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Bartenders: Stop Making (up) Cocktails

Creativity is not always what it's cracked up to be


Among the worst instincts known to man is that of creation. Though creativity as utility or inspiration may well be a virtue, it is the incessant need of man to create infinite variations that steers away from the better practice of purposeful or thoughtful endeavor and heads straight over a jagged little cliff scattered with the wreckage of shallow, knee-jerk reactions coupled with unfulfilling, poor simulacra. And very, very bad cocktails.

But this should come as a surprise to no one, that the world is filled with bad art. Most of it we can tolerate or ignore but the problem is really not one of kind but one of volume, how steady a stream and how persistent an urge it becomes once something reaches the level of genuine fashion or trend. With cocktails in 2012, it became a waterfall.

Surely both consumer and pundit proffered this deluge by pushing the latest in cocktail trends and charting maps where you can drink new cocktails made with quirky ingredients such as dehydrated carrots, yogurt and thai chiles. Not that any of those ingredients ipso facto make a bad cocktail. On the contrary, I love the incorporation of new ingredients, but here the impetus is sadly on creativity and not craft, likely fueled by
something Sigmund Freud dubbed the “narcissism of small differences.”

With this specific narcissistic tendency, each person creates their own little world populated with minor and specific tastes that hardly do more than draw an artificial distinction between similar categories. There’s certainly a place for preference but underlying a person’s insistence on “not too sweet, floral and spicy” versus another’s “violet, tart with a hint of jalapeño” are irreconcilable differences that are waved as though they were flag and country, creating a tribe-of-one prepared to battle opposing tribes for failing to recognize the universality of their claim. What place does a well-made daiquiri have in this world?

Well-known bartender and writer, Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon and, lamented in an email:

I’ve spent time drinking at some of the most “progressive” cocktail bars in the country, sipping libations full of esoteric liqueurs, house made tinctures, and rare fruits… Yet half the time when I try to order… [a daiquiri] I end up on the receiving end of someone’s poor choice in proportions: overly strong, extra sour, and often with the addition of some strange ingredient.

Too often, bartenders, rather than sharpening our axes, studying, searching and trying to find meaning among the thousands of cocktails already created, the neophyte–and even sometimes seasoned veterans, I’m afraid–indulge in the worst possible fantasy: that of some mixological Prometheus who steals the eternal flame of creativity from the old, stuffy Gods and re-imagines it as lavender-infused ice or cinnamon-ancho rim. The unfortunate result is that it’s our liver and not theirs that is forever picked at by these often vile and outlandish combinations.

We’ve all succumbed to this pointless production from time-to-time, even myself. Take the Hot Cosmo that I created some time ago.

Dale Degroff codified the cosmopolitan (or cosmo) recipe in the 1990s and then famously served it to Madonna, which created a maelstrom of imitators, especially after it was re-popularized through the hit television show Sex and the City. Every restaurant or bar had its variation. Most of which were no more than adding a modifier to the name, such as The Mst Street Cosmo.

It may be fundamentally dishonest to simply rename a drink already created but it’s still better than switching some trivial aspect and claiming authorship or affixing a name of a good drink to a bad one in hopes of restoring its image. My offense was of the latter. I was a bar manager at a Washington, D.C. restaurant at the time and decided to create a version of the cosmo, only it was winter and I wanted something warm. Inspiration hit: why not make a Hot Cosmo? Certainly you’re cringing at this point or at least morbidly curious. It sounds like a bad idea, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it! Not then. Not to me.

You see, creation is an essentially seductive act. Just as a mother claims her child as brilliant and beautiful despite everyone else’s less favorable appraisal, so the bartender or bar manager, as it were, sees their creation as practically infallible. So I took a packet of Celestial Seasonings Cranberry-Apple Zinger Tea, lemon-infused vodka, triple sec and select spices and set my monstrous child upon the world claiming all the while it’s special capability.

Yes, it was terrible.

Now, despite my protests, I assure you that I love when a studied bartender, replete in their skill, creates something of their own. “Professor” Jerry Thomas, the first bartender to write a bartending guide in 1862, understood how the public clamored for these novel drinks and commends the act of cocktail creation in the preface to his Bartender’s Guide:

This is an Age of Progress; new ideas and new appliances follow each other in rapid succession. Inventive genius is taxed to the uttermost in devising new inventions, not alone for articles of utility or necessity, but to meet the ever-increasing demands for novelties which administer to creature-comfort, and afford gratification to fastidious tastes.

