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The Essential Bartender's Guide

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1228018228/gallery_29805_1195_7950.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">The Daily Gullet is proud to present this exclusive excerpt from The Essential Bartender's Guide: How to Make Truly Great Cocktails.

by Robert Hess

Bartenders are culinary alchemists using the various liquids and flavorings at hand to create tasty beverages that will entice and entertain their customers’ palates with a balance and explosion of flavors reflecting long years of training and carefully honed skills.

Unfortunately, comparing modern American bartenders to the classic bartenders of just a hundred years ago is often like comparing the fry cook at a 24-hour truck stop to a classically trained chef at a celebrated restaurant.

Bartender training used to be long and involved. Its methodology was comparable to that used to train gourmet chefs. However, most bartenders today have no training at all. They tend to rely on a dog-eared recipe book to learn their craft in a trial by fire.

Of course, bartenders make the drinks their customers order. They are rarely challenged. There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. An increased understanding of the cocktail is beginning to take place and, with this understanding, consumers are seeking to find bartenders who can realize the culinary potentials of the drinks they make.

Cocktail as Cuisine

The cocktail can and should be seen as a cuisine with all the potential and wonder that this implies. Bartenders are masters of this cuisine and should be expected to take their role as seriously as if they were a chef turning out masterful dishes for their customers. Likewise a consumer should approach a cocktail with as much attention to its quality as possible.

Wine, beer and even coffee can be seen as liquid cuisines which embody the notion of craftsmanship, dedication and quality. Like the cocktail, they haven’t, however, always been seen as such.

Today, sommeliers are commonplace at restaurants. They help diners create a memorable pairing between the food from the kitchen and the wine from the restaurant’s cellar. Drinkers, who would have once seen an inexpensive white zinfandel as their go-to wine, now cherish the robust and complex flavors of a cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir.

Across the nation small microbreweries are producing a variety of craft beers full of flavor and character. While the large commercial breweries and their almost flavorless beers are still top sellers, an educated beer drinker is always on the lookout for new and interesting brews to provide their palate with a little adventure.

Once it was believed that great coffee came out of a can and the percolator was the most popular way to brew a cup. Today, there are a variety of gourmet roasters which have created a dedicated consumer base. People may drive miles out of their way to buy coffee. They will grind whole beans at home and carefully brew their coffee to get just the right flavor for their morning cup.

While cocktails haven’t yet achieved this level of large scale craftsmanship, dedication and awareness, there is a definite momentum in that direction. Bartenders are enthusiastically studying, researching and training in order to create exquisite cocktails based on classic methods. Customers are seeking out these bartenders and allowing them to provide drink recommendations instead of simply having the same tried-and-true cocktails over and over again.

The “Cocktailian” Palate

The delight that comes with an appreciation for cocktails is easily acquired. It’s a matter of simply educating your palate, not much more difficult but a lot more fun than A-B-C.

The appreciation for unknown flavors is something that we can be open to throughout our lives. There’s always a thrill encountering and discovering something new. When we’re young and first begin to drink wine, we are unlikely to start with an appreciation of a robust wine like a cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel. Often our choice is a mild sweet wine and the memories of fruit juices and soda pops it produces.

After hiding away in the sweet soda pop wines for a while, we might strive, for example, to impress a date by taking advantage of a sommelier who, by offering an education on the available wines, helps to push our palates forward. Eventually we end up ordering and appreciating the same complex red wines that once sent us running for cover.

Regrettably, there isn’t yet the cocktail equivalent of a sommelier, a role model to help our understanding of the culinary potential cocktails can provide. This is why many drinks are closer in a flavor profile to soda pop wines than vintage cabernets.

Balancing Act

Appreciation of the cocktail as a culinary beverage begins with its balance of flavors.

Not too sweet, not too sour, not too strong, but something blending all of the presented flavors in a form that creates what could almost be considered a brand new flavor. This “new” flavor should, as you come to the end of your cocktail, bring a wish that the glass contained a little bit more.

