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 JeffreyMorgenthaler.com, 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: JeffreyMorgenthaler.com
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: KingCocktail.com
(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