From Behind the Bar: On Bellwether Cocktails

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at 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.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

I once knew a sommelier who used the language of rock and roll to describe wine. When the lyrics of Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" were used to evoke an Oregon Pinot Noir, or a California Zinfandel was described in terms of Jack White's bass riff in "Seven Nation Army," it opened up a part of my brain that was difficult to close.

Culture is culture, and music is certainly informed by spirits, so why not equate music and wine? I now prefer the language of music to that of wine. While I might not taste "leather," a "dark, driving beat" has meaning for me. It was a small step to apply the same language to cocktails. While I seldom use these terms while serving, musical descriptors play a big part in how I visualize drinks while shaking or stirring them.

For example, every time I make an Old Fashioned, a particular verse from Tom Waits' "A Jockey Full of Bourbon" runs through my head:

Dirty fingers on a purple knife Flamingo drinking from a cocktail glass I'm on the lawn with someone else's wife Admire the view from up on top of the mast

What does this have to do with an Old Fashioned? Nothing, directly, but the spirit of the song, and those lyrics in particular, embody the soul of the cocktail for me. They are a little dark, a little dangerous, but straightforward and to the point. The words are simple, visceral and beautiful—like the cocktail itself.

Needless to say, the Old Fashioned is close to my heart; the simplicity of the recipe belies the difficulty of making it correctly. It falls in to a category I've taken to calling "bellwether cocktails": cocktails that highlight the strengths and flaws of the bartenders making them. In short, if you can't nail something as basic as an Old Fashioned, I have no interest in exploring the fancy drinks on your menu.

My friend Kenneth, who has worked in bars almost as long as he's been able to walk, uses the Manhattan. My friend Damon, the Whiskey Sour. The same standards apply in each case—these simple drinks don't try to mask flaws under a heavy load of ingredients. The balance is key.

Since I work in bars, I am professionally obligated to go to a lot of them. I will always read a cocktail menu in its entirety, but will always order my bellwether drink before trying anything else.

When I order someone else's cocktail, am I looking for the mirror image of the drink in my head? Maybe not, but it should certainly be in range. That said, I didn't invent the drink, and quite enjoy tasting other people's take on how to make it.

Back to that Old Fashioned. There are few cocktails with as many "valid" recipes: bourbon or rye, Angostura bitters and sugar. A muddled cherry and orange wedge can be nice additions. An orange and lemon twist for the purists. You can add a dash of Regan's Orange Bitters if you must.

When I'm behind the stick, I make cocktails the way I would like to drink them. With all respect to David Wondrich, I prefer fruit in my Old Fashioned. A lightly bruised brandied cherry and orange wedge go a long way towards making this drink enjoyable for me, though please don't muddle them to the point where they are obliterated. If dyed-red maraschino cherries are my only option, I'll forgo the fruit altogether. In dire circumstances, I've been known to serve a bourbon on the rocks with a dash of Angostura and barspoon of sugar, and call it done.

The point is, it is my job to think about these things. When a bartender makes an Old Fashioned, he's planting a flag in the ground, and one can read quite a bit into his philosophy of making cocktails by what he prefers. It also points out pretty clearly if he doesn't have one.

My Old Fashioned certainly says a lot about me. I've made thousands, and consumed them in bars all across the country. Each has been different, some delicious, and some undrinkable. When confronted with the latter, I hit the door, humming "A Jockey Full of Bourbon" and thinking, "There's got to be some joint around here that makes a decent Old Fashioned." As with any bellwether, it's been pretty effective in showing me which way to go.

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