Take Me to Your Leader

by The Bon Vivants

Should we stay or should we go?  We newfangled mixocologilcalists, cocktitects, or our personal favorite, cocktologists, have been exploring the world of spirits, cocktails, flavor and service intensely for the last several years.  Is the bubble due to burst on all of this cocktail exploration and intense geekery into the source of the spirits on our backbars and the origin of any particular cocktail?  Will the mustache go the way of Tom Selleck?  No! We say.  We are not going the way of the dodo.  But, we feel that really isn't the question.

The question is - What has happened in this cocktail revolution?

Drinks take too long?  Did the bartender spend too much time making it and caring for it as it were his or her own little liquid baby?  Maybe.  But, isn't that better than the alternative being a bad gin and tonic - gin poured from a plastic, no name bottle, tonic shot from a gun whose lines have never been cleaned, over ice that is three degrees away from being no longer solid, and then garnished with a  lime wedge complete with browning edges that was cut last weekend?  This beloved drink is the perfect example of nearly similar amounts of work, but vastly different mindsets, creating “the same drink,” with drastically different outcomes.   Extreme, sure but anytime you ask, “Have we hit the saturation point?” on anything, you are asking an extreme question.

The cocktitecture craze has swept the nation, and why shouldn't it have?  We are a hard drinking country.  We like our booze (and our food) and we like to mess with it.  We invented the cocktail and we elevated it to an art form.  Then like concrete in the Dark Ages, this art form was lost.  Our dark ages (post WWII) saw drinks all based on convenience, i.e., artificial ingredients, stabilizers and preservatives.  Food science was all the rage, but not as we mean it today.  If it was easy to store/make, who cared if it was good or bad for you? And then in quiet, in the eighties, old dusty books with recipes that called for natural ingredients and heaven forbid, vermouth, were being unearthed, excavated and coaxed back to life.  Fast forward to now to spare you the details -----> and now we complain because bars and bartenders care too much.  If that same line of inquiry were directed to restaurants what would happen?  Yes, nouvelle cuisine came - it pissed people off and was made fun of.  But, today, it is considered the foundation for what we consider haute cuisine.  We assert this same pattern is true for those of us once accused of being a mixologist.

From Wikipedia, the defining characteristics of nouvelle cuisine.

Gault and Millau "discovered the formula" contained in ten characteristics of this new style of cooking. The ten characteristics identified were:

  1. A rejection of excessive complication in cooking.
  2. Cooking times for most fish, seafood, game birds, veal, green vegetables and pâtés were greatly reduced in an attempt to preserve the natural flavors. Steaming was an important trend from this characteristic.
  3. The cuisine was made with the freshest possible ingredients.
  4. Large menus were abandoned in favor of shorter menus.
  5. Strong marinades for meat and game ceased to be used.
  6. They stopped using heavy sauces such as espagnole and béchamel thickened with flour-based roux, in favor of seasoning their dishes with fresh herbs, high quality butter, lemon juice, and vinegar.
  7. They used regional dishes for inspiration instead of cuisine classique dishes.
  8. New techniques were embraced and modern equipment was often used.
  9. The chefs paid close attention to the dietary needs of their guests through their dishes.
  10. The chefs were extremely inventive and created new combinations and pairings.

Our point?  This revolutionary "new food" brought with it Grace Jones, shoulder pads, and New Coke.  With that wave, it all ended.  It left an indelible mark on chefs around the world.  Now reading these ten characteristics, they sound like what every restaurant we visit and enjoy does as a daily practice.  We as craft bartenders have followed suit and looked to the past.  We looked to the natural world and did our best to not muddy the cocktail experience with rotgut spirits and sugary prepackaged mixes.  We made efforts to source quality spirits and quality ingredients to mix with.  And now, we are too slow…  "What the hell is that jerk doing!? I want a drink!," is something we have all heard.  It is the line to walk.  How do we cocktologize and do it fast?

We assert that is happening now.  The definition of cocktitecture has been undergoing change.    Neighborhood bars that never bought into the craze of cocktology are now stirring Manhattans, stocking some obscurity into their backbar, and have a staff that is generally more knowledgeable and interested than before.  Rarely do we see the fruit salad bar with all the muddled elements you can imagine a la toppings in a frozen yogurt parlor. But we do see seasonally appropriate ingredients, house made products, an insistence on knowledge, and spiritual relevance. We would say that all that uber precious, self important, over wrought cocktology is working its way out of all of everyone’s systems.  We have purged the excess and are left with the residual knowledge, experience, and quality from this period. That knowledge is rooted in history, been tested in our time, and proven effective.  The people like it.  To us, a Gin & Tonic with good gin, good tonic, good ice, and a freshly cut lime is as classic and delicious as they come.  Also, made with ingredients that have become commonplace at many a fine drinking establishments. 

Baird and Harris "assert a formula" contained in ten characteristics of this new style of bartending. The ten characteristics identified were:

  1. A rejection of excessive complication in crafting drinks.
  2. Preparation methods for most cocktails, sours, slings, smashes, and highballs were greatly considered in attempt to preserve the natural flavors. Stirring was an important trend from this characteristic.
  3. The cocktails were made with the freshest possible ingredients.
  4. Large menus were abandoned in favor of shorter menus.
  5. Pre-packaged and artificial ingredients ceased to be used.
  6. They stopped using pasteurized juices and poor quality syrups such as sweet and sour and store bought simple syrup made from high fructose corn syrup, in favor of crafting their drinks with quality spirits, high quality ice, fresh lemon juice, fresh citrus oil, and bitters.
  7. They used regional flavors in cocktails for inspiration instead of “bartending school” drink lists.
  8. New techniques were embraced and modern equipment was often used.
  9. The bartenders paid close attention to the sensibilities and comfort of their guests through their drinks.
  10. The bartenders were extremely inventive and created new combinations and pairings.

“What happened during this cocktail revolution?”

We worked our way through all the funny stuff, and came out at the end with elevated quality across the board.  The standard has been raised.  If you don’t have a crazy cocktail menu, who cares? To each their own.  But if you don’t have a couple spirits on your back bar that have a point of view, or if you put a lime wedge on our Gin & Tonic that you cut last week, shame on you. 

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