One of the hot buzz terms in writing about cocktails these days is “modern classic.” It’s thrown around like pretty much every other worthless term you see when you read about drinks on the Internet. You know, like “master mixologist” or “bespoke cocktails.”
More often than not, the most common ingredient found behind a bar is hubris. I should know; I used to stock more than my share. It’s a funny thing: The older you get, the less of it you typically have. But there’s nothing quite like the misplaced confidence of an inexperienced bartender.
Last week, I had the good fortune and extreme pleasure of visiting Kentucky for the first time in my life. The trip was long overdue, as I’ve been running a bar with a fairly aggressive bourbon selection for the past six years now and had never been offered a trip to visit the distilleries I’d been supporting for a very long time.
Judging by the quickly changing skies outside my window in Portland, Oregon — where I see moments of brilliant sunshine followed by a short, warm downpour of rain — it must be spring. And as the saying goes, in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of spring cocktails. Or something like that. Anyway, springtime always makes this youngish man’s fancy turn to thoughts of the Pimm’s cup.
I’ll just preface this piece by saying that I’m not a cocktail historian. Really. And it’s not that I don’t care about a cocktail’s history, it’s just that I’m not really very good at doing research or checking facts to unearth the precise origins of a particular drink. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s an important facet of our industry, but I have other strengths that I choose to focus on.
Last week, my good friend and mentor David Wondrich posted this article about something that resonated with a good many of my peers in the bar world: the recent trend of some bartenders, myself amongst their number, reviving what Mr. Wondrich would have you believe are “crappy” drinks. Long Island iced teas. Kamikazes. Mudslides. Dave states that we’ve been “reaching back into the Dark Ages” in hopes of making modernized versions of the drinks “that this whole craft-cocktail thing was created to avoid.”
As a bar manager, one of the great challenges I face is coming up with new cocktails. And for me personally, it’s nearly impossible to try to reinvent the wheel a dozen times a year. A little secret trick that many of us use is the remodeling of versatile classics. One of my best-selling drinks ever is simply a whiskey sour touched up with a splash of creme de cassis.
A little knowledge is, as they say, a dangerous thing. And if there’s one thing I had lots of when I first stepped behind the bar, it was very little knowledge. There’s this funny thing that happens when many of us start tending bar: Almost immediately, we begin to see ourselves as experts. I’ve actually met bartenders who have been behind the stick for less than a month and already see themselves as authorities on all things bar-related. And as I listen to them condescending to my incredible staff of seasoned professionals, I can’t help but remember that I was once that young bartender.
If there’s one ingredient that goes great in cocktails, it’s ginger. Let’s face it, it’s something of a bartender’s Band-Aid when it comes to fixing up a drink, and I’ll be damned if it’s not delicious. At one of the bars I manage, Clyde Common, we have no less than two drinks containing some form of ginger on the cocktail menu, pretty much at all times. Our hot toddy would be flat without it, and our Dark and Stormy shines with bright, spicy, freshly pressed ginger. And I owe it all to a simple trick I learned many years ago.
Known the world over for their prowess in winemaking, the French have been masters at making spirits and liqueurs for centuries. Some of classic mixology’s greatest cocktails wouldn’t even exist without the plethora of French spirits and liqueurs that were available to bartenders in the 19th century. Here, I present a short crash-course in a few of those French spirits:
Tony Conigliaro’s resume reads more like a history of drinking in London over the past 20 years than a list of jobs: The Lonsdale. Hakkasan. Roka and Shochu Lounge. Zuma. Designer of the cocktail menu at the Fat Duck. He has inspired a new generation of bartenders, gotten people to think about drinks in new ways by breaking down aromas on a molecular level and using technology to open up new avenues of texture in cocktails.
I recently had the honor of being invited to travel to Berlin and speak at the BCB — Bar Convent Berlin — possibly Europe’s most important bar show. Nearly 10,000 visitors from all over the world come to taste incredible new products, learn about the very bleeding edge of mixology and meet one another.
Joseph Priestly was a Unitarian minister with a bit of a problem: he could barely speak without a stutter. As a minister’s primary function is to speak to the masses, he was forced to do what any good English gentleman at the time would have done: marry rich, and use one’s time conducting science experiments. Priestly’s curious appetite led him to the neighboring brewery, where he spent his days generally sniffing around in search of interesting gasses. One of those gasses he discovered blanketing the tops of the fermentation tanks.
Lately one of the most popular drinks ordered in my bars — and in many modern cocktail bars around the world — is a drink about as far from modern as you can possibly get. The most requested drink these days is the Old Fashioned, and it’s the oldest cocktail in the book.