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What makes a city good for cocktails?


Alchemist
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Yea, as Toby points out, staff buy-in is important in any endeavor like this. One thing I think you have to be willing (and able, depending on the circumstances) to do if you are trying to "convert" an already-opened bar or restaurant bar into a serious cocktail spot is get rid of people who aren't with the program and replace them with people who are interested in buying-in to your way of doing things. This is fundamentally no different from what happens in restaurant kitchens when a new chef comes in. However, owners may have more resistance to moving out uncooperative bar staff as opposed to an uncooperative line cook.

A big part of this is developing talent (something that is becoming increasingly important in NYC with the huge proliferation of cocktailian bars). It's not enough to have a consultant come in to train the staff and create a list of drinks. You need to have someone on-site who knows what he/she is doing training the staff and developing talent. If you can do this, you may be surprised at how far you can come in a short period of time. Some of the best NYC 'tenders today were the "new guy" in the cocktailian community not too many years ago.

But the moral of the story is that, if you find yourself in a position where you have to ram jiggers down the gullets of your bar staff, it's time to start looking for some new bar staff. Friends of mine who have worked in situations with unionized bar staff, have had to struggle against quite a bit of institutional resistance -- and ultimately I think a lot of people in those situations simply resort to batching the specialty cocktails.

--

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Having lots of upper crust colleges, like Boston and New York do, seems to be a helpful factor. Maybe it assists people in accepting new trends or maybe there is just more inherent curiosity when you have 40,000 twenty-thirty somethings seeking to adopt an identiry or beverage that shows their sophistication.

That said, it's gotta be tough to work at Eastern Standard after a game some nights...

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... maybe there is just more inherent curiosity when you have 40,000 twenty-thirty somethings seeking to adopt an identiry or beverage that shows their sophistication.

Like, cocktails? :-)

That's only half joking, from the following data. Much of what I see on cocktails now in US newspaper food-wine sections is written by and about people in their 20s and 30s. And this coverage is mostly in recent years. Which makes sense, because cocktails were out of fashion among young people, for a generation or so. For a generation, cocktails were people's parents' drinks, making them uncool (like with music). Then new people came along without that memory.

Most dramatic example: the Martini. Way unhip among younger folks for years, until its return (along with cocktail-shaker and bar-glass displays in housewares shops) in the middle or late 1990s. I mentioned this six years ago on Amazon re Conrad's Martini book. Martinis went from mainstream, in US culture through the 1950s and 60s, to unhip by the 1980s. In 1990 a popular writer had a character ordering Martinis as a signal of how out-of-it he was. Then they came back. (With one or two twists. Like the need now for some writers to specify "Gin Martinis" which would have sounded ridiculously redundant before 10-15 years ago; and the sweet colorful spin-off drinks I've heard called KoolAidTinis.)

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Dallas was mentioned a few times in this thread.

Would a true cocktail lounge (not a bar at a restaurant or hotel. Not a nightlucb) work here?? I dunno. I want to say no. I guess the Dallas crowd is too fickle. It may work short term if the "cool people" latch on to as the current in place to be. But that is only temporary. People here like their beer. And that is usually Coors Light or something like that (though we do have a few really good beer bars here).

Where could you make some inroads into cocktail culture? Maybe the steakhouses. We have tons of them. Many are really good. Start off with some "masculine" drinks. Manhattans, maybe? I dunno.. It could be a start. Of course, a lot of that business is out of towners on business, but there are still a lot of locals there too.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Jeff,

I do some part-time work going into the high-end steakhouses here and buying drinks for folks. There are a couple that make a good Manhattan, and some that don't even have bitters. It's a crapshoot. But Manhattans are at least a place to start. Most customers at the steakhouses seem to be either dining at the bar, in which case they order wine, or drinking vodka tonics, in which case they may be hopeless :raz: . I am specifically trying to promote whiskey, and it's difficult. If whiskey gets ordered, it's usually whisky (Scotch), which doesn't lend itself to as much variety in cocktails.

