From Behind the Bar: On Naming 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 stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photograph: Alice Gao]

What I'm Drinking: Newcastle Brown Ale (Bottle) William Larue Weller Bourbon

When I was young, I worked in a drug store in the mall, which wasn't nearly as hellish as it sounds to me now. Malls were fantastic back in the days before the internet; every one of the stores had both a bunch of products we couldn't afford to buy, and there were also pretty girls who we could moon at through the windows. I found my first "serious" girlfriend at the mall at the ripe old age of fifteen (if you must know, she worked in the Hello Kitty store).

I loved my job, but as good as I thought I had it, I always knew my friend Bill had it better. Attached to the mall was a restaurant in which he worked as a busboy. While I spent my time pushing a broom, straightening shelves, and keeping everything stocked, Billy was hanging out with adults who were hanging out eating, drinking, and generally being merry. I usually finished work first and I was the only one with a car, so would often wait for him next to the hostess station, which was situated between the restaurant and the bar.

This spot, near a door I was not allowed to enter, was a window into another dimension—I could see that everyone was having a good time but I had no context from my own life to help me relate to it. Beer was poured. Cocktails were made. Men posed for women. Girls flirted with boys. The world turned in a different way on that side of the door, and I wanted to figure out what it was all about.

One of the things that I remember most clearly was a chalkboard that listed the popular cocktails of the day. Keep in mind that this was in the mid-eighties (a time period we now refer to as the Dark Days of the Cocktail), when nothing contained fresh juice, and all of the bartenders took their cue from Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail. The names were as lurid as the drinks were saccharine. What on earth, I thought, was a Hop Skip and Go Naked? Sex on the Beach? Fuzzy Navel? My adolescent mind was fascinated by the idea of a Sloe Comfortable Screw, let alone one that comes Against the Wall.

What I know now is that the names of those cocktails reflected what people wanted from a bar at the time. I watched that bar for hours, and even then knew that the people I watched didn't much care what they were drinking—the drinks simply helped to facilitate their good time. Back then, I had no idea what those cocktails tasted like, but their names pretty much told me everything I needed to know.

I think about that chalkboard often because it taught me a lesson that I didn't need until many years later. The name of a cocktail reflects the intention of the person who makes it, the establishment that commissions it, and sometimes, the person who is meant to drink it. Before people look at a cocktail's ingredients on a menu, they look at its name, and first impressions are lasting impressions.

If a drink's name is whimsical, people will think of it in a whimsical manner. The same goes if it is serious, or racy, or classic, or ironic. Often, I will spend more time on the name of a drink than on the recipe itself. You know you have a good cocktail after you taste it, but you never know if you have a good name until it's been around for a little while.

I start the naming process by associating a cocktail's ingredients with different words, and keep going from there. Sometime it goes quickly, and a drink names itself. I was naming someone else's rum drink, which made me think about pirates, which made me think about Johnny Depp, and thus the Tortuga was born.

More often, I struggle, trying out different names until one of them sticks. Either way, ask yourself this question: If the Sloe Comfortable Screw Against the Wall (sloe gin, Southern Comfort, Galliano, and orange juice) were the most delicious drink in the world, would you order it out loud, or try to whisper it in the bartender's ear?