A new beverage is the pride of the Bartender, and its appreciation and adoption his crowning glory.”

“I certainly agree, provided that this “new beverage” is something truly worth sharing with the world. The question is, how will you know when you’ve created something worth sharing and not mommy or daddy’s little monster? I suggest three methods for overcoming both the irresponsible need to create and the irrational want to approve of one’s own creation.

The 90/10 Rule
This rule was born with a simple proposition. For every cocktail you create, try learning nine classic cocktails first, or 90% of your cocktails should be classics and 10% should be new creations. This rule is by no means fail-proof but it’s certainly a way to make sure you practice the basics before proceeding. The very worst that could happen is that you add nine new drinks to your repertoire. Not so bad really.

Forget About It
Remember the recipe for that cocktail you created in 2004? What was it, Sage-infused Tequila, Navan and grapefruit? No, then forget about it. If you have trouble recalling the ingredients to your past creations it may well be because the drink sucked. Trust me, the best recipes are ones that come to mind easily, are often requested and frequently suggested. Everything else is likely fodder.

The Shift-drink Test

If the “90/10” and “Forget About It” rules fail you, your next line of defense may well be the best one of them all and it goes for both professional and amateur bartenders alike. We become the most critical after a hard-worked shift behind the stick (or any job really). At the end of the day, we just don’t have the tolerance we had at the beginning for pure and utter crap. Imagine sitting down to a Cachaça blood-orange toddy with a bacon-crusted rim. If you can’t, it’s because you have gone too far and are now teetering on that jagged cliff. Go make yourself an old fashioned and relax.

Below are three classic cocktails recipes to get the ball rolling.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Daiquiri

Based on the research of cocktail writer, Simon Difford, Jeffrey Morgenthaler settled on this recipe. To listen to Jeffrey discuss “How Not to Fuck Up a Daiquiri” on the Small Screen Network, click here.


  • 2 1/2 ounces aged rum
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce rich simple syrup (made with two parts sugar to one part water)


Shake with ice.

Double strain into a chilled cocktail coupe

Makes 1 serving.

Recipe source:

Dale Degroff’s Cosmopolitan

Though this cocktail has fallen into ill repute, it’s a very good sour for those who prefer something on the lighter, tart side. Not my cup of tea but not bad. Just make it Dale’s way, flamed peel optional. Read more about Dale Degroff’s Cosmopolitan here.


  • 1 1/2 ounces of citron vodka
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce cranberry juice
  • Flamed orange peel for garnish.


Shake all the ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the flamed orange peel.

To make the flamed orange peel: Be sure to select firm, fresh oranges which will have a higher oil content. First cut uniformly slender slices of peel, about 3/4 inch wide by 1 1/2 inches long. The peel should be so thin that only a small strip of white pith is visible in the center with ample orange-colored skin surrounding the circumference of the slice. This will maximize flavor and minimizing the amount of bitterness from the pith. Hold a lit match in one hand and carefully pick up the orange twist in the other. To avoid prematurely expelling the oil, be careful not to squeeze the peel at all at this point. Then hold the twist 4 inches above the drink by its side, skin side down. Bring the lit match closer to the twist and pinch the peel sharply, expelling the oil into the flame and onto the surface of the drink.

Makes 1 serving

Recipe source:

(Old) Old Fashioned

This is the recipe I use for an Old Fashioned. It dispenses with cherries and oranges and goes with a simple lemon peel, thus passing the “Shift-drink Test” with aces.


  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1/4 to 1/2 ounce rich simple syrup (made with two parts sugar to one part water)
  • Dash Aromatic Bitters
  • 2 pieces lemon peel


Combine ingredients in mixing glass and stir with ice until chilled. Strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass and add second lemon peel to garnish.

