Serious Eats: Drinks

From Behind the Bar: The Magic

Editor's Note: We're excited to introduce you to Michael Neff of New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He'll be stopping by each week to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman, with occasional recipes.

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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm drinking:
Brooklyn Lager (bottled)
Fernet Branca (neat)

I don't believe in magic, and I am not afraid of ghosts. Though I may, while a sheet in the wind's eye, admit to the possibility of their existence, I generally reserve my fears for things more tangible, like sharks. Or Doberman Pinschers.

But there is one exception to my prejudice against magic: the cocktail.

Every bartender has had the following experience: You get a new job, and your first day someone comes in and says, "Where's Jimmy?" Jimmy was probably fired, or quit, or didn't show up for work, but you say something glib like, "I'm the new Jimmy. What can I get you?"

What follows is an endless tirade on how the owner's an idiot, and where the hell am I going to get a good Cosmopolitan, because Jimmy made the best Cosmos ever, and blah blah blah. So you make the guy a Cosmo, and he hates it, swearing that wherever Jimmy works is where he'll spend his money and he walks out the door.

This interaction has nothing to do with the recipe for a Cosmopolitan, but it has everything to do with what is important about crafting cocktails.

A cocktail, by its most basic definition, consists of a spirit, sweet and bitter components, and water. The beauty of drinking cocktails is that they transcend their assembled components. It is not only important how they are assembled, but in what circumstance. Why are you drinking it? Where? Who is making it for you?

As a result, ordering a cocktail is something of an act of faith, the confirmation of which fundamentally changes how you think about what you're drinking. If you lack faith ("Where's Jimmy?"), then you are predisposed to having a bad experience. The new guy at the bar might not be new at all. He might be Toby Cecchini, who is probably the reason we drink Cosmopolitans in the first place. But given identical options, the drinker will follow his faith every time. Your Cosmo is going to suck, whether or not you match Jimmy jigger for jigger. It might even suck if he made the whole thing and you are the one who hands it to the guy.

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I've always thought of cocktails as theatrical performances. Each is made according to a script, but each is fundamentally different from one execution to the next. When actors perform a play, they talk about how a particular audience affects a night's performance. Individual cocktails are no different.

If I make a cocktail that is the best thing you've ever had in your life, it's a one shot deal. I can make it again, and it will still be delicious, but we can never get back the initial moment that only you and I will ever share, which is the first sip.

Once we have this moment and your faith is confirmed, you are mine forever. I have worked in many bars where people point at a co-worker and say, "I want her to make my Manhattan." And that is as it should be.

The unsung ingredient in every great cocktail does not exist in a bottle, but in the hands and hearts of those of us who make them. It's the magic that makes a well-made cocktail more than just a drink.

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