HOW TO WRECK DRINKS
I find the biggest problem in a lot of books on “mixology” [authors note: everyone hates that word] is that they break down to be just glorified recipe books, and a lot of them are completely impractical for the everyday business. Do I have burdock root in my apothecary cabinet with which to make my special Alpine Bitter Liqueur? Well, fine, yes. Do you? I doubt it. Does anyone? Unlikely. Should you? Don’t be ridiculous.
So I’m not going to start with all sorts of recipes for infusions and tinctures and whatnot, because frankly, how often will you need to use it? And more importantly, why start with Calculus when we haven't yet passed Algebra?
People don’t wreck drinks because they’re not using calamus root bitters. People wreck drinks because of a few basic rules and guidelines. I’ll go over them here. And after you read this, if you want more, ask away. And if you want my recipe for Alpine Bitters, tough titty. It’s secret.
DRINK WRECK 1: YOU DON’T KNOW JACK (daniels)
If you’re going to mix with something, taste it. Taste it by itself. Taste it cold. Taste it with water. Ingredients change, brands change, vintages change. EVERYTHING is drinkable. If it’s terrible, don’t serve it, don’t mix with it, don’t buy it. Have you had vermouth on its own? When it’s fresh, it’s quite good on ice. What’s the sweetness-difference between using a honey liqueur (like Barenjager) and a honey syrup? What’s the flavor profile difference between bourbon, rye, blended, Tennessee, Irish, and scotch whiskey? What about between Russell’s Rye, Bulleit Rye, and Wild Turkey Rye? If you don’t know what you’re mixing with, you won’t be able to mix with it.
DRINK WRECK 2: NEVER GRADUATED ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
You MUST be able to make a few perfect classics. Classic cocktails are not “classic” because they’re old. They’re classic because they are generally representative of a perfect iteration of a specific liquor, style, or technique. To have a flawless Manhattan, Champagne Cocktail, Aviation, etc. helps you understand what that liquor/style/technique is, can be, and can do. Again, if you don’t know arithmetic, you can’t move on to calculus.
DRINK WRECK 2 ½: DOESN’T PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS
On the same subject, bartending can be a pride-issue. We know. We KNOW you’re funny. We KNOW you’re fast. We KNOW you can make a good “Sex on a Dead Screwed Alligator in the Tokyo Sunset.” But if you can’t learn from each other, you’ll never get any better. This is most important in reference to Drink Wreck 2, because a book’s recipe might not give you the best Old-Fashioned you’ve ever had. It’s an instinct thing. So find someone that knows how to make a beautiful Old-Fashioned, and ask him to make you one. Tell him to make it the best he possibly can. Enjoy it. Then go ask somebody else to make you hers. Enjoy that one. Then reflect on the stylistic differences. Then understand what makes that cocktail “right”. Ask knowledgeable friends/coworkers/staff/etc. regularly. “What’s that bottle?” “What do you use that for?” “Have you ever had…?” You’ll be a better bartender in the end.
DRINK WRECK 3: JUNGLE JUICE IS NOT MIXOLOGY
"Mixology" [authors note: seriously. hate that word.] does not mean your drinks all have fifteen ingredients in them. Every ingredient should contribute something specific and worthwhile. When I’m constructing a recipe, I max out at four or five ingredients, and have to really prove to myself WHY I need to add that sixth. Not only does it begin to make your drinks take 20 minutes per to mix, it muddies the flavors into a glass of random noise. EVERY ingredient plays its own instrument in a drink. Start with a piano to anchor the other intruments. Add a violin duet to create a theme. Need a little harp in the background? Alright fine. Wait—why are you bringing in those French Horns? Yes, they’re nice, but—HEY! Is that an electric bass? WHO BROUGHT MARACAS?
See what I mean? They might all be good ingredients, but they don’t all need to play together.
DRINK WRECK 4: DRIVING WITHOUT A DESTINATION.
Identify a goal. Choose your base spirit(s). Choose an accent or counterpoint. Then taste—does it need a perfumed topnote? A spice or bitter in the base? A little more sweetness or tartness? Approach those changes thoughtfully, and “orchestrate” your drink. Don’t just throw stuff in the glass—aim for what your end product should be. Something refreshing? Something bitter? Something strong? Clean? Sour?
