Not A Negroni

by Francine Cohen

Now that we’ve got a good portion of the American drinking public coming into our bars and restaurants expecting good drinks, let’s not screw it up by dumbing it down.

What does that mean exactly? It means that swapping in substitute ingredients in a classic cocktail recipe doesn’t make the new drink a viable candidate for carrying the classic drink’s name any more than putting some stuff between toasted English muffins makes the sandwich an Egg McMuffin.  Believing it does does a disservice to your bar and your guests. 

Consider this…you've designed your cocktail menu with much thought, right?  Made sure there was a balance of citrus and spirit-based drinks, shaken and stirred, one featuring each spirit category, included the classics and some original creations so that it would appeal to just about everyone who walks in the door, thereby almost guaranteeing you'd grab them for a $15 cocktail rather than just a $7 beer? Right?  You’ve done that?  Of course you did.  You’re smart.

So if you're so smart, why do your modern cocktails have names that are almost exactly the same name as the classics?  Why muddy the waters? Did you do that so people have an idea of what your drink might taste like before they taste it because they’ve got a point of reference in knowing the flavor profile of the drink you’re referencing?  Maybe.  But that argument doesn’t entirely hold water.  As Alexandra Parks, bartender at Green Russell in Denver, Colorado, notes, “It’s misleading to call something by another name.  If people go out and get drinks from these places and this is their first ‘Negroni,’ what are they going to do from there?  Better to say, ‘Our inspiration was the Negroni but we called it blah, blah, blah.’”

Follow Parks’ philosophy and be creative.  Don’t give a shaken drink with a Sambuca rinse that you light on fire a name like "Negroni Mexicano" when it is no longer a Negroni now that you’ve swapped out the gin and Campari for different ingredients and the darn thing doesn’t look, smell or taste like a Negroni. 

It’s not a Negroni.  It’s its own thing.  Possibly even delicious.  But definitely warranting its own name.  Marshall Altier, author of “How to Booze” and bartender at JBird in New York City, concurs and shares his thoughts about respecting the classics while pleasing the guests, “You have to be aware of what you’re harkening back to.  I’m not afraid to straight up put a classic on the menu and cite it.  If we’re doing something classic here at JBird it is properly cited.   At Insieme we split up the cocktail list into two sides – classic and modern, and on the modern side you can describe how it relates to the classic.” 

Put it in food terms and imagine this scenario about another kind of classic:  It’s already been a long road trip and you still have 230 miles to go.  But you're stuck in traffic and your stomach is grumbling because you didn't eat breakfast.  Finally the sign indicating a rest stop featuring your favorite fast food joint appears.  Heaven!  Not only will you be able to get out and stretch your legs in 11 miles, but that Egg McMuffin you've been hankering for since you got in the car three hours ago is almost in your grasp. You get there.  Order. Pay.  Grab a straw and napkins and find a table.  Unwrap the sandwich and take a bite and WHAT?!  That's fried chicken and an avocado and a slice of ham on there; not the egg and ham and cheese you were expecting to find between those English muffins.  How confused and peeved and let down would you be? 

It's not that you don't like spicy, crispy fried chicken topped with American cheese and an avocado slice, but that's not what you're looking for when you ordered an Egg McMuffin.  Egg McMuffins are very specific things- a fried egg, a slice of Canadian bacon, topped with cheese and served on an English muffin.  So why would the restaurant try to pass off this sandwich as an Egg McMuffin when really the only things remotely Egg McMuffin-like about it are the fact that it's an English muffin sandwiching some ingredients, one of which is cheese, and a real Egg McMuffin also has cheese?

It makes no sense.  Unless of course the goal here was to confuse and disappoint guests. 

Confusing and disappointing guests probably isn’t your goal either.  So take a page from Ray Kroc’s gang and remember, just as the successful multi-billion dollar worldwide corporation that is McDonald's doesn't pull a switcheroo on their guests’ expectations, neither should you.  

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