Serious Eats: Drinks
Should Cocktails Get Simple Again?
As the craft cocktail scene has grown, so too has the urge to create new and unique drinks, ones that show off the bartender's skills. Drinks have become, in many bars, ever more baroque and complex. Everyone, in all walks of life, wants to stand out, to make a name for themselves in their careers. So a bartender's desire to create a unique, multilayered cocktail is understandable.
Some bartenders are experimenting with molecular-gastronomy techniques behind the bar, making spheres of Negroni that burst in your mouth when you bite into them, and foams for topping cocktails. This trend has grown so strong that it was even parodied in an episode of NBC's Parks and Recreation.
Between the ever-more-elaborate cocktail creations and the super-sciency molecular movement, it seems that even an act as simple as ordering a cocktail is becoming a learning exercise, or as they say in education, a teachable moment. But do you really want a lesson plan every time you go out for a drink?
A cocktail that uses lime and grapefruit juices, both squeezed a la minute, plus muddled mint and egg white, shaken long and hard with a mixture of spirits and liqueurs and syrups, then layered with floats and sprays and garnishes, might turn out both beautiful and delicious. But a drink like that will leave the customer thirsting five minutes or more, and some bar patrons are resisting.
Further, a drink like that, when made on a really busy night, can drive even the most efficient bartender straight into the weeds, and once you're in the weeds, it's a hard slog to get back out.
While some cocktail bars focus on ever-more unusual techniques and ingredients, there are bartenders and patrons alike who are beginning to push back. We're beginning to see an opposite trend emerging: simplicity.
Some bars are emphasizing highballs or easy 3-ingredient drinks, some are pouring premixed cocktails from a bottle into your glass, and some even have cocktails and punches on tap. The advantages are clear: these drinks take stress off the bartender, help with the flow of the bar, and keep customers happy.
Wave of the Future?
Now, two questions arise: first, is this trend a sign that the pendulum is swinging away from carefully constructed cocktails? Second, is this how every bar should operate? I don't think so, for several reasons.
A batched cocktail can be just as carefully constructed as one made à la minute. The only difference is that the batched version is made pre-shift, or during lulls in service.
But many patrons enjoy the theater of a well-made drink, and are willing to wait for it. Patrons sitting or dining at the bar generally enjoy having a rapport with the bartender and usually enjoy watching her mix drinks to order. A savvy bartender might rely on a batched drink for the floor, while crafting the same drink a la minute for customers sitting at the bar.
Perhaps, most crucial is the fact that many, if not most, bars in the country are still very simple in terms of technique. A bar that slops tequila and margarita mix into a blender is not a bar where you need to worry that its techniques are too complex. A bartender who makes a Tom Collins by mixing well gin with Sprite from a soda gun is not a bartender who takes five minutes to make an Old Fashioned.* In these bars, it's not time to 'return' to anything. There's a path forward, and it starts with throwing away the margarita mix.
*By the way, lest you think I'm getting snobby here, well I am, in part. But such a Tom Collins was the first drink I ever had with liquor in it, and it was the first drink I ever got drunk on. So I have a soft spot for them. In the right time and place, they're golden.
I think we're at an interesting point in drinks history. Many bars might still have ample room for improvement, in terms of using craft techniques to create the most delicious drinks possible. But at some level, who cares? As much as I'd love to see a simple neighborhood bar that uses fresh juices and bottled tonic water, I don't mind getting a G-n-T made with soda-gun tonic at a dark dive. Not every bar needs craft cocktails.
Other bars will always be known for elaborate techniques and presentation, and drinkers who enjoy that will seek them out.
But I do find it a welcome trend that we're starting to see places that are happy to serve, say, gin and homemade tonic, premixed and served from a tap. Carbonated cocktails served in cans or bottles are both fun for the drinker and easy for the bartender, and they can ease the crush of drink orders so everyone involved has an easier night. The fact that there is a move afoot to simplify the cocktail experience is a good sign: if great service is something the bar values, it's worth thinking about how to find the right balance between craft quality and wait time.
Should cocktails all get simple again? I'd say no. Instead, the key is for customers to know what they want—and what to expect—when they go out. If you want craft technique without the wait, the good news is, now there are bartenders happy to help you with that. But if you're seeking a bartender who'll mix you something you've never had before, you can find somewhere where the craft cocktail movement continues to push the boundaries. And if you simply want someone to pop the top on a cold beer, you probably just need to duck around the corner.
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