Start at the “goal”, and then ask questions to accomplish that. If you want something fresh and light, then maybe you shouldn’t choose an aged rum as your base spirit—too heavy, and it tends to boost sweet flavors, thereby making your end product less light. So we’ll start with a more delicate gin—say, Death’s Door. Death’s door is a little bready and earthy, so we don’t want to exaggerate those flavors—“bread” and “earth” doesn’t make me think “fresh”. So instead, we’ll notice that Death’s Door has a subtle ginger/coriander characteristic. Ginger and coriander? Sounds like Southeast Asian food to me…and Coriander is the seed of Cilantro, so let’s throw some fresh cilantro in with our gin (just a bit! We still want to taste the gin!), and use a ginger syrup for a little sweetness. Now, we’ve got sugar in the drink, and “freshness” often refers to acidity, so let’s add some acid. If I was getting really “mixological”, I could do a more savory cocktail and use a mildly sharp black-pepper-infused vinegar for acid. Don’t have any on hand? Neither do I. Let’s use lime—not lemon, because lemon’s perfume will change the direction of the drink. Ginger and cilantro have limey, green, grassy notes. Neither of them have much of the floral fruitiness of lemon, nor does the gin we’ve chosen. Lemon would muddy our idea, lime would duet it. Top our drink off with sparkling water, and we’ve constructed a cocktail thoughtfully. With practice, you can do this whole discussion in your head in about 45 seconds.
DRINK WRECK 4: SOUNDING FANCY
Don’t add stuff to a drink unless it ADDS to the drink. “Topping something with champagne” is a waste of champagne if you don’t use enough to add flavor to the drink, or if your drink is so strongly flavored the champagne wouldn’t matter. Using expensive products but then hiding them under other things (either by quantity or intensity) shows that you don’t know how to show off your expensive products. Cocktails should “show off” EVERY ingredient in them. Nothing in the recipe should be expendable or replaceable. If it is, expend it or replace it.
DRINK WRECK 5: YOU’RE A BIG WIMP
Just because you don’t like something doesn’t give you the right to ruin other people’s cocktails. You hate gin. You think it tastes like solvent. Fine. You don’t like strong cocktails or the taste of alcohol. Whatever. But don’t give me an over-sweetened, over-juiced, gin-in-a-costume swampwater just because YOU don’t like to taste gin. Learn to respect every ingredient, from toxically-bitter Campari to a burning-trash-can Islay scotch. Even if you don’t like it, it’s a mark of a great bartender/mixologist to be able to play with it respectfully. In fact, you can even have some fun learning about the “positive abilities” of a weird ingredient. My best example is the 12-year Laphroaig scotch. It tastes like a garbage fire. But, a dash of it in a dry Manhattan of honey cordial and Irish whiskey lends this campfire/birch lodge/lumberjack aroma that makes an otherwise simple cocktail damned sexy.
DRINK WRECK 6: WE DON’T SERVE WATER AT THIS BAR
Unless you’re at a “let’s get wasted” nightclub, people are not drinking JUST to get drunk. They want a good drink. Otherwise they’d drink windex. And what is the one ingredient I’d say most bartenders under (or over) utilize?
Water chemically changes your liquor. You can even visually see this by adding water to any form of anise liqueur—when the right balance occurs, it turns opaque. Cocktails that seem rough, edgy, unbalanced, unbound, etc. often simply don’t have the right water balance for the sugar and alcohol within. Experiment with water, and you’ll find your cocktails coming into much nicer balance.
DRINK WRECK 7: YOU DON’T DO ANY HOMEWORK
Do you need a mixology [author's note: UGH.] degree? Do you need to subscribe to every liquor/beer/wine magazine out there? Do you need to argue on internet forums about the correct pronunciation of “Zirbenz” and the true origin of the Bellini? Only if you want to be a pain in the ass.
BUT, your guests—especially the ones you’re going to WANT around—expect at least a modicum of expertise from you. Being behind a bar gives you an immediate badge of honor that only your own lack of effort can take away. Learn a few good drink-origin-stories. Learn the backstory of a couple liquors (especially the ones you like to show off the most). Do your best to learn the correct pronunciation and classification of things you’re selling . Which are your bourbons? Which are your scotches? Which are Irish, Tennessee, etc.?
Sidebar: I was at a bar asking for a cognac and soda and they poured Grand Mariner. Yes, it’s made with cognac. No, it’s not cognac. It would be like me asking for a glass of milk, and you putting a pancake in front of me. Yes, there’s milk in it. No, it’s not milk.