I've been to places with great back bars (Louie's on Henderson stocks 4 different ryes and at least 15 bourbons, a rarity here) that don't seem keen on cocktails; I've been to places that do some classic/hip cocktails (Libertine on Greenville makes a poor Aviation and a fair Pegu, or used to, at least) but are in the wrong part of town with the wrong clientele to make a go of it.

Fickle is the right word to describe the Dallas drinker, and it's a shame. I know this: several good bartenders (at Bob's on Lemmon, at Louie's, and a couple of other places) have been happy to make drinks to my specifications if it's slow (I don't ask if it's busy). I've gotten a couple of nice Vieux Carres, a decent Sazerac, and an effort at a Seelbach without complaint. So, when in doubt, go to a place you frequent, and when the bartender has a minute, ask for what you want. Several folks sitting near me got very interested in the Seelbach, and when I explained that it was sort of like a champagne cocktail variation, they tried them. And thus were 3 converts made.

So maybe what makes a city good for cocktails is having some vocal lovers of good cocktails perpetually requesting favorites.

But, yeah, Dallas...sigh...?

Tim

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hmmm, so is it fair to say that a city needs a fair amount of liberal-minded citizens in the 21-45 yr old age range? it seems that the cities described in this post with potential all fit the bill-- nyc, sf, portland, austin. and those that don't, ie dallas, well i won't say there aren't liberal-minded people there, but they certainly don't have as substantial of progressive communities as the other cities mentioned...

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As long as the citizens are "liberal" with tips, and "open" to trying new tastes, I don't know that a city's particular political bias has much to do with it.

Schnookered on both sides of the aisles, as far as I can tell...

---

Erik Ellestad

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

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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I have been thinking about this in relation to my home town, Providence, where things are in dire shape. In this topic, I talk about the dismal mess that we have here, even at "cocktailian" bars like the highly touted bar at Temple.

Despite an increasingly accommodating demographic, recent experiences around our little town suggest that we're a long way from establishing and sustaining even a single, true cocktail venue. Along with the issues addressed above, part of the problem is the resistance to small plate menu design at area restaurants, which I think really lends itself to cocktails. In comparison, all over Boston you can get interesting cocktails to go with your tapas (Ken Oringer's Toro has a good cocktail menu and a great bartender) or little plate (Chez Henri is another example). The only place like that currently in Providence, I believe, is Local 121, and on my last visit I was still on a mission to get bitters into that bar.

In more amenable cities, I wonder if upselling in a cocktailian direction would also help. We here may think that cocktailian drinks are simply and obviously superior, but the tenacity of sweet, flavored vodka concotions suggests otherwise. What if a bartender or server said, "Take a look at this menu and let's talk. If you like an Appletini, for example, you might really like this Applecart Cocktail, a variation on the classic Sidecar with applejack." Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I can hope.

Cocktail menus are only as good as the bartenders building, stirring, and shaking the items on that menu. My cautionary tale in that topic about my "Sazerac" is a case in point; that menu had some interesting stuff on it, but failing to properly ice the drink suggests that even the most pedestrian drinks will flop. Forget about ordering a Ramos Gin Fizz.

As for certificates and training, my experiences in many cities (Brooklyn, DC, Portland, Boston, and Atlanta, most recently) suggest that if someone who cares about quality is behind the bar, they'll appreciate discussion and suggestions, they'll take their time to do things right, and they're going to make damned good drinks, classic or otherwise. I had some fine drinks at a small restaurant in Atlanta last year with two Society members, having walked the responsive, thoughtful bartender through a few ways to use that bottle of Luxardo Maraschino gathering dust in the back corner.

And if the bartender doesn't care about quality, well, here's an excerpt from that post on Temple:

n the half hour we were there we both felt that there was a general lack of regard for the craft. The lack of awareness about the ingredients present (and not present) and poor balance suggests inadequate training; the warm drink suggests inadequate care.

We all know that you can't teach pride in your work. Given what most of the folks reading this topic can do in their own homes, who wants to drop ten bucks on something you'd dump in your sink from shame if you made it yourself?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Robert Heugel has some thoughts regarding Houston's cocktail scene on his blog "Explore the Pour"

Houston: A Cocktail Desert; Where’s An Oasis?

