It's the Singer, Not the Song

Had any memorable cocktails lately?

Me, neither, at least none worth reporting about coming from the event scene. As more ingredients — from saké and sochu to syrups and preserves — are being trotted out as suitable for inclusion in cocktails, I confess I am underwhelmed by most introductory beverages served up or sent out as recipes to promote brands.

Nothing wrong with the drinks, exactly, but not a whole lot that sticks with me, although the sameness of the problems are worth mentioning. If the drinks are provided for large crowds of cocktail insiders, they tend to be packed with mouth-puckering citrus. If made for a brand introduction suitable for the general public or press, they are more likely to be overly sweet and even obscure the flavor of the promoted ingredient — as if to say, “See, this flavor is so easy to hide, everyone will like it!” In both cases, they are neither especially appetizing, nor something I want to try myself.

On the other hand, memorable cocktails are difficult to create, probably because to become well-known they must be easy to make. Contradictory, I know, but what is simpler to make than a Manhattan, a Margarita or even a Negroni — drinks that are mangled, manhandled and otherwise messed up constantly in bars and restaurants across the country? In the days before classic cocktails once again became popular, I knew I could always get a good Negroni in whatever bar I found myself, as long as the bartender standing in front of me could count to “one” and the right ingredients were on hand (equal parts Beefeater, Campari and Italian vermouth was the recipe I preferred). Easy as…, well, you get the idea.

The memorable concept — simple recipe, perfectly executed — is harder to manage when a drink developer opts for a showy menu meant to dazzle with possibilities (Three kinds of bitters in one drink! White whiskey distilled in the bar! Hand-picked rose-hips-infused gin!), rather than one grounded in delivering consistent excellence. Long ago, any itinerant French cook looking for work would be asked, once it was clear he had suitable experience, to do one thing: Cook an omelet. The simplest dish on paper, but requiring concentration, a deft but firm hand and complete confidence in one’s ability to execute properly.

To me, mastering the craft of what constitutes a perfect cocktail in its many forms is so much more important than cocktail recipe creation that, if I could snap my fingers and make it so, I’d limit the number of drink competitions now overwhelming the industry. As good as some of the resulting drinks may be, coming up with tasty recipes doesn’t smooth the path to great bartending; it’s simply one of many skills needed in a business in which competence, service and execution are at least equal to if not more important than creativity. Pouring a perfect Guinness takes practice, as does learning how to squeeze lime juice without extracting too much bitter oil and knowing when to order that discounted case of gin. For most bartenders, those skills will help build your career far more securely than creating any seven-ingredient drink.


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