From Behind the Bar: The Emperor and His Wardrobe

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

If we leave behind the drinker, we leave behind the only people who can tell us what works.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm drinking: Chelsea Brewing Co. Checkered Cab Blonde Beer Ron Zacapa

There is a lot about modern art that I just don't get. If you splatter paint on a fire hydrant, or hang a snow-white canvas on a wall and give it a name, I look at it and think, "How is that art?" Educated people have walked me through the process, pointing out the "meta" this and "para" that, but at the end of the day, I think the whole thing is bullshit. Pardon my French.

As much as I am uneducated in the Art of Fine Art, I am very much educated in the Art of Bartending. I make a pretty mean cocktail. People generally like them, sometimes love them, and my creations have been featured in all kinds of fancy magazines, newspapers, and blogs.

I'm not saying this to brag; I'm establishing my credentials. So, as a credentialed mixologist, I feel it is my duty to give voice to a growing movement of people who don't have the opportunity to speak for themselves.

I just have to say it: The Emperor has no clothes.

Much of the current cocktail trend is based on nostalgia, and it is difficult to say it, but many cocktails that we now call "forgotten classics" are forgotten for a reason. They have the shine of history, and we're told we are supposed to love them, but they're too sweet, they lack balance, and they kind of suck.

The Jerry Thomas Manhattan (2-1 Whiskey to Vermouth, Angostura Bitters, with a dash of Cointreau) tastes like syrup. It certainly doesn't taste like whiskey. But it's the earliest written recipe of the Manhattan, and people are told that it's how a Manhattan is supposed to be made. Choke it down if you can, but don't dare say you don't like it. Who the hell are you, anyway?

This is a big problem for all of us. The consumer feels judged (because they are), and walks away feeling smaller than they walked in. The bar might have stood by its principles, but you can't eat principles, and they don't pay your rent. I've known many a bar across the country that opened with a "serious cocktail program," only to abandon it when they realized that their client-base wasn't as committed to classic cocktails as they were. If cocktails are treated as an all-or-nothing proposition, most times it ends up nothing. Nobody wins.

I am lucky enough to have started bartending in a place that was committed to making delicious cocktails. I have carried that commitment through my entire career, which has spanned fine dining restaurants, dive bars, clubs, cocktail dens, and fancy-pants hotels. But an entirely new class of bartender has emerged—bartenders who have only worked in cocktail bars. This creates a feedback-loop that starts and ends with a jigger, and brooks no argument in between: "If you don't like my drink, there's something wrong with you."

The response itself is the problem. If I think the drink sucks, it's treated as a character flaw of mine. In this business, when someone points out the Emperor's nudity, a slew of "experts" emerge, shushing the contrarion and telling them essentially, "You don't get it."

I have the tools to respond to this kind of assault, but the average consumer doesn't, and most often walks away from these interactions feeling shamed and stupid.

I'm here to tell you that you're not stupid. The upside to this upswing in mixology is that we have the privilege to stand on the shoulders of giants and have taken the cocktail to a realm more respected than it has ever been before. We have more ingredients, better spirits, and the combined culinary history of the last hundred years to guide us in our current experiments. It's exciting, and I'm honored to be a part of it. The obsession with recreating cocktails in their original form stifles the creativity of people who want to push drinks to taste better.

At the end of the day, we all have to acknowledge that none of us invented the cocktail. Whatever we create now is a collaboration between those who make spirits, those who make cocktails, and those who imbibe them. If we leave behind the drinker, we leave behind the only people who can tell us what works. None of us make cocktails in a vacuum.

Taste everything that's offered, but don't forget why we're all in the same room in the first place. We are here for you.


[Photo: Nicci Silva]

Want a cocktail that can be tailored to your taste? Here's a simple drink that can be adjusted to suit both those who crave heat, and those who like it a bit more mild. It's dynamite with tequila, but you can also make a smoky version with mezcal, or a more herbal version with gin.

Get the Recipe

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