For both the bartender and the consumer, the cocktail should represent a great culinary adventure. This recognition and appreciation will return the dignity and stature the cocktail enjoyed nearly a hundred years ago.

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Robert Hess (aka DrinkBoy) is a founder of The Museum of the American Cocktail, and host and executive producer of The Cocktail Spirit, a web-based video series presented through the Small Screen Network.

This exclusive excerpt from The Essential Bartender's Guide: How to Make Truly Great Cocktails is presented with the kind permission of Mud Puddle Books and the author. Cover photograph by Amy K. Sims.

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Robert, I'm hoping you can comment on this sentence:

Regrettably, there isn’t yet the cocktail equivalent of a sommelier, a role model to help our understanding of the culinary potential cocktails can provide.

It seems to me that one of the joys of sitting at the bar with a top cocktailian bartender is that they play so many roles: executive chef, line cook, maitre'd, and -- yes -- sommelier. Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli at Eastern Standard is one of many good folks out there who have walked me through appropriate choices for different foods or moods.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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was this book just released? I must pickup a copy of it. The only other cocktail book I have is "Joy of Mixology". I love watching "Cocktail Spirit". It's great. I'm sure this book will be as well.

As far as there not being the cocktail equivalent of a sommelier is concerned. I agree with Chris that you can get this is you sit at the actual bar and it's manned by a good bartender, you can get this experience. But a lot of are drinking cocktails at our tables in the dining room. The bartender can be the best, but if the server taking your drink order isn't knowledgeable, than you may not have as good of a cocktail experience as you could.


Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"
jmeeker@eGullet.org

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Robert, I'm hoping you can comment on this sentence:
Regrettably, there isn’t yet the cocktail equivalent of a sommelier, a role model to help our understanding of the culinary potential cocktails can provide.

It seems to me that one of the joys of sitting at the bar with a top cocktailian bartender is that they play so many roles: executive chef, line cook, maitre'd, and -- yes -- sommelier. Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli at Eastern Standard is one of many good folks out there who have walked me through appropriate choices for different foods or moods.

It can be easily argued that there are many bartenders who more than fill the shoes of being the "sommelier" to their cocktailian customers. My point, which perhaps didn't quite come across, was that the "sommelier" is not only a staple of many fine restaurants, but is consistantly seen as being "the" authority on the wines that are available, almost to the point of being looked at with tremendous awe and respect. The percentage of "Bartenders" who are seen in this same light by their customers is exceedingly small. The common customer doesn't have a "role model" that guides them toward looking at the cocktail as a culinary experience.

Does that help?

-Robert

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We recently had a few cocktails at Drink in Boston and enjoyed the conversation with the bartender as he guided us through the decision process. Instead of offering a drink menu, Drink bartenders will make your favourite drink or help you discover something new. Fun concept, new experience for us.

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Robert - Which of the old cocktail book authors would you say had the most influence on you when writing this book?

Would it be one of the first batch of authors such as Jerry Thomas or Harry Johnson or someone from the Twentieth Century such as David Embury?

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For both the bartender and the consumer, the cocktail should represent a great culinary adventure. This recognition and appreciation will return the dignity and stature the cocktail enjoyed nearly a hundred years ago.

It's hard to disagree with this point, but as a consumer I wonder how I can help. There does not seem to be any kind of cocktail scene of any kind where I live (Oklahoma City): I'd love to "help the local bartenders go on a great culinary adventure" but how do I do that? The last time I sidled up to a bar and ordered a Daiquiri, I was informed that that bar "doesn't do frozen drinks." I was not surprised by the response (the Daiquiri being among the most bastardized drinks imaginable), but I got the distinct feeling that there was no way I could convince the bartender there to play along with learning how to make a real one. I don't want to be the old bastard who keeps coming to the bar with unreasonable demands. How do I identify places where it is worth attempting?


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Hi, Robert!

What an interseting concept: I'm looking forward to reading your book.

