Full confession: I am a cocktail-o-phobe. Oh sure, I’ll drink a vodka-cran like any moderately cliché gay man, but I hardly even consider that a mixed drink. What’s there to mix—Ocean Spray and grain alcohol?
In my line of work, however, I have to respect the art of cocktailing as its own storied genre. It draws thousands to bars every night, so there must be something to it. And while I have no love for brown bag swill in a lowball, I can get behind a top-shelf Old Fashioned crafted with serious TLC. The problem is, I don’t know my whiskey from bourbon, my vodka from gin. For someone who regularly writes about this stuff, nothing is more shameful.
Fortunately, I’ve crossed paths with bartenders who not only know their liquor, but sport a gentle barside manner. None of that hoity-toity nonsense from ’20s-vested, newsies-dressed, Speakeasy wannabes who can’t possibly fathom an Old Fashioned with brandy and un-organic sugar. Just buttoned-up smiles from beverage managers who spend most of their daylight locked in a room with P-and-L sheets. They’re so happy to be behind a bar, you could ask them to pour anything and they’d oblige. But what’s really impressive is how they don’t mince musts—no scowling when you can’t figure out your way to a cocktail that might suit your mood. They just grin at your awkward ignorance, flip through the pages of their cocktail list, and make a nonchalant suggestion: “The Derby’s a good one if you like sweet drinks.” Shrug. “Or the Julep for a kick in the pants.” Head tilt. “Or a Sour. Better yet,” they surge, flying through ice and fingering sexy bottles on the backbar, “what spirits do you like? I’ll whip up something for you.” And away they whir like some five year-old with a brand new Lego set. Passion and personality in a dervish.
That’s how it should be, you see. Nobody should have to saddle up to a bar with a monologue prepared and the classics bible memorized. Just know what you like, like what you know, and kindly offer them both.
Truth is, bartenders have a tendency to soar from peon—slinging your stock OceanSpray-Absoluts—to a precipice where there is nothing but the classics, pure and unadulterated. Their nightly routine is an act of extended condescension, questioning drinkers’ untoward requests for an interloping cherry garnish here, bourbon instead of whiskey there. They correct us, they scold us. Then they make us our stepchild drink anyway, all while executing a public humiliation for asking the unthinkable—a Frankenstein fix for a tried-and-true cocktail.
Don’t misunderstand, you lovers of libations, I am not dismissing the trend-setting speakeasy concepts that do justice to historic drinks. I’m all about it. But don’t go too far overboard on the secret club, in-the-know angle, alright? It’s all a farce anyway, when what I really want for an exorbitant $15 is, well, what I want. Don’t question it, just make it. And if I seem open to a bit of education, by all means, teach me. Just don’t assume we all come to the bar for a lesson in bartending circa 1927. For most of us, on most dull nights of the year, all we want is a drink we know to settle the day we had. Capiche?
Oh and for the record, I prefer my Derby without sweet vermouth. Get over it.