Makes 1 serving

Illustrations by Diane Pizzuto

Derek Brown has one of those dream jobs that your high school counselor never tells you about. He drinks for a living. He also writes and teaches, while traveling around the world, telling the story of how drinking is such an integral part of our culture and values. While he’s made drinks at the White House, been featured in the Wall Street Journal and drank with Martha Stewart, he’ll tell you that the greatest compliment he’s ever received is when the New York Times wrote that he played a “face-melting solo on the kazoo” at Lambstock. Seriously. You can read his articles in a wide array of publications from The Atlantic to Entrepreneur Magazine, visit his bars in Washington, D.C., The Passenger and Columbia Room, or just join him in his quest for better drinking by enjoying his favorite dram, a good Bourbon.


  1. JFL says:

    I enjoy seeing people’s creativity when I am at a bar. Fun, complex out there cocktails are a joy. I can make the classics myself, and bartenders should be able to as well. But I’m not going to spent $12 for a daiquiri I could easily make at home. I want to see the bartender’s creativity.

    At some point the classic weren’t classics. I think creativity is a blessing to bartenders not a curse. Not every idea is a good one true, but it can still be interesting. Your hot cosmo may have been poorly executed but it was at least a neat idea. Maybe instead of quitting on it you should have worked on it more. Tested it on some critical friends.

    A well made classic is wonderful, but so is exploring a bar’s unique offerings, No disrespect is meant here but I honestly think that telling people to stop thinking outside the box is an awful message. At the core of this article is a plea to know the basics, and thats true. To say that every good idea has already been had is foolhardy. Everyone makes lousy drinks in there quest to make good ones. And Hopefully people learn from those failures. However if all you can do in life behind the stick is mix for me the creations of those before you. It’s just not good enough, because so can I.

    • Bikebird says:

      I agree, but the trouble is, all too often, the failures are dropped on the menu at $12 a pop. While your point is well made that you can make the classics yourself at home, the point of going to a bar is to have them made for you, potentially with different elements, by someone who, hopefully, has a deep understanding of the art of mixing drinks.

      I find that very often, the most successful new drinks are riffs on the classics. It’s hard to come up with something completely original when the classics have become classic because they successfully blend the basics into something transcendent. Putting original twists on the classics may not seem very original, but they can be awe-inspiring when properly executed.

      That being said, I’ll keep trying the weird stuff. Sure, I’ll get a clinker every now and then, but you never know when you’re going to get your mind blown.

  2. Sara says:

    Oh, goodness. It may alienate some friends but yes, I have to agree with this. I do appreciate a well-crafted cocktail with surprising but satisfying ingredients or combinations. . . but I’ve tasted a lot of novelty cocktails that wear the guise of craft cocktails, and fall short of those expectations.

    Not too long ago I went to dinner at a Queen Village restaurant that had excellent food and a list of six or seven cocktails with long names like the titles of faux-folk songs. I chose the single cocktail that didn’t include at least one ingredient I found off-putting. I can’t remember what it was called (even five minutes later when I tried to un-recommend it to a fellow diner) or what was in it, just that the whole thing was overwhelmed by whatever the “surprise” ingredient was. I felt sad. Something had gone awry.

    I’d eat there again, but order wine.

  3. To the point ~ while I truly love to quaff creative cocktails, whenever introduced to a new bar or bartender I typically order a Manhattan, my rationale being if they pour a good Classic, I’ll be more inclined to trust their artistic judgement when crafting a creative concoction.

    • Luke J. says:

      My go-to drink when I first visit a new bar is the Old Fashioned. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, as the time the bartender topped off my drink with a few ounces of club soda.

      • Chris says:

        For what it’s worth, that Old Fashioned with soda was likely a regional thing. No idea where you were but my guess is that bartender had ties to Wisconsin, where the Old Fashioned is nearly as common as beer, cheese, and the Packers. You never simply ask a bartender there for an Old Fashioned but rather a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet (brandy, cherries, orange, sugar, bitters, topped with 7up) or a Whiskey Old Fashioned Sour (whiskey, cherries, orange, sugar, bitters, topped with sour (like Squirt or Fresca)). They’re actually quite tasty, but barely resemble what most people consider an Old Fashioned, save for the cherry, orange, and bitters.

        • Doug says:

          WI bartender here…he could very well be right. Really only the “cocktail” bars here serve old “old fashioneds.” At which I work at two. It’s an interesting experience here because even at these places (which these people have come to experience classic drinks) most of the time people come back and want either soda water or white soda added on top because in their minds an old fashioned isn’t a very strong drink.