I've been thinking about this concept of the bartender not getting the respect he deserves.

Question maybe you can answer: in what ways do bars differ from the past? In their physical set up and patronage?

I'm wondering if the modern bartender is beseiged by huge amounts of drink orders, loud music, huge crowds, etc. in a way that the great bartenders of the past may not have been . . .

I'm trying to envision the perfect physical bar: is it round like a donut? Does it have multiple stations (i.e., line forms here for all things vodka)? Are there menus? Touch screens for orders (select three from column B)? Mulitple bars, one on each of the four walls?

I've always had more pleasant drinking experiences when the bar wasn't crowded.

Happy Repeal of Prohibition to you,

Linda


I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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If you can sit at the bar with a great bartender you can take advantage of their expertise and broaden your horizons. Since the majority of patrons are seated away from the bar their chances of trying and enjoying new flavors is greatly diminished. I remember watching as Murray Stenson prepared Cosmopolitans for a table along with some glasses of wine and wondered why anyone would order these at such a wonderful place as Zig Zag. Thanks to you and Murray, I fell in love with Green Chartreuse. Sitting at that bar was an incredible education and not just from those behind the bar. The rest of the folks at the bar with me were serious about their drinks and encouraged me to try more than I could handle!

There seems to be a trend to push the envelope when creating drinks and menus. Sometimes simple and well made is better than 'over produced'. Going beyond the 'tried and true' is a good thing since a lot of those drinks were overly sweet vodka based drinks. I'd like to be able to get a properly made Manhattan which seems like an easy goal. Cocktails still have a long way to go outside the few enclaves of cocktalian magic. How do you suggest that the consumer encourage local haunts to 'step it up'. We have encouraged our local liquor store to expand it's horizons and have a group of home mixologists that a keep them on their toes. Drinking at home is fine but it would be nice to find a safe haven when drinking out where you can safely order more than something on the rocks.

How long to you think it will take for more establishments across the country to really care about the drinks they serve? Is the Museum of the American Cocktail doing any outreach programs to bartenders in the vast hinterlands of the US?

On the other hand, the Small Screen Network is wonderful and your cocktail list is still my favorite place to get recipes.


KathyM

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Robert,

Have changes in popular culture affected the selection of cocktail ingredients that are widely available in the US? It seems that we have ever increasing availability of wines, beers and liquors but a much smaller growth in cocktail ingredients.

Fifty years ago, dry ginger beer was widely available. It is now hard to find and much is a cloyingly sweet product that has taken over this market.

It would also be wonderful to have a decent range of falernums or sea moss available in our markets.

What are your thoughts? Thank you for participating in this eGullet forum.

Tim

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Robert,

The book seems to be very cool and thanks for joining us here.

Is there not an issue of staying in business that limits the cocktail type bars that everyone loves? There is a limited market of those of us who enjoy the cocktail art. Even more so outside of the larger cities. My wife loves when I make her Aviation, in out town, I don't know of one single bar that has a bottle of maraschino behind it.

Coors Light and Grey Goose can make a bar a profitable place. The drinks we love, at least were I live won't.

Do you see a way for a place to be able to make money and still offer quality hand made drinks with less than popular ingredients?

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Several questions have stacked up while I was in meetings today, I'll make a point of answering them individually instead of grouping answers to several people together into one post. And I've got to run out in a moment for "Repeal Day" Festivities, so any I don't get to right now, I'll answer tomorrow.

Robert - Which of the old cocktail  book authors would you say had the most influence on you when writing this book?

Would it be one of the first batch of authors such as Jerry Thomas or Harry Johnson  or someone from the Twentieth Century such as David Embury?

The exerpt above doesn't fully reveal the book I've written. It is sort of a combination of "general guidance and advice" and a "recipe collection", split just about 50/50. I've targeted this book mostly toward beginning cocktail enthusiasts, but hopefully with enough information that even the experienced among us will find something to catch their interest.

