Keep It Simple

by Paul Clarke

We live in a complicated world, and things aren’t any less Byzantine behind the bar.

This is unquestionably an exciting time for craft bartenders and devotees of fine cocktails, but it seems that increasingly, there’s an urge to take a step back. House-made bitters, syrups and cordials have given us an opportunity to prepare once-lost cocktails according to century-old recipes or to create entirely new flavor formulations for contemporary palates; and attention to quality and detail means elaborate, multi-ingredient concoctions like the Zombie and the Test Pilot can once again be enjoyed in all their nuanced complexity. But while there’s likely nobody in the craft-cocktail movement who’d like to turn the clock back a couple of decades, more bartenders and their regular guests are finding renewed appreciation in simplicity.

“I don’t want to be making a drink for 15 minutes; I want to spend more of that time talking to my guest and making sure they’re having a good time,” says Ben Perri, bartender at Seattle’s Zig Zag Café. Long on many “best of” lists of the world’s top cocktail bars, Zig Zag has always embraced a simple, straightforward approach with its drinks. By using its extensive selection of spirits and liqueurs, deployed in a manner meant to highlight the best qualities of these ingredients, Zig Zag’s bartenders have made a simple approach a major facet of the bar’s style.

Perri says there’s a lot to love in this “less is more” approach. Cornerstones of the cocktail kingdom such as the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Daiquiri may have only a few basic ingredients, but each has been sipped for more than a century without much complaint. “The best drinks, the ones people always turn back to, are those with three ingredients,” he says. “When I’m making these classic-style, limited-ingredient drinks, I can talk to my guests and entertain them instead of losing myself in the minutiae of the drink.”

These basic drinks have another virtue: their simplicity puts the base spirit at center stage. At a time when bartenders have a broader selection of whiskies, gins, rums and other spirits at their disposal than perhaps at any other time in history (not even mentioning the bounty of amari, fortified wines and liqueurs that are flooding into today’s craft bars), there are plenty of flavorful options to let shine in as close to their natural form as possible.

“A lot of it is about getting out of the way,” Perri says. “A lot of these products have been around for 100 years, and they deserve to be in the forefront. Anybody can pour stuff in a glass and shake it; we want to do justice to some of these great products.  The guys in Kentucky have been making bourbon for generations—they deserve to have us let their product shine. Many of these spirits are so good, they speak for themselves, and to not showcase that quality is a crime.”

While preparing a drink with minimal bartender-added complexity sounds easy, Perri says it takes a lot of advance work. “I want to get something in front of the guest fast, and a knowledge of the ingredients is paramount to that,” he says. “You have to know the flavor profile of every ingredient on your shelf; then you should be able to put a few together and make it work.”

Of course, some guests do order complicated drinks, and Perri and his colleagues don’t flinch at making them. But on weekend nights, or at other times when the bar is packed, Perri says having simplicity as your house style can really make a difference. “When I used to work in the service well at a busy time, I was getting my ass kicked,” he says. “Now, when I’m writing a new menu, I think about that and about what Ricardo [Hoffman, who now handles Zig Zag’s service well] will have to go through on a Friday or Saturday night if he’s making a 15-ingredient drink—I wouldn’t put that on my worst enemy. There are many complicated drinks that are great and that I love, but you don’t want to be stuck making that while there are 30 other cocktails to be made. Efficiency is key, and simpler drinks make that possible.”

This minimalist approach lets the basic ingredients shine at center stage; it also means the bartender may not be in the limelight in the same way someone deploying an arsenal of house-made syrups and bitters in an elaborate, 10-ingredient drink might be. Perri says he doesn’t mind taking a step back. “I was in a band for seven years as lead singer, so I was in the spotlight for seven years; I don’t need it or want it anymore. There are other things that are more important to me,” he says. “On the days I have off, I don’t want to be thinking about work—that’s my time to recover and live a life that’s not devoted to making bitters and syrups. I want to devote myself to my time behind the bar and the people who come see me.”

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