The Cocktail is Dead; Long Live the Cocktail
Consider this a domino post — a ripple, if you will, generated by the articles “Against Mixology” (Threepenny Review) and “Complaint Box: Complicated Cocktails” (New York Times) as replied to by Wayne Curtis at Slow Cocktails and redistributed by Liquor.com. Credit where credit is due, obviously, but it’s clear that there’s a storm a’ brewing among cocktail folk. And, this isn’t the first sign of trouble; no, the weather vanes have been rattling for some time. “What’s the hot button issue?” you ask. I think Curtis sums up the subject matter rather succinctly in the title of his article; “Hey, Bartender! I hate your stupid mustache and your stupid sleeve garters! Plus, your stupid drink has too many ingredients.”
Curtis’ article begins: “Three days in, and this year is already shaping up nicely to be the year of the Great Cocktail Backlash.” Oh, it’s been coming for some time. The same way the spa food backlash came, the molecular gastronomy backlash came, and the 3D backlash came – American tastes seem to be a roller coaster of building up and tearing down – an Ouroboros of Whim, if you will.
At the heart of the issue, I think, are a few key factors: a) Cocktails are everywhere again. The Elephant Bar (a big, cheesy chain restaurant) recently included a Sidecar on their specialty drinks menu, which means that everyone making “classic cocktails” isn’t going to have been trained at Milk & Honey; b) Dressing the part does not make you the part – and the part, in this instance, does not put ego before service; c) The drinks really can be too damned pretentious and complicated. We, at 12 Bottle Bar, are guilty of this on occasion – it’s fun to show off and play. It should, however, not define the craft; and, finally; d) Cocktails cost too much – in many places scraping $20 – which leads patrons to ask the thunderous question: “Is it really worth it?”
As the awareness of artisanal cocktails (classic and modern alike) rises, so does the scrutiny. Is a Gin and Tonic garnished with locally-sourced, heirloom fennel really worth $15? Two-thirds or more of the drink is fizzy water, which, granted, is hand-made in small batches from fair trade cinchona – but even then, the tonic only costs three bucks a bottle. And when we begin to question the drinks, we begin to question the people making them. Are they really master mixologists or just well-coiffed, unemployed actors trying to pull the wool over our eyes? Truth be told, it’s a fair cop. We work hard for our money, especially in this economy, and if the man looking like a snake oil salesman is actually peddling, well, snake oil – we’re going to rebel the only way modern Americans know how: we’re going to bitch about it. To our friends, on the internet. Snark is the new pitchfork, it seems.
Of course, the handlebar ‘stache and the garters and the bitters “based on a comment Kingsley Amis once made in passing to John Osborne – and bottled exclusively for me by the ex-guitarist of the Sugarcubes” no doubt make the self-proclaimed sporting bon vivants easy targets. Personally, I’ve never understood the cult of costume adoration. Even when I served as the U.S. representative for Ace Cafe London – home of Triumph-riding, blue-jeans-and-Schott-jacket-wearing Rockers and Ton-up Boys – I couldn’t bring myself to dress the part. It’s a charade that escapes me. Not that I mind it on others, I just fail to understand how dressing the part alone makes you the part. Maybe I’m wired wrong on this front, but in my mind, the hat didn’t make John Wayne. John Wayne made the hat.
Still, I’m prone to forgive Jerry Thomas Jr. if his drinks are tasty. See, I’ve worked in a professional kitchen, and as much as I despise the costume, I adore the uniform. There’s just no describing the rush you get from putting on your team colors just before the game. And, I’m inclined to believe that the post-modern-faux-retro bartenders might feel the same. It’s not your approval they’re seeking when they go all Beau Brummell, it’s the recognition of their peers. The uniform implies membership in the fraternity. I have a friend who received his fromagier certification and, along with it, the ugliest toque I had ever seen. When I asked him if the job required him to wear the silly hat, he politely explained that he had worked very hard to earn the right to wear that silly hat. Now, I’m not coming to the defense of every snotty bartender behind the stick – nor am I going to start throwing rocks where I have no business, as I’ve never tended bar – but it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of the bartenders at the vast majority of the cool places earned their positions by being better than the next guy. If the skin of their leopard is mutton-chop shaped, who am I to complain? Again, as long as the drinks are tasty.
