This piece was written by Julian for Imbibe.com, featuring Opinion section.
‘You’re a bartender?’
‘What you having?’
‘Not sure… What do you recommend?’
… Wait for it…
There it is. The bartender’s handshake. I’m not talking about a shot of Fernet, nor tequila, I’m not taking about an actual beautifully intricate secret handshake that’s taken years to perfect, nor a sexy wink. I’m talking about the cocktails that supposedly we – as bar brood, moon-worshipping vampires and henchmen of Bacchus – are all expected to love and respect.
The kind of cocktail that a bartender with little perception of a daywalker’s tastes would attempt to serve to a guest who is clearly not interested in the complete history of bartending. The kind of cocktail you’d only consider a classic if a considerable amount of time doing ‘drinks research’ is spent blowing dust off crumbly yellow pages in rooms that smell of old leather… although perhaps nowadays more likely a few clicks of the mouse in a room that smells of hot plastic. Because now, a large amount of these forgotten cocktails have not only been remembered, but have been resuscitated, exalted, and now are part of many bartenders’ cocktail canon. Grace a cocktail bar that prides itself on knowing things, and you are probably but a few brisk movements away from being made a concoction that hasn’t seen the flicker of candlelight for the past century.
Which is kind of cool. It’s great we know this stuff. But the concern is that many of these drinks are simply not all that good.
‘Mmmm, I loooove a Thunderclap. You obviously know your stuff.’
As I’m sure many of us are aware, from the 1990s and throughout the 2000s bartending has seen an unprecedented revival. Bartenders rediscovered the joys of fresh juice, put their lab-coats on, flipped incessantly through cook books and got crazy creative. They also hit the history books, and for a while it seemed like bars were competing to serve the most ancient drink they could uncover. I’m still surprised no one quite got around to opening a fully fledged woodland wassail bar.
Learning about our past is undeniably of great value, and I would weep absinthe tears in retrospect and of regret if I never had the opportunity to taste many of these uncovered gems, a fair few of them becoming my own steadfast go-tos over the years. The time back in 2006, I tried my first flip and promptly drank six in a row, then went on to win my first attempt at a cocktail competition with one – where only one other person in the room knew what it was. Darling Sherry Cobbler, I still wait for your time to properly come. Boulevardier, congratulations, you’ve made it. Now I know exactly what to drink when I can’t remember whether I’ve just had dinner or I’m about to.
However, learning from our past also means learning from our mistakes, and there seem to be a lot of drinks rolling around mixological minds that are at best ‘meh’, at worst quite obviously a mistake. Many of these seem to have fallen in there by simple merit of being old or being in the right book. Naturally, one can argue that any of these can be twisted, re-proportioned and re-specced to make a passable (or with any luck a delicious) drink – but why bother when more often than not they have counterparts which are quite often simpler to make and simply delicious? This is without even entering the minefield of semantics involved when it comes to considering what exactly is a classic cocktail: how is it defined, and when does a classic no longer become a classic? Another time maybe…
I love the idea of a Pegu Club. I remember wandering the streets of ‘old Rangoon’, using a mixture of intuition, deduction and information I’d gathered trying unsuccessfully to figure out where the building was. I think this style of drink, and slice of liquid history from a much overlooked part of the world, was due some attention, but full on solid-state ‘classic you must know about’?
Nah. In my humble opinion it’s not that great. Using a variety of specs it is a ball ache to balance, using the classic spec it is rather astringent and just not very pleasant. Lose the curaçao and bitters, use sugar instead, and you’ve got yourself a delicious drink, whether you call it a ‘fresh Gimlet’, a ‘Gin Sour’ or whatever. It is delicious, and a great vehicle to experiment with different gin bases from the sea of new-wave gin we find ourselves swimming in. Importantly, it begs to be tinkered with, acting as a great introduction to gin and diving board to cater for your fruit-loving guests’ tastes.
I’d take a well-made ‘Strawberry Gimlet’ above an Aviation any day too. A wallop of citrus tempered by a dry liqueur? No thanks. If I want to reach into the twisted gin sour hat and pull out something really tasty I would stop talking about the difference between a Blue Moon and an Aviation and just order a London Calling instead: an example of a great bartender’s call with the markings of a vintage classic but created this side of the Millennia.
