My adulthood has been primarily slick and citified, but a couple of years ago I found myself living in a semirural academic town, and though there were a handful of very good bars and restaurants scattered around the county, my not-yet-wife and I found ourselves contentedly sequestered at chain restaurants more often than your average food blogger would care to admit. Oh, there were nachos that year, along with all manner of popper, dipper, and stuffer.
I'll happily eat that kind of stuff when the time is right, and the time was right so often that dark winter that come the thaw I had a pretty good working knowledge of the difference between kickin', screamin', and zesty vis a vis boneless buffalo wings. But even after all that research, I was still never certain how to approach the cocktail menus. Actually, that's not true. I decided early on that I would simply refuse to approach the cocktail menus, instead settling on a standard order of "Whichever yellow domestic draft's tap is in the shape of a baseball bat," punctuated by a preemptive "YES PLEASE!" in case the server asked, "Would you like the special 99-ounce Big Slugger size?" I never once messed with the mixed drinks, dismissing them sight-unseen as oversized, oversweetened, over-Cuervo'd abominations.
Either I was being a big, dumb snob or the chain restaurant cocktail game has improved dramatically in the past couple of years, because these days you can get a perfectly good mixed drink at some of the aggressively decorated quesadilleries that we all love to mock and the honest among us love to (very occasionally) gorge ourselves at.
If one assumes, as I do, that this fast casual cocktail competence is a recent phenomenon, then one major factor would be the increase in marketing alliances forged between the chains and premium liquor brands. I'm not saying that Patron, for instance, is the best tequila you can get for its price, but I still take comfort in knowing that my wing-and-burger chain bartender is pouring it rather than whatever else might be lurking back there.
My wife works near Boston's sole T.G.I. Friday's, so we stopped in last week to investigate their two newest drinks, the Bee Sting and the Grey Goose Cooler. The Sting features Maker's Mark, which is not my favorite $30 bourbon but which I respect as plenty good enough for my midday T.G.I.F. cocktailing needs; I don't have a favorite pricey vodka, but I see no reason why it can't be Grey Goose, since the bottle's nice and it's endorsed by some of our more discerning rappers. The name-dropping part of both cocktails passes muster; let's drink.
The Bee Sting ($7.89) is a relatively simple affair consisting of Maker's Mark, clover honey, and lemon juice in a large rocks glass. It's a good, clean, lemon-heavy drink that would benefit from either a more assertive whiskey, a stronger pour, or a smaller glass. It's not weak in the "huge corporation ripping you off" way—I trust that I got my full measure of bourbon—rather, the problem likely stems from the volume expectations a chain restaurant faces. I suspect many T.G.I. Friday's patrons would be turned off by a smaller cocktail, and since the bartender can't fill the glass with liquor, and honey doesn't take up much space, you end up with more lemon juice than you need. Maybe crushed ice would hog enough of the glass to help solve the portion problem? At any rate, the Bee Sting is a qualified success. Maker's Mark is on the sweet side, so my instinct would be to avoid dosing it with honey, but the extra sugar was actually an effective counterbalance to the citrus onslaught.
I was surprised to find myself preferring the Grey Goose Cooler ($9.29), which is vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, house-made sour mix, sweet peach puree, basil, and lime juice. That sounds like at least one too many ingredients, doesn't it? And probably two? Lucky for my drink, I guess, that the basil was neither "fresh torn" (as advertised) nor muddled, so it served as a pleasant if seasonally suspicious garnish that imparted no discernible flavor.
Vodka makes a good base for such a hodgepodge, because it allows the million other flavors to shine, and the ever-popular St. Germain was the star of this show. This is good news, because even if you're tired of seeing it on cocktail menus, you have to admit that you like St. Germain, right? The peach puree added another tone of refreshing sweetness, and there was enough lime juice to keep things honest. The Grey Goose Cooler was a bit syrupy—replacing half the sweetened sour mix with soda water would improve things—but I'll get another one if I land back at T.G.I. Friday's this winter, and two other ones if I return in the summer.