So I suppose this particular book is patterned more after The Bartenders Bible, by Gary Regan, and other such books, then it is either Jerry Thomas or David Embury. I do have a second book I am working on which is much closer to an Embury in style.

But all of the authors who have come before me, and all of my good cocktailian friends were my inspiration!

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...There does not seem to be any kind of cocktail scene of any kind where I live (Oklahoma City): I'd love to "help the local bartenders go on a great culinary adventure" but how do I do that?...

When I was first getting into cocktails, it was at home, where I worked through many of the classic recipes an learned how great they could be.

Of course, on my next trip to a bar, I ordered one of these drinks that I had grown so accustomed to. I was constantly dissappointed with what I was served. They were downright terrible. I eventually came to the conclusion there was no longer any such thing as a "good" bartender, they were all simply bottle-jockeys now, being trained in their craft with colored water and set loose on an unsuspecting public.

I then had a chance to meet with Colin Field, at Le Bar Hemingway in the Ritz in Paris. Here was a bartender who really knew what great cocktails were all about. He was passionate about them and studied their history and their culinary value.

I figured, where there can be one, there can be others. And so upon returning to Seattle, I made it a point to try to find those bars, or more importantly bartenders, who had a glimmer of sharing my passion about a well made cocktail. Gradually I would encounter bartenders who had the right stuff, sometimes it wasn't that they "knew" great cocktails, but that they had an interest in knowing.

While I accept that there are going to be some cities where there is absolutely nothing in the way of hope for good cocktails, I feel that with enough careful searching, and nurturing, it should be possible to build up potential almost anywhere.

-Robert

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...Question maybe you can answer:  in what ways do bars differ from the past?  In their physical set up and patronage?

I'm wondering if the modern bartender is beseiged by huge amounts of drink orders, loud music, huge crowds, etc. in a way that the great bartenders of the past may not have been . . .

I'm trying to envision the perfect physical bar:  is it round like a donut?  Does it have multiple stations (i.e., line forms here for all things vodka)?  Are there menus?  Touch screens for orders (select three from column B)?  Mulitple bars, one on each of the four walls? 

I've always had more pleasant drinking experiences when the bar wasn't crowded.

Bars have gone through large changes over time. The bar of today got its start from roadhouses or lodges which provided travelers with rest and nurishment on their journey. In the Pre-prohibition days, bars and saloons were mostly male establishments where they would gather and either hold meetings and conduct business, or simply drink away the days worries.

It was during prohibition that women became welcome into bars and "speakeasies". So that is at least one thing we can thank prohibition for.

As for the "perfect" bar, a lot depends on exactly what role the bar wants to play and what sort of clientel it is trying to attract. A Sportsbar will have a different "best" setup than a hotel bar, or a "speakeasy" style lounge, or a bar which is an integral part of a restaurant, or... There are lots of different styles.

And I prefer bars which are a little on the quiet side as well. I like it slow enough so that I can get a chance to chat with the bartender a bit. But that also means they may not be busy enough to make a profit, so it's all about balance.

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...How long to you think it will take for more establishments across the country to really care about the drinks they serve?  Is the Museum of the American Cocktail doing any outreach programs to bartenders in the vast hinterlands of the US?

On the other hand, the Small Screen Network is wonderful and your cocktail list is still my favorite place to get recipes.

While there is still a huge wasteland of ignorance regarding cocktails out there, I think we are already seeing a lot of momentum towards "culinary" cocktails, and bartenders who strive to really perfect their art and progress it forward.

With others at the Museum of the American Cocktail, and through projects like Small Screen Network, Tales of the Cocktail, discussion forums like this, and the various other resources which are evangelizing great cocktails, we all play a role in pushing on the envelope.

Bars and restaurants are essentially just providing their customers with what they think they want. As long as customers are wanting Apple-tinis and other such drinks, they will be commonly served across the country. Those bartenders who know better play a role by casually recommending alternatives to their customers (but this typically only works well when sitting at the bar), and customers who know better, when they are out with friends can help steer them in the right direction.

