This could be any high-end cocktail bar, in any city. It doesn’t matter.
My cheeks have barely touched the plush padded barstool when a small perspiring glass slides gracefully towards me over the polished mahogany, the dapper bartender holding my gaze intently, daintily replacing the crystal jug back in its seat; a continuous movement comfortably more repeated than any other.
“Mmm… cucumber water. I invented that.”
There is a running joke (of sorts) bartenders love to tell featuring Dale DeGroff: King Cocktail himself. You listen to him charmingly regale you with wonderful stories about how he and his mentor Joe Baum were the first to do this thing, were involved in that thing. You listen to him explain that he absolutely, unequivocally did not create the Cosmopolitan: how he was wrongly credited with its creation by the New York Times, but how he was the first to flame an orange zest over one. How all the heads in the Rainbow Room turned: sight, sound, smell… genius service theatre. The personification of a perfect gentlemen, host with the most and a masterful storyteller; leaving these sessions in wide-eyed wonder, we trade DeGroff impressions, regaling each other with stories of how one time, in 1975, Joe Baum happened to have an extra part of hydrogen, and Dale mixed it with one of his parts of oxygen and that’s how water was created.
Fast approaching my second decade in the bar industry and having created several hundred cocktails, I get asked what the most popular drink I’ve ever created is. That’s when I tell my cucumber water story.
I’d been asked to be part of the opening team of a new member’s bar owned by the same group as the one I’d just spent a considerable time working in. This one had windows, a ‘salad table’ that nobody knew what to call as we were banned from using the word ‘buffet’, and a generally brighter and fresher demeanour. We had these vintage punch bowls that we gave lady-names to and proved a smash hit with our patrons and a physical smash hit with our floor staff. Several irreplaceable bowls down the line we realised we were in need of a regular supplier of such things. These being the pre-punch-revival popularity days, my supplier on Broadway Market proved to be a temporary goldmine, however being the savvy lady about town she was, it didn’t take long for the prices of her vintage-ware to be doubled.
As I was explaining our plight to the bar team in our basement nightclub, one particularly resourceful bartender mysteriously mentioned he might have a contact. The following week, we had some beautiful bowls courtesy of a ‘Minnie Mouse’ (that invoices were made out to, as the bartender was reluctant to disclose an identity). Not only that, but he had managed to pick up a stunning handmade Bohemian glass water jug, with a pretty swishy-swirly pattern painted on it. For fifteen quid? That’ll do nicely.
To mark the occasion of our new water jug, I suggested we come up with a signature water. Yawning at suggestions of citrus, and sceptical at the practically of a herb, I reached for the cucumber. Hendrick’s had just started its global domination and cucumbers were already an essential part of our mise en place, replacing the celery in our Bloody Marys. Subconsciously, I think I was also influenced by Soho’s Flat White, which I used to frequent for my caffeine fixes: I recall balking at the price they were charging for a plastic cup of water with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint in it.
In any case, I insisted on not slices but – using our trusty Y-shape peeler – ribbons, which when mixed and interspersed artfully with plentiful ice cubes complemented the swirls painted on the jug and just looked ever so pretty. This took pride of place on the bar, to be brought immediately to new arrivals and topped up constantly as we had been accustomed to doing with plain water.
I quietly enjoyed watching guest’s faces from across the room as they settled back and perused the menu, taking their first thirsty sip of the water. Often they would pause, look at the glass carefully, trying to identify the familiar flavour. Some would even enquire what the flavour was, and smile when the jug of ribbons was next brought to the table for a top up.
Return visits would tease out a relaxed smile upon that first sip and occasionally, proud of their membership to a club that went a little bit further, they would patiently explain to their guests what they were tasting, gesturing across the room to the chilled jug on my bar top. It became a calling card, a signature; the first thing that members would put in their mouth upon arrival, and most likely the last.
All was well, for a while. A few weeks down the line a discrepancy was noticed: sales of our bottled mineral water had become virtually non-existent. We were told to stop already with the cucumber water, effective immediately. Sadly we obliged: awkwardly we explained to our guests that we could no longer serve them their ‘special water’. That would’ve been the end of the story, however the cucumber water disciples were stronger willed than anticipated; their love for the gourd was already entrenched.
Angry emails were penned, and much to my surprise a short few days later I walked into my station not only to see the ribbons once again swimming in the jug, but incredibly featured on the menu: “Cucumber water = £0”. Business as usual, with only a momentary hiccup: we were known for a great wine selection, and discovered that – peculiarly – drinking cucumber water with Cabernet Sauvignon makes the wine bitter. Again we looked at alternatives, but again it was futile, and we simply took to recommending against the water when one ordered a Cab Sav, in the same way that one might recommend against ordering a Cab Sav if eating sticky toffee pudding.
The other bars in the group were soon adding cucumber to their waters: bars that were winning awards and gaining global recognition. Several years later I walked into the VIP area at a festival where the (now defunct) member’s bar had appeared as a pop up, serving the boggle-eyed dehydrated celebrities, musicians and industry players. In the middle of the area was a ten foot tall vat of cucumber water with a tap and a clutch of glasses. I told my story to the bar manager, who cursed me repeatedly: if I was proud of my accomplishment perhaps I’d like to help his smallest bar-back climb into the vat every single night in an attempt to scrub bits of cucumber from it’s walls, in the dark.
Of course, when I murmur to my fancy bartender across the polished mahogany “…I invented that” I get a well-deserved raise of the eyebrow, curl of the lip, or occasionally a flat-out rebuttal: “Man, Perky Watkins was serving me cucumber water-backs to my Martinis in Suchandsuch bar in Red Hook in 2001, GTFOH.”
In the same way that King Cocktail didn’t invent the Cosmopolitan, I of course wasn’t the first to marry cucumber and water (particularly as cucumber is 96% water anyway, which some might credit to a higher power). However I’d like to think that I played a part in perfecting and popularising the serve, particularly as the go-to ‘signature water’ in cocktail bars the world over. I can’t help but smile every time a glass of cool cucumber water edges its way to me across the mahogany, nestled in some bucket seat in some far-flung city, and I think back to that moment I reached for the green fruit*. I enjoy the irony of the fact that, whilst being known as someone who (essentially) creates cocktails for a living, and having drinks on menus around the world that sell in their thousands, I doubt any of them comes close to the volume of what is (essentially) a glass of water.
As I grow older and more forgetful, with less disposable grey matter to cling onto dates and names, it becomes less about who invented what and when, and more about the story that is told, the way it is told, and the joy of being part of a narrative.
Cover image credit: lapartieevents
*This was originally written ‘vegetable’, however due to pedantic requests it has been amended to reflect the cucumber’s true nature!