Most classics with dry vermouth… I never disagree with David Wondrich as a rule, but I beg to differ when he leans in favour of the Bamboo being a more refined Adonis. In his own words the Adonis is ‘plush’, but who doesn’t want plush? Ditto a dry Manhattan. I believe the popularity of ‘dry’ drinks is less to do with the taste, and more to do with the association of sweet things being for small children and cartoon characters. The way it sounds asking for something to be served ‘wet’ can hold negative connotations, such as a wet day. I put it to you that all liquid is wet, and if you want something really dry, there are a number of sandpits I can recommend.
Continuing my anti dry vermouth tirade, I would risk a lashing from the acid tongues of The Vicious Circle to tell them all personally that their Algonquin is a mess of a drink no amount of sweet pineapple, nor high-end vermouth has much hope of improving. The same goes for the Bronx – I’d rather kick back with Snoop Dogg sipping on a straightforward gin and juice than go through the effort of travelling back to the early 20thCentury to quaff Bronxes at the Waldorf Astoria.
Talking of iconic hotel cocktails, I admire and pity Erik Ellestad in equal measures for ‘stomping’ through every single cocktail in The Savoy Cocktail Book. I had a few beverages at The Savoy last night, and it remains one of the greatest bars in the world. My copy of the book has become worn from sifting absentmindedly through the cocktails, with almost every gem uncovered counteracted by an amusing glimpse of how, back then, Craddock and crew were as masterful salesmen as they were drinks creators. Alongside beauties such as the White Lady sit the Pink Baby (gin, grenadine, lemon syrup and egg white) and the White Cargo (gin shaken with ice cream, with the option to loosen up the nefarious mixture with white wine). Just because it’s in The Savoy Cocktail Book doesn’t make it right.
Just because Jerry Thomas claimed it, it doesn’t make it a tasty beverage. When we talk about the Blue Blazer we talk about the theatre, but really that’s all it is. My mum can make a tastier toddy than Thomas’ signature drink, because lets face it: whisky, hot water and a bit of sugar isn’t really all that. If I want theatre and pyrotechnics you will more likely find me propping up my favourite tiki bar than you will dusting off my waistcoat, combing my moustache and warming up my mugs.
So how did they get away with it back then? Was Joe Public’s palate really that blunted? I’m inclined to think that they really didn’t have much choice. It was a novelty and honour to be served something with ice, let alone something that had a bit of fruit in it. Finely balanced drinks didn’t necessarily seem to top the list of requirements to make a popular drink, and when it came to the popularisation of mixed drinks I think the general public was generally less fussy and informed than they are now. They had much less of a frame of reference: if your bartender served you something and said it was good; if everybody in your watering hole and in the papers told you it was good; if it was the height of fashion and luxury, you were less inclined to disagree.
That’s not to say there weren’t strongly opinionated imbibers (plenty of those ended up writing many of today’s ‘bar bibles’, with opinions that still divide the bar world today), but I would imagine tasting something with freshly squeezed juice, a house-made syrup or an exotic liqueur in it was enough to stop you in your tracks and think about how lucky you were, as opposed to getting on Twitter twenty minutes later to bitch about how some bartender had fucked up your sour.
Of course all of those historical drinks and personalities form the very fabric of our stories and the foundations of our education. Naturally the very nature of a classic is that it is adapted and refined through time and learning, that we apply our gained knowledge to making the drinks of our forefathers better suited to the palates of today – just as it is an important part of bar culture in general to twist and adapt relentlessly.
So I implore our new generations of bartenders to avoid some of our mistakes and hang ups in sticking religiously to outdated recipes. Before you dip your cocktail menu quill in the ink well of history, ask yourself, does this forgotten cocktail really need to be remembered? Isn’t there an opportunity with the current abundance of creativity and talent to make a more current concoction into a classic?
Here’s to the past, now let’s look at the future.
By Julian de Féral
Cover image credit: Imbibe.com