I enjoy it when I get the chance to help somebody break out of their cocktail "safety zone" and get them to try some more interesting and culinarily more advanced libations.

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..Have changes in popular culture affected the selection of cocktail ingredients that are widely available in the US?  It seems that we have ever increasing availability of wines, beers and liquors but a much smaller growth in cocktail ingredients.

Fifty years ago, dry ginger beer was widely available.  It is now hard to find and much is a cloyingly sweet product that has taken over this market.

It would also be wonderful to have a decent range of falernums or sea moss available in our markets...

It is important to remember, that when cocktails first entered the scene, the products available to the average bartender could fit in a suitcase. Brandy, Gin, Whiskey, Rum, syrup, curacao, bitters, orgeat, and perhaps a couple other cordials and syrups. Today, the number of ingredients is almost mind blowing. And there are new products coming out all of the time... not that all of them are necessarily worthwhile.

Products like St-Germain show that there are still "new" products that are possible, and Canton shows that a renewed interest can bring back some products.... and just wait for "Forbidden Fruit" to make it's entrance again in the near future.

Sometimes a great product will come out and land with a thud. Either through poor marketing, or a lack of understanding, or just bad timing. Tanqueray's Malacca gin is one such product which had great promise but just couldn't catch hold.

We are seeing a large number of smaller distilleries opening up across the country, and many of them are playing around with obscure, unusual, or long forgotten products. I think we'll see some very interesting advancements in the next few years.

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Is there not an issue of staying in business that limits the cocktail type bars that everyone loves? There is a limited market of those of us who enjoy the cocktail art. Even more so outside of the larger cities.  My wife loves when I make her Aviation, in out town, I don't know of one single bar that has a bottle of maraschino behind it.

Coors Light and Grey Goose can make a bar a profitable place. The drinks we love, at least were I live won't. 

Do you see a way for a place to be able to make money and still offer quality hand made drinks with less than popular ingredients?

You raise a very good point. When it comes right down to it, bars are in business to sell the products their customers want. If everybody wants to drink Apple-tinis then all bars will serve it.

I think it is important to think of the landscape available to bars as the same as the landscape of restaurant possibilities. We need to have a broad variety to choose from, since everybody is different. Restaurants can do different ethnic cuisines, or different levels of $ervice, or cater to large crowds or small romantic dinners, or quick bites, or long elaborate meals, or vegitarian, or exotic game, or Truck Drivers, or business lunches, or... you get the point. Likewise bars can cover the entire spectrum as well.

Here in Seattle we have some great examples of this. Two of our best bars are the Zig Zag Cafe and Vessel. Both take a totally different approach. The Zig Zag is very casual, concrete bar top, cavernous lighting, eclectic clientel, and cocktails served out of fairly generic glassware. Vessel on the other hand is bright and crisp with lots of glass, metal, and white. Bartenders dress with a nod too the period bartenders of the past, and the drinks are served from unique and elegant glassware. And both bars serve excellent and envelope pushing cocktails. And there are other bars which fill in the spectrum between these two.

We then have the simple notion of business availability. How many "Pegu Club" types of bars do we need? What if all bars served drinks of that level and distinction? Are there enough customers? Probably not. There is however lots and lots more room for bars like that to open up before the market even approaches saturation. At the moment I'd say we are at the point where "cocktailian" customers still have a hard time finding bars which can satisfy their tastes.

As such "cocktailian" bars continue to open up, eventually there will be enough to suit the customer base... but this will only cause that customer base to increase, as other customers, on the outside looking in, decide they too want to see what all of the fuss is about. Some will find these "fancy drinks" a little too much for them, but others will welcome the new experience and wonder what took them so long.

I often look at this whole process as being similar to the evolution of the wine industry in the US. It wasn't that long ago when the majority of customers couldn't handle a Cabernet Sauvignon, but as the market evolved the customers gradually learned a newfound appreciation for the more complex and adventursome wines.