I have returned to my home city of Houston after a six-year hiatus only to find that I might just be living in the worst city in the country for finding a decent cocktail. I’m serious; I have lived and been to cities only 1/50th the size of Houston that have better bar options (my standard for better is obvious determined by drink quality). To be fair, I haven’t been to every bar, but I am slowly working through my options with educated screenings and recommendations by experienced bar-goers. I have found a few decent places to get a drink, but the city overall has proven to be void of any understanding of cocktail culture.

He does go on to list a number of places where you can get a good drink, so all is not completely hopeless if you find yourself in Houston for the weekend and in need of a cocktail.

---

Erik Ellestad

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

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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I've been thinking about this some more, and I think maybe Las Vegas would work.

Seems like they have every thing there. High end restaurants. Coffee Shop type places. Buffets. Nightclubs with thumping music. Bars. All under one roof.

I was there back in July with some friends. We were in the Venietian, and we wanted to sit down and have some drinks. We were directed to the main casino bar. There was a big band playing. It was loud and crowded. Then, we were directed to a place that was basically a night club. Dance floor. DJ. Loud music. We just wanted a decent place to sit down and have a drink and talk. At the time, we didn't think of hitting the restaurants on "restaurant row" off the casino. But it was kind of late, and they might have been closed anyway

Do you think a true cocktail lounge that was all about a quailty cocktail work in Las Vegas?? Not a night club. Not an open place in the middle of a noisy casino. A real cotkail bar/lounge. The best I experiened was at the Wynn at the Parasol Down bar. They made me a nice Negroni.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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In more amenable cities, I wonder if upselling in a cocktailian direction would also help. We here may think that cocktailian drinks are simply and obviously superior, but the tenacity of sweet, flavored vodka concotions suggests otherwise. What if a bartender or server said, "Take a look at this menu and let's talk. If you like an Appletini, for example, you might really like this Applecart Cocktail, a variation on the classic Sidecar with applejack." Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I can hope.

My guess is "no." People who want Appletinis want candy. there's simply not much you can do for them. the people who are potential converts are the whiskey drinkers, those who order sours, and the straight gin or vodka "martini" drinkers (at least they like the taste of alcohol!). Serious beer or wine drinkers too.

the other night at Flatiron I heard this guy tell his friend "just get me an apple martini or something sweet...."

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  • 3 months later...

I think Los Angeles has failed for a couple of reasons.

1) I think the place is too flash- and trend-centric, so many places are flashes in the pan.

2) Too many people are out to get trashed and party, as opposed to enjoying a cocktail.

3) Lack of good spaces - i.e. a place that one could enjoy a cocktail, instead of being harassed by drunk people and throbbing house music. When I think of my experience at Pegu Club in NYC or the Zig Zag in Seattle, they were fantastic. I could go there and just enjoy. They have a nice atmosphere.

That being said LA finally has at least one place that I would be willing to go: the Seven Grand. It's more whisk(e)y centric the other cocktailian bars I've visited, having 150 whiskies and whiskeys on the menu, but its got a great atmosphere and generally good drinks. I can enjoy my drink, and the bartenders give a crap and generally know what they are doing. It's nice to finally have a place where they have a variety of bitters (if not house-made ones), fresh juices, citrus ready for zesting, twists, peels, etc., and stuff like maraschino, st.germain, absinthe, for cocktails. A more knowledgeable friend of mine didn't think the Ramos on the menu was quite up to snuff, but still they have it one the menu, which is a step in the right direction. I did have one less-experienced bartender who was clearly learning, and I caught him forgetting the bitters in my manhattan, and the simple out of my old fashioned. He was clearly learning, as I saw the more experienced bartender on duty was giving him assignments to practice during lulls - I watched him make a couple Crustas for practice. Still, they're practicing Crustas! Much better than the red bull and vodka crowd which makes up most of LA.

I've heard the Edison is a place I should check out as well. At least LA has one place worth going for a drink.

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I think Los Angeles has failed for a couple of reasons.

