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The Red Pill or the Blue?

Part One – Lars

A knowledgeable bartender who cares deeply about the quality of the drinks he or she delivers is an often overlooked ingredient in any great cocktail… after all, it doesn’t matter how old or expensive or sought-after is the booze he’s using if he dumps a load of pre-packaged chemical sour mix all over it before he serves it to you, now does it?

A great bartender is not just a guy who knows how to make the drink you just ordered… it’s a guy who cares that you actually enjoy the drink you just ordered. He should also be a good conversationalist by the way, and on both counts, I consider myself lucky in that I have access to Dave… but even when Dave is not around, I always enjoy finding a great bartender to serve me my drinks.

 

A lot of high-end restaurants long ago discovered this basic truism and started recruiting bartenders… sorry, mixologists… from top shelf bars to bring a personal touch and hand-made elegance to their cocktail selections. I can sit down for dinner at a place like CommeÇa in Los Angeles, tell the waiter nothing more than I’d like something with rum in it, and be absolutely certain that whatever he brings me from the bar will be delicious. (check out their website which advertises individually-crafted drinks featuring “hand-shaped” ice and small-batch artisinal liquors which “reflect that speakeasy spirit”). It may not be New Orleans, but it’s pretty damned special.

But they don’t always make it quite so easy for you. So sometimes it’s worth asking a few questions when you sit down at a new bar. I’m not suggesting you flip on a 500 watt bulb, shine it in the guy’s face, and demand to see his papers, but a couple subtle well-placed questions might give you an idea of what you’re dealing with before you order a drink that comes back mediocre.

I’ll give you an example. On Saturday I sat down at a mostly empty San Diego bar with two bartenders on duty. The first bartender was an older gentleman and seemed chatty so I pressed him with a couple of questions. After a short conversation about the virtues of Whiskey Sours made with freshly squeezed lemon juice and homemade simple syrup, I pressed on to the higher degree of difficulty stuff. Did he know how to make a Sazerac? Before he could answer, a guy down the bar said “what’s a Sazerac?” Forgetting that I was in the middle of a very tense interrogation, I replied “Cognac, Whiskey, and Peychaud’s bitters.” And then our bartender interrupted me… “yeah but to do it right, you have to rinse the glass with Pernod first.”

Test: Passed

About an hour later, our bartender stepped away for a break and the younger of the two bartenders came over to look after us. He made my friend a Bloody Mary with a couple of dashes from a nondescript dark bottle with a yellow cap. I asked him “is that Angostura bitters you’re using?” and he replied “I didn’t know anybody else made bitters.”

After a very pregnant pause, he asked if he could get me anything. I ordered a Dos Equis from the tap.

Part Two – David

Here’s Lars’ problem; it’s something I call Red Pill Syndrome. Once you get it, it’s all but impossible to cure. If you’re old enough to drink, you’ll remember the scene. Morpheus extends his hands to Neo — in one hand is a blue pill, in the other a red one. If Neo chooses the blue pill, he’ll go back to the life he’s always known. Should he take the red one, he’ll awaken in a whole new world.

Red Pill Syndrome involves one simple commitment: that you care. Begin to care — really care — about something and your perspective changes. It doesn’t matter what the something is — sports, boats, macrame, or in our case, cocktails. Once it becomes important to you, you’ve taken the red pill.

I have to admit, sometimes I really wish that I didn’t care. It would wonderful to go out to TGI Friday’s with friends and knock back a few specials from the house cocktail list. The problem is… I just can’t. I know better. I know that the well liquor is cheap, that the bartender doesn’t drink the drinks, and that whole effect isn’t about taste. It’s about mixes, the drinks gun, and getting plastered. And, the biggest problem is: on a certain level, that’s the way it should be.

Americans relate to alcohol on a singular level: to get drunk. Cultural anthropologist and marketeer Clotaire Rapaille draws this conclusion in his brilliant exploration of human psyche The Culture Code. For other nationalities, Rapaille recounts, alcohol is more an integral part of life. It can be enjoyed without the constant pursuit of oblivion. Here, the bigger, the stronger, the better. I once knew a guy who said, “If there’s a jigger on the bar, I’m having a beer.” In the US, we’re afraid that craftsmanship will get in the way of our buzz. And I’m fine with that — for people who take the blue pill.

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is dangerous. Start learning the difference between Old Tom and London Dry gins — and when to use each — and you start down a slippery slope. Once you take the red pill, there’s no going back. It can be a major commitment — an obsession even. One day, you might just find yourself leaving a bar in the middle of a company party to go out and buy a bottle of Angostura Bitters because the bar doesn’t have any. Which, admittedly, I have done. A bar without bitters isn’t worth the space it occupies — that’s just the way it is.

Is it wrong to care this much? Let me answer that question with another: Do you care about food? How it tastes, how it’s prepared, or how much it costs? Is a $10 burger really better than a $1 burger? Even if you don’t think so, you can probably appreciate and identify the differences. So, why not apply the same logic to what you drink? Knowing and appreciating the differences in a good drink and a bad drink is even more important because there isn’t a 10:1 price difference. Odds are, you’re paying just as much for the bad drink as you are for the really good one.

Ultimately, it’s a choice. The red pill or the blue. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. A bliss of Lemon Drops, MGD, and sour mix. Lars and I, we opted for the red pills and washed them down with Sazeracs. There may be no going back, but I have to admit, it’s tasty in the new world.

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