Are We Running Out of Cocktails?
There is a story that I’ve heard several times throughout my life that in the late 1800’s the United States Patent office almost closed down because it had been decided that everything that could be invented had been invented. I’ve researched this and found that it is half urban legend. While the Patent Office wasn’t actually in danger of closing the quote “Everything that could be invented has been,” seems to be an actual quote from an employee of the Patent Office sometime in the late 1800’s.
This, of course, is worthy of a good laugh, but in a way I can relate to the man who famously made this statement. Early on in my bartending career I can remember thinking that all of the cocktails that could be invented had been. This was at a time when there wasn’t a new craft spirit being released every other day, and at a time when I hadn’t realized that you could look beyond the bar for cocktail inspiration.
These days when I am looking for inspiration to create a new cocktail I often spend some time looking through the spice rack in the kitchen. A simple Margarita can be transformed into countless ‘original’ cocktails by augmenting your agave syrup, or infusing your tequila. It really isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel every time you want to put a new cocktail on your list. Most often it just makes the most sense to take what works, and to put a little spin on it.
Right now, at The Peacock Inn, if you look in the bar fridge you will find our homemade:
• Pineapple Syrup
• Pinot Noir Syrup
• Ginger Pomegranate Molasses
• Cinnamon Syrup
• Togarashi Infused Vodka
• Strawberry Syrup
• Baking Spice Infused Agave
…and most likely a half of a sandwich that Manny, our restaurant manager, left from last night.
I suppose that there could be a finite number of cocktails—and if there is we are probably in the right town to find the mathematician who could tell us what that finite number is—but as long as there is fresh fruit, a spice rack, sugar, water and a pot to heat and mix them, I’m not too worried about us coming up short when it comes time to add a new one to our menu.
Cocktails: Art or Science?
Every now and again I’ll be behind the bar building a cocktail – or a bunch of cocktails – and I’ll hear someone comment that I look like a ‘Mad Scientist,’ or sometimes I’ll hear that I’m an ‘artist.’ Obviously and unfortunately I am not a Mad Scientist (since life is not an 80’s movie), and I also prefer the title ‘bartender’ to ‘artist,’ for obvious reasons.
The truth is that there are a few very simple scientific formulas for creating a cocktail that will be pleasing to the average palate. Once this is accepted and the formula is put in place, the artistry can happen.
2 ounces SPIRIT, .75 ounces CITRUS, .75 ounces LIQUID SUGAR. This formula is everything. It’s the foundation of so many classic and contemporary cocktails.
2 ounces TEQUILA .75 ounces LIME .75 ounces AGAVE = Margarita
2 ounces RUM .75 ounces LIME .75 ounces SIMPLE SYRUP = Daiquiri
I could spend all day making up cocktails with this formula. How about with the Margarita we remove the agave and replace it with a pineapple-vanilla syrup, or instead of using .75 lime we use .5 lime and .25 ounces yuzu? Wala! A new and exciting cocktail is born.
Quite simply, the idea behind making a cocktail is starting with your base. This is usually Rum, Gin, Tequila, Whiskey, or Vodka. Then either a citrus and a sugar to balance it, or a bitter and a sugar to balance it.
Once you have the formula it’s really just a matter of mixing and matching and adding creative flavor profiles to your syrup, or adding a modifier to your base. The Peacock Inn’s ‘Inn Fashioned’ is a play on the classic Old Fashioned recipe, which is 2 ounces Bourbon, .25 ounces demerara syrup, a few dashes of angostura and maybe orange bitters. With the ‘Inn Fashioned’ we use Rye as our base instead of Bourbon, and instead of using 2 ounces of Rye we use 1.5 ounces, then modify it with .5 ounces of a nice dark Rum.
I would recommend playing around with flavoring your syrups and playing around with the formula until you have something that really works. If you stick to it I can promise that at the least you will have something impressive for a dinner party if it isn’t necessarily fit for a cocktail menu at a speakeasy in San Fransisco.
Who is a Cocktail Menu Designed for?
The debate over the origin of the modern day cocktail is one that is long standing, typically reserved for overly enthusiastic suspender clad bartenders sporting (the gentlemen, anyway), facial hair on their upper lip that resembles a child’s sketching of a seagull in the distance, and as far as I know, there is no definitive answer, and more importantly, who cares?
There have been plenty of moments in history that have been notable in the evolution of the cocktail, with most people agreeing that prohibition in the United States was perhaps the most dramatic. It was after prohibition that the bitters bottles which once sat atop every bar became unrecognizable, and the science of measuring out ingredients became considered something that novice barmen did. Fortunately for those of us who truly enjoy good cocktails and the exposure to interesting spirits and the work of creative bartenders, these things have once again become fashionable. I have been lucky enough to watch this happen from my tiny space behind the bar. Having been employed as a bartender for almost 20 years I have seen the art of the drink go from free pouring disco drinks like vodka cranberry to stirring Old Fashioned variations and using multiple varieties of ice.
Although most of us will agree that bartending has taken a positive step forward again, I sometimes can’t help but wonder if we are over correcting a little, taking the timeless tradition of sitting belly up to the bar too seriously, maybe measuring our bitters because we spent so much time sucking down bad gin with cheap tonic while listening to Cindy Lauper on the new surround sound technology at our local watering hole.
And so with this in mind, I have to ask the question, ‘Who is the cocktail menu for?’ Many bartenders these days, so infatuated with the most current trends, and eager to take the concepts of pre prohibition cocktails to the next level, often fail to take into consideration who they are serving. I understand the desire to be creative, but does Joe’s Crab Shack need a papaya infused pisco cocktail with lemongrass tincture and the essence of 1000 year old vermouth that has been preserved in a brontosaurus bone?
