From Behind the Bar: On The New Year

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.


[Photograph: Alice Gao]

What I'm Drinking: Green Flash West Coast IPA (bottled)

It's 2012, and bartenders the world over are heaving sighs of relief after successfully surviving the mother of all nights out. I have been a bartender too long to hold much sentimentality for the Champagne, horns, and streamers that comprise New Year's Eve, but it is a party, and someone has to throw it, so I spent this year the same way I've spent most others: slinging drinks and counting down to midnight.

New Year's Eve is a night that is always loaded with expectation, and every year we bartenders scramble to deliver the goods. When midnight ticks and the Champagne has all been served, when you've kissed your sweetheart and wished everyone the best of the New Year, when you've all gone home to hang up your formalwear and nurse your hangovers, we get to lock the doors and enjoy a moment of peace after a night of chaos.

This is my favorite time of the night, the space between night and day, where it's not clear where one ends and the other begins. On New Year's, this space holds even more weight. The moment separating days becomes the moment separating years, and the feeling of being in two places at once is multiplied by an order of magnitude. This year, I was lucky enough to spend that time sitting alone after everyone else had gone. I poured myself a beer and a nice dram of whiskey, and used the time to think about this year just past, and the year looming in front of me.

My conclusion? 2012 is going to be a very interesting year. Here's why:

Thanks to the dedication of a determined group of people, the art of the cocktail has been elevated from a footnote to a major cultural phenomenon. Classic cocktails have been rediscovered, and new ones are being created every day, largely because a few enthusiasts and students of history kept the candle burning while the rest of us spent our time drinking Sex on the Beaches. While we owe this group a lot, cocktails are definitively not on the fringe anymore.

As with any creative endeavor, it takes a few years of incubation before the rest of the world catches on, but 2011 was the year when the cocktail crossed the boundary between movement and mainstream. Where we used to have a few specialized trade rags, now we have a section in Saveur. Good Morning America, Rachel Maddow, and Martha Stewart regularly feature cocktails on air. Countless print and online publications dedicate time and energy to evaluate spirits, cocktails, and those who make them (not the least of which is Serious Eats: Drinks which allows me to show up here every week, drink in hand.)

Up until last year, it was sufficient to serve fancy cocktails. You say you're going to have a gin-only speakeasy hidden in the basement of your father's garage? Sounds great, as long as you make your own bitters. But a funny thing happened in 2011: consumers became educated enough that they weren't impressed by a thirty-drink cocktail menu. The drinks need to be good, but the bar also needs to stand out somehow from the crowd. Cocktail bars can sputter and fail if they seem like a watered-down copy of things the public has seen many times before.

That is what interests me about the coming year. People across the country have started taking quality cocktails as a given. These days, you can get a well-made Sazerac not only in New Orleans, but also in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, DC, LA, Portland, Minneapolis, and hundreds of other cities where someone has picked up the cocktail ember and blown it into a flame wherever it is that they call home.

As the focus of the consumer changes, so must ours as barowners and bartenders. In the last few years, we as an industry have fooled ourselves in to thinking that the length of our bar-spoons matters. We can have all of the fancy tools that we want, but it's going to take more to impress people than Japanese Hawthorne Strainers.

I hope that the lessons of 2011 are not lost as we move to 2012.