See what I mean? You don’t need to be a pro. But at least demonstrate that there’s a reason that you’re behind the bar more than “it was Sally’s night off, and I know how to pour stuff in a glass."
DRINK WRECK 8: YOU MAKE THINGS WRONG
There are pretty much three types of bar-people.
People who don’t REALLY care what they’re getting (gin and tonic! Jack and diet! Sex on the Beach!), to whom you can be quick, efficient, and basically accurate, get their cash, and move on.
People who want to show off to their friends that THEY read “Imbibe”, or want to be a dick to you. (Um yeah, can I get a Golden Dead-Rabbit Fizz, not too sweet? You mean you don’t know how to make one?) These people are best dealt with as such:
1) Recognize that there’s no rational expectation that you would know what that is.
2) Recognize their friends/date/partner/etc. probably already thinks they’re a dick as much as you do for ordering something in that way.
3) Recognize there’s a great chance they don’t even know what that drink is, or what’s in it.
Solution: smile, make ‘em laugh, make their friends laugh, offer to approximate it, or ask them why—if they apparently only order drinks off of the applebees kid’s menu—would they expect you know what the hell a “Golden Dead Rabbit Fizz” is?
And most importantly,
Cool people who legitimately want a drink that you’ve never heard of. These people are not doing it to be dicks—in fact, if they’re ordering something weird, they’re probably fully prepared to tell you what it is, if you’re unaware. They know they’re ordering something weird, and they should be both humble and cool about it. Strike up a conversation. Learn something. Add it to your repertoire.
DON’T UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE: Wing it. You get a pissed off client, a wasted drink, and you look like an idiot. When in doubt, ask. ALSO, if it’s something REALLY odd, DON’T simply consult your bar-manual unless you HAVE to. Drink recipes can vary so much that they often don’t even represent one another from manual- to- manual. Just ask the guest. It’s more fun and easier.
I was at a bar and asked the bartender very politely if he knew how to make a Negroni (a classic—equal parts gin, vermouth, and campari). He said “oh definitely—I’m a pro at this.” He served me a glass of champagne with orange juice and Campari in it, charged me 10 bucks, and took a smoke break. “Pro” my ass.
DRINK WRECK 9: YOU DON’T WANT TO BE ANY BETTER THAN YOU ARE
I was listening to an NPR show on food and drink culture, and they had an interview with a bartender who was supposed to represent “everyman: bartender”, and give listeners an “insider’s view” on what your bartender is actually thinking. When asked “what’s your favorite drink to make”, she didn’t answer “X because it’s fun and showy!” or “Y because it tastes amazing” or “Z because it looks cool!” Instead, she said “a draft beer, because it’s easy and I’m lazy.”
She was asked if bartenders only ask you about your day because they want a bigger tip from you, to which she said “Yeah, pretty much.”
This went on for almost an hour, until I was about ready to drive to Brooklyn, get myself hired as her manager, and fire her ass.
Ultimately, people expect more of a bartender. You aren’t just “Sally Jones, putting herself through school”—you’re the pro back there, and you should treat it as such.
More than anything, you don’t have to work like this is your life-goal or career.
You don’t have to write a book or become an apothecary.
But you DO have to respect your position, as people respect you in it.
Have a joke up your sleeve.
Know your product.
Know the important classics and how to make them well.
Know a few cool impressive cocktails.
Know when it’s more important to be fast and efficient, versus wise and impressive, and vice versa. Also, try and combine both of those skill sets as often as possible.
And most of all, know that there’s always more to learn, and be interested in doing so.
[Author's Note: FINE. Here's my recipe for Alpine Bitters.]
Tory's Alpine Bitter Liqueur
In a large jar, combine:
1-750ml bottle cognac
1/2oz milk thistle seed
1/2oz dried burdock root
1/4oz dried gentian root
Allow to infuse for 7-10 days.
Strain and filter. Add to the infusion:
1/4oz dried black walnut leaf
1oz dried mint
1/2oz dried chammomile flowers
1/2oz dried fennel seed
1/4oz dried thyme
1/4oz dried hyssop
1/4oz dried raspberry leaf
1/4oz dried anise seed
2oz fresh spruce tips
Allow to infuse for 3-5 days. Strain and filter.
8oz forest honey (something really dark and piney)
16oz white wine (something mellow and inobtrusive, like a French viognier)
Taste, and adjust the infusion as you like (using single herbs, more water, more sugar/honey, etc). Bottle, and age at least 1-2 months.