When I first became enamored with the art of making cocktails I thought that everyone should be as excited as I was and that everyone should want to be exposed to the cocktails that I was discovering, and in turn, creating. This of course was silly. Now when I sit down to design a cocktail menu the first thing I do is take into consideration the people I will be serving. Naturally I ask myself how far I can get away with pushing them, and if I am lucky (as I am in my current position at the Peacock Inn), I will have a clientele that I feel will be open to trying just about anything. In the past, however, I have not always felt this way, and I have on many occasions had to drop the idea of juicing celery or adding chartreuse to a gimlet. When this happens it is not an inhibition on the creative process, but if you allow it to be, an opportunity to be creative in a different way. How can we creatively serve products that have integrity to a customer that has drank nothing but vodka gimlets with roses lime juice for his or her whole life?
To add to this concept, I also like to point out that I for one don’t always want my bartender to talk to me about Benedictine Monks and how their spirit compliments a barrel strength bourbon. Sometimes I want my bartender to crack open my Miller Lite and to tell me how she has been hung over for the past two days, and I want her to forget to wash her hands after she pulls her hair back into a ponytail. I don’t want this scenario to play out while I’m waiting to be seated at a Michelin starred restaurant, but, you get the point.
Things are going in a good direction in the world of bars and spirits and cocktails. Let’s not impede this progress by allowing bartenders and bar managers to create menus full of drinks that they love but that don’t take their guests into consideration.
The most important cocktail broken down, sort of. What’s with the Martini?
When I began my career as a bartender there was no such thing as cocktail menus. The word cocktail didn’t even really exist, come to think of it. Back then, in the early 2000’s, if you wanted to look at a menu of drinks that consisted of a mixture of spirits and juices, you asked for the ‘Martini list.’ I worked at some great places and we had some great ‘martinis,’ concoctions like the ‘Flirtini,’ which was some kind of flavored vodka with cranberry juice and some other juice from a can and sparkling wine, and we had the ‘appletini,’ which was vodka and sweet green stuff called ‘pucker,’ and there was the ‘Peachtini’ and the ‘Strawberrytini’ and some of the ‘martinis’ didn’t even have the word ‘tini’ at the end, but still we called them ‘martinis.’
Then, the greatest and most important shift since prohibition in the way we consume alcohol in this country happened. All of a sudden a little speakeasy called ‘Milk and Honey’ opened in New York City, and every bartender I knew was whispering about it. A tiny bar with about 6 seats and 6 tables opened on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and they were serving pre prohibition cocktails. Bartenders were using jiggers and measuring out proper Manhattans, they were hand carving ice to shake sidecars, and they were dry cleaning their shirts and pants before their shifts, ultimately putting a level of care into everything that was done behind the bar that not many people had seen before. Most importantly, they were not offering a martini list, but instead they were serving cocktails, perfecting the classics and drawing inspiration from them to create original concoctions with fresh juice and a focus on quality as opposed to profit. The entire world was about to change forever.
Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic, and I don’t really know if Milk and Honey was responsible for this shift, but Milk and Honey is the first place that I remember hearing about that was making proper cocktails.
So, what is a cocktail, anyway? If you ask me, I usually say that a cocktail is a mixture of at least 3 ingredients, either a base spirit plus a sweetener and a citrus, or a base spirit plus a sweetener and a bitter. If you mix 2 ingredients you have what we refer to as a disco drink: Vodka and cranberry, rum and coke, jager and red bull, etc. I mention this because for our discussion it is important to note that a martini – which I argue is the most important ‘cocktail ever - is classically 2 ingredients:2 parts London Dry Gin and 1 part dry vermouth. So how did this drink that doesn’t even really classify as a cocktail become so important in the world of cocktails that every other cocktail adopted its name (It is also important to note that some people will say that a truly classic martini has a dash of orange bitters, making it a 3 ingredient cocktail, but I digress)?
The origin of the martini is, of course, under debate. Some say that a bartender in NYC invented the martini at a hotel in 1911. In a bartending book from 1888 there is an entry for a cocktail made up of equal parts gin and vermouth, and some say that the martini came about as a variation of the ‘Martinez’ cocktail, which was created in San Fransisco in the middle 1800’s.
In other words, we don’t know.
What I do know is that the martini is a wonderful cocktail. At the Peacock our martini is made up of a 5:1 ratio of London Dry Gin and Dolin Dry Vermouth. The vermouth compliments the gin in such an elegant way that some people claim that they were made to be mixed, that the mixture is seemingly perfect. Maybe that is why we call every other mixture a martini.
There really aren’t any official answers to any of these questions, but I do find this subject fascinating. It seems that we can conclude that the martini is an exceptionally good cocktail, which is why its name became representative of all cocktails at some point. The last great question then, if this is true, is why do I make about one martini every 2 or 3 months? I have someone order a martini at least once a shift, but what they always want is for me to shake a couple ounces of vodka for them and to throw some olives in the glass. If they do want gin, which we know now is the actual base spirit, I am usually asked to omit the vermouth completely.
As a gift to yourself, I recommend that the next time you are thinking about what to have as your pre dinner cocktail, try a martini. Don’t say ‘martini’ and drink cold vodka or a blend of vodka and juice, or anything else. Drink a martini. Have your bartender stir up a 5:1, 3:1, or even a 2:1 ratio of London Dry Gin and Dry Vermouth. You will probably be pleased and will understand why the word martini has become the verbal mascot of the American cocktail. Or, if nothing else, you will at least get to say that you have experienced an actual martini, and if you don’t like it, you can become even more confused as to why this cocktail has become the ultimate legend behind the bar.