Does the Drink Make the Bartender?

In various posts of the ”On the Menu” section of the enewsletter/ezine/whatchacallit known as “The Mix,” we frequently include lists of cocktails and their ingredients, but not recipes. Why? Well, we keep recipes to a minimum because this isn’t a how-to publication; the Web is crawling with sites giving precise drink instructions. And, frankly, if you’re a professional bartender reading these lists, you have a pretty good, even formulaic, idea of what the ingredient proportions should or might be.

We list ingredients to let other bartenders get a sense of what their peers are doing, what styles or ingredients are gaining traction in a part of the country and what trends are moving nationally. In the past few posts, for example, we’ve focused on the changeover to spring cocktail menus, and one thing that struck me was how many times gin and Aperol were showing up. That’s good news for brand reps but also indicative that bartenders are continuing to push savory and bitter ingredients and probably are succeeding in getting customers interested.

Trends come and go, as do spirits, but don’t be fooled into reading too much into the prominence of some styles or brands. Simpler drinks with fewer ingredients always will head the general popularity list, if only because of consumer familiarity. And most customers, other than those frequenting the few dozen superior cocktail destinations in the country, don’t come out for any one drink; they want to have a good, well-made drink and don’t care who created it, or, frankly, how.

I was speaking with Dushan Zaric of New York City’s Employees Only recently about another matter altogether, and after talking for a while about the wave of once-exotic liqueurs and amaros now widely available to bartenders, he put into a few words the sneaking suspicion I’ve long had about the cult that forms around many of these ingredients.

“A good bartender can make you a drink you’ll enjoy, no matter what ingredients he has in front of him,” Zaric says.

Bingo! I’ve always said a good bartender makes great drinks, while the best bartender makes all drinks great. He or she does that through a combination of personality, skill, intuition and experience, not by mastering the secret shake, sourcing the most rare ingredients or possessing the perfect tool kit. But only good bartenders are improved by fine tools; bad ones just hide behind them. In French kitchens long ago, unknown kitchen aspirants traditionally were given one task — to cook a single dish — for a job interview, getting hired only if the chef was pleased with the resulting, lowly omelet. Everything else could be taught, went the theory, and anyway, it was better to teach from scratch rather than unteach bad habits and start over.

Modern American bartenders are only now sorting through what it means to be a professional, what skills and talents are most important to build a successful and meaningful career. However, they ought not forget that empathy and charm will brighten the dullest drink, while a curt and indifferent temperament will sour the finest.

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