Report from Tales of the Cocktail: On Mixology for Everyone

Rangoon Punch at the 'Beefeater 24 Spa'

[Photo: Carey Jones]

I've often thought that the most important outcomes of the modern craft cocktail movement aren't at the frontier. It isn't the 16th amaro on the shelf, or the puffs of smoke and centrifuges, or the ever-more obscure cocktail ingredients stirred into your bourbon drink.

No, it's in the filtering-down of this knowledge to the rest of America's bars. How almost any self-respecting new restaurant these days will put some thought into their cocktails, just as they do their food and wine. How it's no longer surprising to find a well-made drink at a burger bar or pizzeria, even if that drink is a simple Aperol spritz. Order a daiquiri or a margarita somewhere, and you're much more likely than you were a few years back to get a real cocktail, no umbrella in sight.

Tales of the Cocktail can seem like a bit of a contradiction, in that its two huge constituencies—big-deal liquor brands and hard-core cocktail geeks—aren't always a seamless match. It's not uncommon to see hotshot bartenders pouring brands they wouldn't carry behind their own bars, and it's not really a surprise, either; it's no secret who has the money in those relationships. If you see the cutting edge and the commonplace as somehow opposed, it's going to seem unnatural.

But this year, more than last, I noticed discussion of—and enthusiasm for—cocktail culture in all its guises. Seminars on the so-called "Dark Ages" of mixology, the '70s and '80s, because there's nothing inherently wrong with a Harvey Wallbanger. On airport bars, because why shouldn't we drink well pre-flight? On big brands themselves, and whether bartenders can find reasons to embrace them. (Sponsored by several Big Brands, granted, so make of that what you will.)

And perhaps most interesting to me, a seminar that dealt frankly with the numbers of running a bar, and how to maximize profit off a cocktail list. "The cutting-edge mixology bars aren't usually going to rake in that much of a profit," said speaker Ryan Magarian. "With high cost of goods, high cost of labor, and a low seat count, you're really not going to bring in that much money." Instead, he looked at real revenue. How do you create cocktails that sell? That make a customer want to knock back four in two hours, not ponder and sip as a single drink?

Cynics might call these speakers sell-outs, but put differently, they're bringing decent cocktails to far more people than a tucked-away New York bar ever could.

There's a more than slightly self-congratulatory circle in bartending (and, of course, in countless other professions) that has its own notions of purity, who views its craft as a rarefied thing—which, sure. It's those at the cutting edge who push things forward. But 99% of bars out there, even cocktail bars, are still catering to a crowd who don't know their Aveze from their Averna.

And the interests of these different groups aren't mutually exclusive. While some will geek out about ice surface area and angularity, for others there's a much simpler question: How can we get better ice behind our bars? There's a crowd that will school themselves in 19th-century cocktail orthodoxy and painstakingly replicate historic drinks—while others might simply take away a new appreciation of lower-alcohol drinks. Brown-spirit scholars want every detail of a seminar on evolving American whiskey, while others just taste a bit beyond Jack and Jim.

The fact is that most bars are not Death + Co. or The Violet Hour—just as most restaurants are not Per Se or Alinea. And there's room for every corner of the industry to keep upping the cocktail game. I don't exactly frequent Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, for instance. (Nor, truth be told, can I ever remember the name). But if I'm there, you better believe I'd appreciate a Bulleit mint julep, and just the fact that there's Bulleit behind the bar.

Simply put, there is no sharp line between craft cocktails and the rest of the drinking world. And a good deal of what I saw at Tales this year moved away from straight cocktail geekdom—and closer to the reality of bars as a business.