While those of us who really appreciate a finely made cocktail might wish things were further along, I think the current evolution of the art is a necessary process, and one which finally appears to be moving in the right direction.

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Robert,

Thanks for giving us a lot of insight into the issues of getting a good cocktail away from the home. But what about getting one IN the home? If someone was just starting out wanting to make quality cocktails at home and move away from mixing a Jack and Coke and a margarita using a bottled mix, how do you suggest they start? I think in your Cocktail Spirit, you have suggested people buy something to make one drink that you may like (say, a margarita). What else can you do?

For me, I have found exploring cocktails as one of the easiest ways to expand one's culinary horizons. You don't need much equipment at all. Most of the ingredients are shelf stable for a long period of time. And the ones that aren't can be purchased in small quantities for not much money (thing like lemons and limes). Also, the cocktail is quickly assembled and served. One last thing that makes this exploration easier compared to cooking or baking.. Recipes you find in books, magazines, on-line are almost always designed to make ONE serving.

Really, it's a lot of fun. One can learn about other beverages like beer and wine. But when you want that, you're probably going to simply open a bottle an pour. But making a cocktail for your self lets you develop a true craft.


Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"
jmeeker@eGullet.org

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...what about getting one IN the home?  If someone was just starting out wanting to make quality cocktails at home and move away from mixing a Jack and Coke and a margarita using a bottled mix, how do you suggest they start?  I think in your Cocktail Spirit, you have suggested people buy something to make one drink that you may like (say, a margarita).    What else can you do?

Well... now there you are getting into what I'm planning on for my next book :->

At the core however is what I have been recommending for years, which is that somebody take "a" cocktail which they like, and simply focus on making that at home.

This is how I first got my start. It was with the Sidecar. I ran across an online recipe (via Hotwired's "Cocktail" website, with content provided by Paul Harrington), and on my way home that night picked up the ingredients I needed.

Next, I looked around in other recipe books and online, and found other variations of the Sidecar, and over the next week or two tried as many different variations as I could find. At the end of this, I had (what I felt was) a very good understanding of what I thought a GREAT sidecar was (4 parts brandy, 2 parts Cointreau, 1 part lemon juice, served up, no sugared rim). And it also taught me a very personal lesson about how ingredients such as sour mix, triple sec, and bottled lemon juice didn't belong in this drink.

Hotwired's website switched in a different featured drink each week, and I eagerly would pick up the ingredients for each of those drinks and try them, and their variations at home.

For anybody even slightly interested in making cocktails at home I think that this is an excellent way to expose themselves to what great cocktails are all about.

For me, I have found exploring cocktails as one of the easiest ways to expand one's culinary horizons.  You don't need much equipment at all.  Most of the ingredients are shelf stable for a long period of time.  And the ones that aren't can be purchased in small quantities for not much money (thing like lemons and limes). Also, the cocktail is quickly assembled and served.  One last thing that makes this exploration easier compared to cooking or baking..  Recipes you find in books, magazines, on-line are almost always designed to make ONE serving. 

Another important benefit of making cocktails at home, is that it is also cheaper than wine. A good bottle of wine costs $20 or more, or about the same cost as a good bottle of gin. That bottle of wine will quickly be finished off by two people in a sitting, but the same cannot be said for that bottle of gin. Plus you get the added feeling of accomlishment of knowing you made it yourself. And with a recipe that is both good and simple, it is almost foolproof with only a tiny bit of basic knowledge about how to make cocktails.
Really, it's a lot of fun. One can learn about other beverages like beer and wine.  But when you want that, you're probably going to simply open a bottle an pour.  But making a cocktail for your self lets you develop a true craft.

Cocktails are indeed a cuisine, I have always enjoyed cooking, and early on I went down the route of studying wine, and eventually beer, and the role that they played. But cockails never really entered the picture. But once I started actually making cocktails at home, it struck me that their preparation was a personal culinary experience just like cooking, while wine and beer was simply a "selection" process, much like either knowing how to select a good head of cabbage at the supermarket, or selecting a good entree from the menu at a restaurant.

