Your Flavor Within

by The Bon Vivants

The world of craft cocktail bartending is still a very small slice in the pie of money generated by the bar business.  But, in that world, it cannot be denied that things have changed a great deal over the last several years and it seems the pace of that change is accelerating every day.  One major component having a profound effect on a cocktail bars' menu and style is the proliferation of "house made ingredients."  These ingredients can be transformative bursts of flavor and self expression that completely “wow” the recipient and bring on press, fanfare, and a cult-like following.  They can also be gross, out of balance cornucopias of flavor mayhem that would fall into the category of “deal breaker” if served in a cocktail to a guest.  Anybody with a good amount of time under their belt experimenting with “house made ingredients” has probably experienced some shade of both ends of this spectrum, ourselves included – its character building.

How do you move from flavored syrups (a foundational skill for any craft bartender), to those more challenging things that pop into your mind late at night when you're working on a drink for a competition or writing a new menu?  Finding inspiration and instruction in the culinary world is an easy and obvious place to start with the homemade.  On the one hand, flavor is flavor.  On the other, we have found there to be profound differences between “culinary flavor” and “cocktail flavor.”  The ability to layer culinary flavor into cocktail flavor can have wonderfully pleasing results.  To be clear, when we say “culinary flavor,” we are not referring to a fruit salad of farmers market ingredients muddled into a cocktail, but rather, succinct and nuanced flavors layered into other layers of a cocktail – simple cocktails, tons of flavor. 

What do you do if you learn that some product you love got purchased by a larger liquor company, and now is no longer a product made from natural ingredients, or they are no longer making it in “the old country” by a three-fingered arthritic grandmother with a mustache, but instead by a robot scientist in an Idaho laboratory?  What do you do if you've tried all the root beers you can get your hands, and every one of them leaves you wanting that extra something?  YOU MAKE IT YOURSELF!  Do it... and do it bravely!!  Talk to a chef friend, or two. Confer with your friends at Google and Wiki.  Ask some of the older bar guys that you've always respected.  Head to the farmers market and buy some quality ingredients, or find a local bulk herb store and load up.  Don't be afraid of ingredients you've never heard of or techniques you've never tried.  It’s easier than you think, so just make it.  If you aren't the most kitchen savvy, ask the chef friend to come over and, offer to buy them some tacos.  Chefs love tacos.  The likelihood of getting whatever you are trying to make right on the first try is fifty/fifty at best, so accept that fact going into it.  Therein lays the fun and the hidden path to true success with the "house made."  Repetition.  Feel your way through the recipe.  Taste everything, and trust the idea of a pinch of this and a splash of that – ideas that have grown taboo to some in this craft cocktail world.

Now, getting that thing to taste as you imagine it can take some work.  In your imagination, you will be making ambrosia.  No, not a sticky, creamy deli salad with canned mandarin oranges, but rather the food, or drink of the gods.  This is where PROPER technique comes in.  We all know how to shake, use bar spoons and strainers because we've practiced these things.  Now we get to deal with heat, at varying levels, sharp new tools, products in their raw form, cheese cloth, vacuum sealers (if you have a nice chef), etc.  A great place to start with all this is to make plum jam or orange marmalade.  Both of these are great cocktail elements, and both are great on toast.  They are both very forgiving for the new bartender to make.  They both set up fairly easily and provide full, bursting flavor... to a cocktail, or on toast.  Once you have made one or the other a few times and have learned a bit from the results, it’s time to play a bit.  Leave the plum pits in or out?  Blanch, and rest the orange slices over night or not?  Add some vanilla here, or black pepper there?  Pour some vin santo or bourbon on in to add another flavor nuance?  This playfulness and use of technique is where great tastes can come from.

We aren't saying that to be a great bartender you have to be able to make “house made” products.  We are saying that this expansion of your repertoire, or of your ability to self express flavors further, does make a menu more personal, and often can evoke a different sort of gratification in its production.  Taste everything you come across that inspires you.  It's the only way to know what your brown butter, Islay Scotch, Seville orange marmalade should taste like.  That, in addition to asking all those you trust, and amalgamating that body of opinions into your own understanding of the flavor you hope to achieve is the way.

Read This Too!

We are incredibly grateful and honored to have this weekly platform to share some of our thoughts on and experiences in this profession.  So, since we are fortunate enough to have it... This last article is somewhat of a segue into the following “call to action.”  Last week, we created a petition ( ) on urging California Governor Jerry Brown to sign Senator Mark Leno's SB 32 Infused Spirits Bill into law.  This has been a hot-button issue in the San Francisco bar business over the last year, so “Cheers” to Mark Leno for involving himself in an issue seemingly only relevant to very small portion of his constituency.  Here is the text of the petition:

Senator Mark Leno's SB 32 shows an immense amount of social awareness. The bill would overturn a decades old law put into effect around the time of prohibition. The original law was intended to control the production of spirits being distilled outside of the parameters of the government (i.e. those not paying taxes on illegally distilled spirits, or rather, moonshine).

As we move farther away from this time, the spirit of that law couldn't be more irrelevant, while the letter of that law has proven incredibly problematic for a very large group of people - those hardworking and creative people in the bar and restaurant business.

Unfortunately, in efforts to show pro-activity and help themselves secure future funding, the California ABC has pointed to the letter of this law and its minutia as justification for the harassment of certain bars and bartenders. Many of these targeted bars and bartenders are those who pay close attention to the craft of the cocktail and the elevated guest experience, only using the finest, freshest ingredients and most progressive techniques. These craft bartenders have now been put into a position where, in certain situations, they must serve an inferior product to the guest or abandon that which gives them, or their establishment their identity and individuality. They have been forced to deviate from that which is creative and artistic, ultimately leaving the guest with a potentially bland experience.

As part of a profession that is ever-increasingly building community through the act of eating and drinking well, with attention to quality products and creative artistry, we urge you to sign this petition allowing our craft to continue to grow and serve you better.

Tell Gov. Brown to sign Senate Bill 32 and stop the enforcement of a post-prohibition era law!

Click the link above, take three minutes of your time and sign the petition.  Every time someone signs the petition, Governor Brown receives an email with a letter that looks similar to the petition above, urging him to sign the bill into law, signed with your name on it.  You do not have to be a California voter to sign this petition and obviously, the passage of this bill would have ripple effects through all sorts of antiquated, prohibition-era laws that annoy us on a daily basis in our various different states around the country.  A tight-knit community is one of the things that we love the most about this business.  Let’s show that strength of community and let our voice be heard.  Sign the petition and share the link ( ).  

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