com

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as for Milwaukee, I lived there in the late 90's and still visit friends there pretty much yearly:

the bar near the opera was almost certainly Eagan's.  like Elsa's on the Park (sister restaurant to Bar 89 in NY and AZ-88 in Arizona), it does have a reasonably solid liquor inventory and bartenders who seem to take some care.

Exactly. It was Eagan's. Excellent back bar, but no one there who had the faintest idea how to make use of it and they don't have rudimentary tools such as jiggers on hand. I'll also add that, while the bar is well-stocked, the back bar is more designed as decoration than as a cocktail bar that takes advantage of that inventory (you shouldn't have to climb up a ladder to get at the Luxardo). That said, they do seem enthusiastic and interested, they have the right clientele, and I think there is potential there.

All it would take in Milwaukee is for the head bartender at any of the listed places to make it policy to make drinks correctly.  A couple jiggers and some training probably.  The places have quality ingredients for the most part.  Seems like it has to come to the staff from the management.

For me, until about year ago, I though jiggers were for bartenders who weren't good enough to estimate.  A trip to The Violet Hour in Chicago changed my mind about that.  I wonder if some people have the same mistaken belief.

Yea. Really what it takes is for someone dedicated to start a trend. Anyplace that already has a respectable number of people in the right demographic (and Eagan's certainly fits that bill) can only benefit by becoming known as a temple of the cocktail.

WRT jiggers, the most common justification for free-pouring I hear is that it's much faster than using a jigger. Well, I'll put up the NYC jiggering crowd (which pretty much consists of anyone coming out of the Flatiron-Pegu-Milk & Honey school) against any free-pouring bartender on specialty cocktails and be confident that the jiggering guys will at least match the free-pouring bartenders on speed and kill them on consistency.

--

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Certification programs will be effective at bringing cocktail levels up all over the country.

All the fine cocktail places in New York appear to be in wealthy neighborhoods. Would a lounge in a gentrifying part of town be successful? The Peacock in Austin fits the bill, though the menu needs a lot more work.

What if a bar only had a menu with good drinks? Would that entice people to order from it? Worst case, they can still order their rum & coke off the menu.

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Certification programs will be effective at bringing cocktail levels up all over the country.

All the fine cocktail places in New York appear to be in wealthy neighborhoods. Would a lounge in a gentrifying part of town be successful? The Peacock in Austin fits the bill, though the menu needs a lot more work.

hmm... arguably all Manhattan neighborhoods are "wealthy" (at least below 96th street). you could say that the LES (where Milk & Honey is located) was "gentrifying" when it first opened...and that still sort of applies to its block. but sure any neighborhood that is becoming hip is conducive to a good cocktail bar.

What if a bar only had a menu with good drinks? Would that entice people to order from it? Worst case, they can still order their rum & coke off the menu.

that applies to every good cocktail bar that I'm aware of.

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What if a bar only had a menu with good drinks? Would that entice people to order from it?

I am getting ready to perform that exact experiment over the next 3 months. I am, however, prepared to make more Cosmopolitans and Crown & Coke in the meantime :hmmm:

-Andy

Edit to add: While it would be true of all good cocktail bars, it can be more difficult for restaraunts to do the same thing, esp in towns that are smaller and/or not known for cocktails.

Edited by thirtyoneknots (log)

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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Certification programs will be effective at bringing cocktail levels up all over the country.

I'm not sure if certification programs help. Most are jokes. And the ones that aren't (there are exceptions) are priced out for sending a whole staff to if you are a small time operation.

I would love to start a bartending "school". But it would have to be an on the road, I will come to you sort of arrangement. And once again it would be a chunk of change. I think that it would have to be the employees, all of them, who would have to be asking for it, because trying to jam jiggers down unwilling gullets is no fun for anyone.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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