About those drinks and the fourteen ingredients – yeah, that needs to go away. Maybe not the ingredients but listing them all certainly does. This is a trend that plagued the food world in the late 90s, and there comes a point where your head just spins. If the modern mixologist were to talk to a cognitive scientist (like our friend Jess, over at Dr. Gateau), I’m sure the advice given would include specifics about how many sets and places the human brain can process before it jumps to gross assumptions (picture a yardstick in your mind – easy – now, picture a mile – kinda vague, isn’t it?). If you ask me, Scott Beattie’s spoonbar has a perfect cocktail menu – it excites without going overboard. One thing to remember as a patron, however, is that each of these places is competing for your business. In a world where hundreds of masterful new cocktails are created each day, gross gestures are going to percolate to the surface. It’s okay – they’ll have their day and ultimately be laid waste by the sands of time.
A bigger issue than the facial hair and the baroque menus is the hip factor. Like New Orleans’ tongue-in-cheek “Grand and Secret Order of the Obituary Cocktail”, you can’t be both exclusive and grand at the same time (which is the very point of the Order). Something I learned from my dear friend Mark Wilsmore, owner of Ace Cafe, is that any sub-culture worth its salt needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. Since we’re on the subject, take motorcycling for example. The average age of the American Motorcyclist Association member goes up one year, every year. Kids made motorcycling popular, but they aren’t embracing it today. Which is sad and chiefly a result, I think, of the backlash against the exclusionary weekend Harley warrior and the chopper wannabe bad-ass. They weren’t in it for the bikes, they were in it for the cool. And cool doesn’t last, which is why you can throw a stick and hit a seldom-used custom chopper fire sale.
In our experience, the true cocktail culture has welcomed 12 Bottle Bar in the most magnanimous manner. People such as Gary Regan, Ted Haigh, David Wondrich, Brian Rea, Philip Duff, Adam Elmegirab, and Erik Ellestad have been nothing short of kind on a Wally Cleaver, big brother level. These individuals, along with their contemporaries too numerous to mention, comprise the true modern cocktail movement. And they are brilliant, one and all. And most of them, from the pictures I’ve seen, dress pretty much like normal human beings. But here’s the secret – I suspect that none of the true cocktailians take the whole thing too seriously. Just like the winemaker considers himself, first and foremost, a farmer, these individuals recognize the place of cocktails within the greater scheme of things. Regan loves his Jäger, Wondrich won’t say no if all you’ve got is a beer and a shot, and Elmegirab rants more about the Aberdeen football club than he does bitters. Which is why they are so good at what they do – business is business, it’s not life. The true professionals and artists don’t make the work precious, they just make it perfect. And, for that, I’m happy to fork over my $15.
12 Bottle Bar wouldn’t exist if we didn’t disagree with much of the pomp currently surrounding the world of mixed drinks – we were built upon a reactionary foundation. However, we wouldn’t exist on an even greater level if we didn’t believe in and love the greater culture of the cocktail. Having read the two articles referenced by Slow Cocktails, I see validity in both of them, but I also see something deeper – longing. Both authors simply long for a quality drink without all the pretentious trappings – for a place where ordering a White Russian doesn’t land you at the business end of some latter day Oscar Wilde’s well-polished mockery. They long for the friendship and camaraderie of Cheers. They long for vodka and Jäger to be on hand, should they be required. A respite from the tweets and texts and memes which clutter our every day. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I remember when Lesley and I spent a couple of years hitting all the big restaurants, my mother asked: “When you go to these fancy places, don’t you ever feel out of place?” “If they’re truly good at what they do,” I replied, “they won’t let you.”
In the end, the mustaches will be shorn, the haircuts reconfigured by the prevailing wind, and the too-cool, twenty-something bartenders replaced by a new breed of too-cool, twenty-something bartenders. In the end, we will continue to drink for courage, drink to forget, and drink because we are among friends. In the end, the good drinks will stand the test of time, as the Sour and the Martini have done for more than a century. But in the meantime, it’s up to all of us to forgive some of the trespasses – be they pretentious, precious, and preening (we’ve certainly been guilty on all accounts) — and remember that it’s not the bartender nor the drinks that are ultimately important; it’s simply that we have enjoyed ourselves in the company of those, friends and strangers alike, who have made us feel welcomed. That, at its heart, is the culture of the cocktail; long may its flag wave.