There are two approaches bartenders take when making a cocktail. Well, properly there are three, but the third need not be discussed in any detail. Here’s the third:
I once went to a newly opened tiki bar in Omaha, Neb. The bartender cheerily asked what I wanted, and I requested a zombie — a rather commonplace tropical cocktail made with a variety of rums, apricot brandy, and various fruit juices. “I’ll make you one,” the bartender said, “but I make it my own way, if that’s all right.”
I’m always up for an adventure. And so I watched him make a horrible slurry of random alcohols and mixers which, when I tasted it, didn’t resemble a zombie so much as an accident in the juice aisle of a grocery store, in which various containers of fruit juice had spoiled, fermented, and then combusted. I could not figure out why this fellow had concocted this drink, or why he was passing it off as a zombie. Just then another patron arrived.
“I’ll have a mai tai,” the customer said.
“I make it my own way,” the bartender said, and proceeded with the same kamikaze approach to making a drink. And suddenly I knew what he was up to: He didn’t know how to make any of the cocktails we requested, and so was making them up on the spot.
This is not how to make a cocktail. My preferred approach is one mapped out by author David A. Embury in his classic book on the subject, “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.” Embury proposed that the cocktail was both a simple thing and a matter of careful measurement. To his eyes, a proper mixed drink would consist of an alcoholic base, a modifying agent, and an additional “special flavoring or coloring ingredient.” And if you look at many of the classic cocktails, this is pretty much how they’re made. Take the martini. It’s base liquor is gin (never vodka, you heathens). It is then modified by vermouth. And the modifying agent is a lemon twist or an olive, depending on your taste, and, in a proper martini, a dash of orange bitters.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but Embury’s approach is one favored by good bartenders for ages, and for two good reasons — it produces a delicious cocktail, and it is reproducible. Any two skilled bartenders should be able to make a martini and have it taste about the same, the only significant difference being the choice of gins and vermouths. And people can get quite particular here — my girlfriend, Coco, will not drink a martini made with Martini and Rossi vermouth, as an example, which she finds tedious. I myself sometimes like to have a martini made with equal measures sweet and dry vermouth, called the perfect martini. But these aesthetic choices are possible because there is some consensus as to what a well-made martini should taste like. Without that, anything we made would just be more kamikaze fumbling.
There’s another approach that’s very much in favor right now, and I like to make fun of it, but it has its qualities. And that approach is antithetical to Embury’s approach, but we’re in a time of fusion restaurants now, which I suspect we will remember with some embarrassment. And so it is not enough to make a cocktail, but instead the recipe must be mucked with by adding in modifying agent after modifying agent, preferably obscure and exotic, and then declare it a signature drink. When you want a Manhattan, you’re not typically looking for something made with sake, peppercorn, and ostrich feathers, but nowadays, that’s what you’re likely to get, and the price tag will be in direct inverse proportion to how good it is. The really awful ones will cost upwards of $15, because, well, the mugi miso was imported from Japan, and the sea sponges can only be harvested once per year in a bay outside Rangoon.
These cocktails are usually the product of one bartender who is especially full of himself, and cannot be reproduced by any other bartender in the joint. They usually last on the menu just as long as the current bar staff is employed — so, about six months, given how fast the turnover is at most bars. And no other bar in America will have heard of the drink, or be able to make it, even if you know the recipe. These are cocktails that are obsolete almost at the moment that they are invented, and the only real value they offer is that they’re novel.
So when I’m looking for a good, classic cocktail, I tend to wander into the Monte Carlo in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis. I’ve patronized the place for 20 years and never had a bad drink there, and it just feels right to have a traditional cocktail in that venue. It’s decidedly old fashioned — so much so that, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a web page. So much so that they tell me to take off my hat when I get a table, and I always oblige, even though I usually take my hat off for nobody.
The nice thing about the Monte Carlo is, because they know how to pour a drink, you can start getting finicky and they will respect that. When I am in the mood for a sweet drink, I’ll often get something called a sidecar. Based on Embury’s formula, this is a drink with a brandy base, modified with Cointreau, and flavored with lemon juice, typically served in a glass rimmed with sugar. Now, I prefer mine made with lime juice — a fairly traditional variation on the cocktail. And I can request it at the Monte Carlo, and that request will be honored, whereas elsewhere the bartender might stare daggers at me before declaring, “We make our sidecar with honeyed papaya and cauliflower florets, and that’s just what you’re going to drink.”
However, I do like an occasional adventure, and am a fan of novelty, and so when I find a bar that mucks with cocktails in a really interesting way, I’m willing to take my chances. There is, as an example, W.A. Frost and Co. in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. This bar/restaurant has affected a very fin de siecle look, and they describe their food (and, by extension, cocktails) using the very language that would usually have me running the other way: “eclectic … artisanal.” But I have been there a half-dozen times, and have never had a bad drink, even though there is always the risk of ostrich feathers.
For instance, they currently have something on their menu called a B&B Manhattan. Now, the Manhattan is not a very complicated cocktail, consisting, typically, of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry. It’s a classic savory cocktail, albeit one that terrifies a lot of drinkers, as it’s made up of rye whiskey, which people don’t like, and sweet vermouth, which they like even less. But these are the sorts of people who will declare, without a hint of embarrassment, that they don’t drink brown liquors, which is a bit like saying you don’t eat green food or look at red paintings.
The B&B Manhattan cocktail doesn’t have rye whiskey in it. Neither does it have sweet vermouth in it. And so there it is: W.A. Frost’s Manhattan is missing both the base and the modifying agent, which is a bit like making a grilled cheese sandwich with neither bread nor cheese, but insisting it’s the same food because, after all, there’s still the butter.
And yet … the B&B Manhattan is delicious. Worse still, somehow it actually tastes like a Manhattan. It’s made with Benedictine and Brandy (aka B&B) and Evan Williams Bourbon, and somehow the combination of the two is very much like rye whiskey and sweet vermouth. Additionally, the bar uses maraschino liqueur in place of the cherry, and that’s actually a better choice. A maraschino cherry adds very little to the flavor of a drink, whereas the liqueur cherries the drink up nicely, without making it oversweet.
And there’s W.A. Frost’s Mint Lime Daiquiri. Another simple drink, consisting of rum, lime juice, and simple sugar. W.A. Frost keeps its variation simple, but the bartenders infuse their rum with lime and mint, and add in Grand Marnier, and serve it in a glass with a sugar rim. The resulting drink has a very strong mint flavor to it, and it is quite sweet. Sweet drinks can be risky — they’re often the sort of thing served to amateur drinkers who can’t stand the taste of any liquor at all, and so bartenders mix up awful things with titles like Appletini and Chocolatini in an attempt to simultaneously get people drunk and convince them alcohol tastes like candy.
It doesn’t taste like candy. It tastes like alcohol, and a good mixed drink should highlight the flavor of the liquor, rather than mask it. W.A. Frost’s Daiquiri is every bit a rum drink, and so I’ll keep going back there, even if they don’t make cocktails the way they’re supposed to be made, and even if no other bar in America can reproduce the drinks they make. So be it. A serious drinker should have a place in their heart, stomach, and liver for a unique experience.