August 2008

Art of the Cocktail

By: Anthony Dias Blue
Sometimes I like to spend my evenings watching bartenders (or mixologists, or bar chefs—whatever they call themselves this week). It is actually a very entertaining and delicious pastime.  Some of these guys (and gals) have all the moves: the lemon peel leap, the garnish gyration, the shaker backhand, the swoop, the wedgie, the crank. It’s a great show.

By paying attention, I’ve learned some things. We are definitely in an era of cocktail creativity. Back in the day, every bartender made the same drinks. You could get a Sidecar, a Manhattan, a Martini at every bar. Today, although the “classics” are available at most places, many customers are drinking cocktails that are made only at the bar they are drinking in.

Customers are handed an elaborately printed cocktail menu that describes, in detail, these creative concoctions. Often, if the bar is in a restaurant, the cocktails are created to echo or enhance the style of the food served there.  In such a situation the term “bar chef” is completely justified.

What is also very nice to see is that the best bartenders like to use the best premium spirits. For many of the drinks on the cocktail menu, a particular branded spirit is specified. This speaks to the fact that the top mixologists are serious enough about what they do to be tasting and thinking about the new spirits that are constantly coming to market.

I have noticed one area that could use improvement, and all it requires is that more attention be paid. A great cocktail is a mixture of several ingredients, the most important element of which is the spirit; it informs the entire drink—it is the heart and soul of the cocktail. This is why so much attention is being paid to picking the exact brand that best expresses the mixologist’s concept.

But just as much diligence needs to be used in picking the other ingredients. I’ve been in bars where Margaritas are made using super-premium tequila blended with a commercial lime and sugar pre-mix. Not acceptable. Every ingredient needs to be fresh and of the highest quality to make a drink that is balanced, complex and firing on all cylinders.

If a bartender is going to take the time to taste every exotic spirit around, then he or she should be just as fastidious with the choice of tonic water, or soda, or lemons, or limes. A great cocktail starts with a concept—no question—but then the concept has to executed properly.  Picking a premium branded spirit is a start, but making sure the lemons are the best in the market, that the tonic water is top quality, that the secondary spirits are also premium branded products; this is what turns a good drink into a great drink. With the $12 to $15 per drink price level at which most bars are operating these days, such attention to detail should not be a hardship or prohibitively costly.

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