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[T]he "sommelier" is not only a staple of many fine restaurants, but is consistantly seen as being "the" authority on the wines that are available, almost to the point of being looked at with tremendous awe and respect. The percentage of "Bartenders" who are seen in this same light by their customers is exceedingly small. The common customer doesn't have a "role model" that guides them toward looking at the cocktail as a culinary experience.

Does that help?

Yes: absolutely, and I agree. I think we're talking about two sides of the same coin. We can list bartenders who deserve our awe and respect, but they are a very small percentage of the bartenders out there. I also wonder what percentage of their customers sees them in this light, and what percentage merely wants them to grind up a Mojito.

Of course, one of the sweet things about many of those bartenders is that they'd rather chat cocktails with you than have you shower them with awe and respect. Your comments here and elsewhere have suggested to me that your philosophy is similar to Dale DeGroff's and others who have spent many years in the business. From that perspective, good bartenders combine the skills of both FOH and BOH, and they do so out of an abiding sense of hospitality and service.

Your (and many others') emphasis on casual, friendly inclusion makes the current cocktailian movement far more pleasurable to me than it would otherwise be. It would be easy for all of this cutting-edge innovation and reclamation of past traditions to unfold in a very clubby, exclusive manner, with bartenders clinging to their secrets like magicians hoodwinking the dupes. But the overwhelming ethos of your (and others') great work seems to be "Pull up a stool," reminding us always that this cocktail stuff is fun, weird, and best shared with others. I for one am grateful for that.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I have to admit, as much as I would like to buy into the "cocktails as liquid cuisine" mindset, it's not really doing it for me. I consider myself a fairly accomplished cook and I think I've acquired a decent liquor cabinet but yet I'm still often stumped when looking at my collection and trying to craft something on the fly that will both match my mood and be tasty.

Part of the problem is that so many cocktails seem to require a certain specific bottle that no other cocktail requires and so, building up a large repetoire involves more bottles than would be practical.

But another part is that I just don't think mixing things together allows for the same space of possibilities as cooking does where you can play with heat, texture, techniques, chemical changes and elaborate presentation. Fundamentally, everything you do has to be harmonious with the base flavor of alcohol and it pretty much reduces down to a harmony between 2 or 3 base flavors with the occasional accent or two to keep it interesting.


PS: I am a guy.

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...good bartenders combine the skills of both FOH and BOH, and they do so out of an abiding sense of hospitality and service.

Absolutely! I often describe the bar is the "original" Chef's table. Where the customer sits in a place where they can watch everything the chef (bartender) is doing as they prepare orders for all customers. They can also interact with the chef, which they could not easily do if they took a seat at the table, and they can directly ask the chef questions and get specific recommendations.

...It would be easy for all of this cutting-edge innovation and reclamation of past traditions to unfold in a very clubby, exclusive manner, with bartenders clinging to their secrets like magicians hoodwinking the dupes.

I totally agree. It can be easy to slip into "cliquish" behavior, and often that is a natural, but temporary, progression of somebody who gets into the "cocktailian" mindset.

When you initially realize that you are in posession of "secrets" about how to make great cocktails, it can go a little to your head and you start feeling just a little superior. But then as the whole enormity of the situation unfolds you realize just how vast the landscape is, and how little you truely know and understand.

I often explain to people who might diss me about my nickname of "DrinkBoy", that if nothing else it helps keep me humble and not to take things too seriously.

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I have to admit, as much as I would like to buy into the "cocktails as liquid cuisine" mindset, it's not really doing it for me.

I think it is important not to take the "cocktails as liquid cuisine" tagline too literally. While similar to cooking, there are of course some significant differences between the two. However I feel it is specifically because of my culinary training that when I moved from wine into cocktails that it was almost a religious experience.