  4. Andrew Hall says:

    While there is truth here that too many experiments hit the menu inside of the drain, what has sadly been forgotten is that cocktails and drinking are often ‘of the moment’ and the desire for every drink and every thing to be classic, meaningful and significant is one of the depressing legacies of the Baby Boomers. A bacon-rimmed cocktail is never going to something we pass on through time except in as exactly what it – an artifact of the zeitgeist of this time and place. It is to be enjoyed (or not) solely in that vein.

  5. Jo-Jo the Barkeep says:

    Amen Derek!!! Cheers!!!

  6. riesler morales says:

    the “90/10″ rule easy…

  7. classics should not be on your menu. they should be a given of any bartender to make. your menu is to show the character of the place and the bartenders and they have the right to make their cretions just like any chef wouldnt just cook escoffier all the time….progress is only achieved this way…

    • David Herpin says:

      you crafties dont even know what is a classic cocktail and what isn’t, so who are you to talk? Go order a last word from a 90 year old bartender, but I bet you thought it was a classic cocktail.

  8. david herpin says:

    Many valid points raised here, although this discussion is as old as the “movement” itself, which is more associated with a toilet than a cocktail. Let them infuse endangered spotted owl feather bitters with shark tooth calvados, it won’t matter, these drinks will never leave their bar. I agree, learn to crawl before you run.

  9. Creating cocktails is never a bad thing, it’s part of what we do as constant practitioners behind the bar along with all of our other duties, but the last decade created a mixology tsunami that is just now finally seeing itself in the mirror for what it is and calming down a little bit. I only create a drink nowadays when I have true inspiration, but thankfully was never caught up in the pathetic fever of competition that hopefully has passed to some degree, which includes brand glorification, whose sole interest is only to get a free ride of promotion and marketing off of our backs.

    Maybe the new cocktailian generation is smartening up now to avoid getting taken any further advantage of. It was a nice ride with its wins and losses, but it’s time to consider doing the real work and put the fun, easy work of new drink ideas in a part-time or on-call status as needed, especially when we get little or nothing for it after all the thought and effort put into it.

    And that is, creating a hospitality hub of sorts that can improve the stability and security of our important positions and collective hard work in the food/beverage service industry so we have something to fall back on after a lifetime of plying the trade (myself – 30 years), instead of the current nothing we have in place as a safety net in a field of work and profession that we would like to call a career, but sadly falls way short. So maybe the question now is – Where do we grow from here ???

  10. joe sweeney says:

    let’s face it,most of these craft cocktails are created for people who don’t like the taste of quality unadulterated booze. well made single malt scotch ,small batch bourbon, hand crafted rye and whiskey, real cane sugar rums among others don’t need embellishment or bastardization by someone attempting to be the next thomas edison.

  11. I’ve just about had enough of “Full of Themselves” bars that purport to bring a science and a purism and a sense of history to the creation of cocktails. In these places you’ll often hear bartending referred to as mixology or liquid cuisine. You are also very likely to be charged $15-$20 per drink. Which is great when they’re great. But their trendlet has attracted poseurs, and when these places are bad, they are deeply hideous. Because the last thing you want when you’re trying to enjoy a relaxing drink is either smug superiority from the bartender or a member of the waitstaff insisting on telling you about the fair-trade origin of the drink’s agave syrup. Shut the hell up and make with the alcohol fetching. And turn off the fucking lounge music. Oh and a comfortable chair would be nice. I should mention, though, that many of these places are wonderful and employ some of my favorite people in the world.

  12. So many good points made in both the article and the comments. Drinks can indeed be art but bartenders can also be kids with crayons. Yay for everyone but a lot of it just sucks. Ask any sommelier and you’ll learn how half the job is reinforcing patrons confidence/perceptions about their own taste buds and giving them permission to explore. The “mixology bubble” is right on time for a market correction; time for overblown cocktailistas to be trimmed from the herd. People deserve a wide variety of options and an absence of judgment for their choices. Prefer a hibiscus-infused gin with whispers of ginger and cherry blossom? Cool, sounds tasty. Rather have a Cherry Pucker and Red Bull? Awesome, I like a cheap date. With 15 years behind the wood, at the end of the day it makes no difference. Be good, be kind, and drink what you like.