1) I think the place is too flash- and trend-centric, so many places are flashes in the pan.

2) Too many people are out to get trashed and party, as opposed to enjoying a cocktail.

3) Lack of good spaces - i.e. a place that one could enjoy a cocktail, instead of being harassed by drunk people and throbbing house music. When I think of my experience at Pegu Club in NYC or the Zig Zag in Seattle, they were fantastic. I could go there and just enjoy. They have a nice atmosphere.

That being said LA finally has at least one place that I would be willing to go: the Seven Grand. It's more whisk(e)y centric the other cocktailian bars I've visited, having 150 whiskies and whiskeys on the menu, but its got a great atmosphere and generally good drinks. I can enjoy my drink, and the bartenders give a crap and generally know what they are doing.  It's nice to finally have a place where they have a variety of bitters (if not house-made ones), fresh juices, citrus ready for zesting, twists, peels, etc., and stuff like maraschino, st.germain, absinthe, for cocktails.  A more knowledgeable friend of mine didn't think the Ramos on the menu was quite up to snuff, but still they have it one the menu, which is a step in the right direction. I did have one less-experienced bartender who was clearly learning, and I caught him forgetting the bitters in my manhattan, and the simple out of my old fashioned. He was clearly learning, as I saw the more experienced bartender on duty was giving him assignments to practice during lulls - I watched him make a couple Crustas for practice. Still, they're practicing Crustas! Much better than the red bull and vodka crowd which makes up most of LA.

I've heard the Edison is a place I should check out as well. At least LA has one place worth going for a drink.

welcome to eG C5!

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I think the demand's there in LA. A close Angelena friend of mine who's become a cocktail fan is constantly on the lookout for new places that know their craft, and she's got a wide circle of friends in studios and the professional sector who feel the same. LA fashion often echoes NY fashion, and cocktail bars have been the rage here for some time; it'd surprise me if there wasn't at least one M&H-style (or maybe Flatiron-style) place opening in LA in the near future.

Mayur Subbarao, aka "Mayur"
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What about extending this internationally? What European cities or SE Asian cities have a thriving cocktail culture?

My first real bona fide cocktail experience was in Melbourne last year. A place called Polly in Fitzroy, deliberately non-descript on the outside but you walk in and it's like a Victorian Lounge. Beautifully made cocktails and obvious care an attention in everything they do. It wasn't until I read this thread that I realised how rare that seems. There are places in Sydney that also are quite respectable but tend to go with more the hip young urban vibe.

edit: Here is a picture of Polly's:

polly5.jpg

What a beautiful space!

Edited by Shalmanese (log)

PS: I am a guy.

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Ooo, I love Polly. Used to live just around the corner, but haven't been there for years. Never had a cocktail there, but they were responsible for my love of beer, as it was the first place I tried Chimay. Must get back there...

Edited by Amarantha (log)
There Will Be Bloody Marys
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  • 2 weeks later...
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."

Cleveland's Velvet Tango Room has NONE of these three advantages, and they seem to be doing well.

Some people were mentioning Milwaukee.

Their two best bars - Bryant's and At Random have closed.

Bryant's had old-school bartenders who had been working there for like 50 years and who had memorized 500 drinks each (or so they claimed - and I believed it).

At Random had sort of mediocre drinks, but the atmosphere in there was amazing - somewhere between your grandmother's living room and Frank Sinatra's rec room, and so dark that you couldn't see what you were drinking anyway.

Point is that Milwaukee is ripe for a high-end bar.

-James

My new book is, "Destination: Cocktails", from Santa Monica Press! http://www.destinationcocktails.com

Please see http://www.tydirium.net for information on all of my books, including "Tiki Road Trip", and "Big Stone Head", plus my global travelogues, and more!

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If this is your opinion, then you have made my thesis that "Point is that Milwaukee is ripe for a high-end bar" doubly true.

-James

My new book is, "Destination: Cocktails", from Santa Monica Press! http://www.destinationcocktails.com

Please see http://www.tydirium.net for information on all of my books, including "Tiki Road Trip", and "Big Stone Head", plus my global travelogues, and more!

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