I had spent years researching wines and training my palate, as well as working with wine and food pairing, seeing that as just part of what I needed to know about. When I first "really" got into cocktails however, the thing that struck me the most was how much like cooking the whole cocktail thing was. Unlike wine, cocktails are a beverage that you directly participate in. It is something where the knowledge and skill of the chef/bartender has a direct impact on the quality of the product.

If you go to a restaurnat and order an item from the entree list, and a wine from the wine list... and a week later you are in another restaurant, and order the same thing from the entree list and the same wine from the wine list... the entree will most likely taste different, since the chef in the kitchen has a very participatory role in the preparation of the dish, but the wine had better taste the same.

The main way restaurants partcipate in the wines they provide is in knowing the best wines to select based on the food they serve and their customers needs. I'm not saying that this is a simple task, just that it is significantly different from making cocktails. And that making cocktails is more like cooking.

I consider myself a fairly accomplished cook and I think I've acquired a decent liquor cabinet but yet I'm still often stumped when looking at my collection and trying to craft something on the fly that will both match my mood and be tasty.

I'm not familiar with your overall cocktail knowledge, so excuse me if I jump to an inaccurate assumption... but I suspect that perhaps you're just needing a little more time?

In classic culinary training, students are drilled HARD on a lot of the fundamentals. This includes preparation, cooking methodology, product knowledge and selection, and base/foundation recipes. A good strong knowledge of the similar aspects of mixology should be able to prepare you to be able to come up with variations of the classic cocktails which utilize different products and suit different moods.

A method that I often find useful when I need to come up with a "new" drink, is to remove the caps from some of the products I am wanting to use, and holding the bottle tops close together smell the combined aroma coming off of them. From this I can get a reaonsable idea of what a cocktail made from these ingredients might taste like. I used this process to come up with the "Trident" (a variation of a negroni, using aquavit, Cynar, sherry, and peach bitters), which is perhaps one of my more popular creations.

With enough deep-seated understanding of the different products available, you can eventually work up a reasonable taste-memory, which can allow you to mentally combine different products together in order to come up with a drink from scratch.

Part of the problem is that so many cocktails seem to require a certain specific bottle that no other cocktail requires and so, building up a large repetoire involves more bottles than would be practical.

I feel your pain :->... my home liquor collection is well over 200 bottles. Some of which I go through regularly, but many which I only occassionally use.

But another part is that I just don't think mixing things together allows for the same space of possibilities as cooking does where you can play with heat, texture, techniques, chemical changes and elaborate presentation.

This gets back to my earlier comment about not taking "cocktails as liquid cuisine" too literally. There are both simularities as well as differences between the "art form" of cooking and that of making cocktails.

Cooking even something simple can take ten or fifteen minutes, with many things (if you start totally from scratch) taking an hour or more, or sometime even days to do right. A cocktail? Most of them you can mix up in less than a minute start to finish. Frankly I love long and involved recipes which take time and careful organization to prepare properly, but at the same time I love the "instant gratification" of mixing up a quick cocktail too.

As for heat, texture, techniques, chemical changes, and elaborate presentations... while not the "norm", each of those definately can play a role in the process of making a cocktail. Just go to any bar that is into "molecular mixology" and you'll see each of them being exercised (but let's not get into that discussion! :->)

Fundamentally, everything you do has to be harmonious with the base flavor of alcohol and it pretty much reduces down to a harmony between 2 or 3 base flavors with the occasional accent or two to keep it interesting.

I think that this over simplifies the situation, but when trying to draw a direct comparison between cooking and mixology I suppose it's one way to illustrate a comparison.

In general cocktail recipes are FAR simpler, in almost every way, from their "Back of the house" brethren. Heck, most cocktail recipe books easily cram six or more recipes onto a page without blinking. That alone shows a significant difference between the two.

In the end of course, it's all about what you enjoy doing, and how you enjoy doing it. Not everybody likes to cook (although it's hard for me to fathom). Some people who hate to cook, love to eat out at wonderful resturants, and have a tremendous knowledge of cuisine, they just don't care for making it themselves. Which is perfectly fine.

-Robert

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