  13. Aleksi Honkasalo says:

    Thank you for interesting article. I’d like to add one point, which should be taken in to consideration, when talking about making-up drinks. For me, being a non professional, making-up drinks is more of a necessity than an urge. Usually I just don’t have all the ingredients for the classics, so I’ll do something with what I have.

    For example, one night I wanted to make something like a Cosmopolitan, but having no vodka or lime juice I had to substitute them with something else. I used aquavit and red grapefruit and the concoction was quite good, although it might have been better with just grapefruit.

    I’d imagine this kind of cocktail creating would come in with professionals as well, especially in smaller bars. Think about someone coming to order a negroni and you have just thrown away last drops of spoiled red vermouth. You might say: “I’m sorry, we are fresh out of red vermouth, but could I make you one with white instead?”
    With luck on your side, you might actually create something new and interesting this way.

  14. fobbox says:

    Although I somewhat agree with your premise, I have to say you’ve inspired me to concoct a new drink.

    4 parts gin
    1 part Chartreuse
    1 part Cocchi Americano

    Combine ingredients in mixing glass and with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a martini glass with lemon peel to garnish.

    I’m calling it The Gran Torino.

    Now get off my lawn.

  15. Very well done, and I completely agree with your stance. While true that most people are guilty of inventing their own drinks (yes, I had to look up the recipe one of my own creations for an upcoming cocktail party) these are sadly replacing the classics. As Morgenthaler points out, it’s hard to get a good Daiquiri, which is one of the simplest of drinks. It’s only three ingredients!

    Love the 90/10 rule. The classics are classics for a reason: they work.

  16. fobbox says:

    Despite the good-natured snark of my previous comment, I did want to reply to your post with a bit more seriousness.

    As has happened in cooking (twice in the span of my career as a chef) bartending has enjoyed an explosion in innovation and experimentation that has resulted in (as you’ve previously pointed out) a wonderful glut of good bars and good bartenders.

    Bartending is now looked upon as a legitimate career rather than something to do until you get that first novel published. But as with prior revolutions in cooking, the revolution at the bar has also given us excess and silliness. But that’s just how it works. The same creative drive that has elevated the craft inevitably leads to excess. You don’t get one without suffering a bit of the other.

    The good news is that the trend will moderate itself in time and we’ll still have a ton of accomplished, creative, and slightly wiser barkeeps making our traditional cocktails — traditionally.

    Until then you’ll find me on the happy side of the bar — waiting patiently while some incredibly earnest, young bartender insists upon fusing vanilla to the rim of my glass with a medical laser. At least I won’t have to suffer through another damned foam sauce on the food menu.


  17. Matt says:

    I’m perfectly fine with bartenders making up cocktails and being inventive, its what I expect out of Chefs when ordering a tasting menu some where, why not expect the same from a bartender.

    If you go to a bar, you should be able to tell by the ingredients if its something you could possibly like. When a cocktail is full of sweet mixes and flavours you don’t think should be in a cocktail then of course you won’t like it. But with that said there is a market for those items, it wouldn’t be on their menu very long if there wasn’t.

    Yes all bartenders should learn/know the classics like an Old Fashion, Manhattan or classic Daiquiri. But depending on where you are going remember that some bartenders probably only make some of these classics once on a blue moon and that some of these cocktails do have regional differences. Ex. Using Bourbon in a Manhattan instead of Rye.

    • David Herpin says:

      when is the last time a chef had to talk to drunks all day while serving everyone else? Every bartender wishes they could hide in a service well and just make drinks, like a chef. Please do not confuse the two.

      You must expect a mechanic to fix your plumbing? Or an electrician to teach you quantum physics?

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  20. Jon says:

    Look, the real problem is there just isn’t enough top talent in the universe to fill every fancy cocktail menu with winners. I like new stuff if it’s done well, but if you can’t devote the energy and skills necessary to make the standards live up to their potential I am not interested in your creative brainchild. Because making a great Manhattan or Martini is nothing to take for granted, in fact it’s way more important than expressing your individual creativity. It’s a craft first, people, not an art.

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