Thursday, July 30, 2015

:: strong opinions ::

"Orange bitters make a good astringent for the face. Never put them in anything that is to be drunk." With this quote from Bernard DeVoto who penned The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto in 1948, Rachel Ford began the first talk I attended at Tales of the Cocktail on Saturday. This talk entitled "Strong Opinions" brings into the question how relevant is the written word. She soon became interested in the cranky old men who wrote many of the cocktail books. DeVoto was not a bartender but a highly published author and Pulitzer Prize winner. Despite his very opinionated and controversial tone, his writing makes you chuckle and wonder if he was right in some way. As a second author, Rachel mentioned Charles Henry Baker and his The Gentleman's Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask. Baker was a world traveler and exquisite story teller, and he wrote about his culinary and drinking experiences for magazines like Esquire. The third strong opinion was David Embury with his tome The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Embury was no bartender either but an American attourney who was highly witty and opinionated. I previously wrote about Robert Hess' thoughts on Embury in my notes on his Embury and the Side Car talk back in 2011.

To make this talk even more dynamic, Rachel did not just rely on these great texts but brought a panel of bartenders and brand ambassadors who have rather strong opinions themselves both in person and especially on Twitter and Facebook. This crew consisted of Sean Kenyon, Erick Castro, Ivy Mix, and Kyle Ford. While there was voting on quotes from the three authors by the panel and live voting by the audience thanks to a cloud-based app, much of the gems of this talk were the bounty of quotes from these authors and spirits professionals.

To start, three drinks were brought up: the Martini, the Manhattan, and the Daiquiri, and which were their favorites. To add to DeVoto's opinions on the whether or not orange bitters should be in a Martini, he was very specific about his proportions and favored a 3.7 part gin to 1 part dry vermouth Martini with a lemon twist. Yes, a lemon twist for he hated olives; in fact, he declared, "And, I suppose, nothing can be done with people who put olives in martinis, presumably because in some desolate childhood hour someone refused them a dill pickle and so they go through life lusting for the taste of brine." Kyle declared that a Martini is a right of passage, while Erick argued that the Martini has held gin back as stale dry vermouth found in many bars ruins the drink. Kyle later agreed that it was not just about getting a Martini into his hand but getting the dilution, vermouth amounts, and temperature correct.

In discussing the Manhattan, Sean remembers the first time he had a proper stirred Manhattan and it blew his mind; it is the very memory of that singular drink experience that makes him go back. Moreover, Sean favors the Daiquiri to learn about a bartender's understanding of balance. Limes are different every day and throughout the shift, so rote following of a recipe can lead to variations in the final product. Finally, Erick was contrary and picked the Old Fashioned instead of the three choices to vote on. To him, the drink is a window into a bartender's soul. Every bartender has the right to make an Old Fashioned their way, and it will tell you about their philosophies and what they are about. Instead of asking me what my opinion is, just look at my three cups. The Daiquiri is all gone, the Manhattan half way, and only wisps of the Martini were quaffed. If asked, I would probably emotionally answer Manhattan, but a good Daiquiri (especially on a hot day) is hard to beat. Perhaps the way the Martini was served in a plastic cup instead of a chilled and elegant coupe glass altered by enjoyment of this drink:
Next, there were quotes from the three authors in terms of what makes a good cocktail. Ivy proffered that, "Just like a tree that fall is the forest with no one around to hear it, a cocktail with no one around to talk about it..." For her, it is all about context; bartending to her is about giving experiences to people around them. She continued, "If you have zero personality, you should find a new career." Kyle added that context is everything including the place you are at, the people you are with, etc. Even his favorite drink the Martini needs to be enjoyed in a more urban setting (and he brought his own glassware to enjoy his Martini properly instead of in a plastic cup).

When the topic of measuring came up in making a cocktail, Erick stated that it was a pet peeve of his when he sees bartenders not filling a jigger up properly. Ivy continued with, " the meniscus. A jigger is not a prop." Sean recalled how jiggers were punishments handed out when pour costs were off, and how that has all changed. Seeing a drink made well is part of the equation; Ivy mentioned that "we taste with our eyes. The music has to be right, the glass has to be right, and the garnish has to be beautiful and appropriate." Sean later threw in that the bartender is an ingredient in every cocktail.

In addition, Sean brought up the point that so many bartenders think that they know more about their guests than the guests do about themselves. Erick believes that you should create trust, get them on your side and curious, and then perhaps offer them something different. In the end, Erick continued, "It's all about serving cocktails and making people happy. We all have different palates." Sean ventured with "Mixology is a practice, bartender is a person. We serve people, not drinks. We don't want to be drink delivery systems" but want to know about the neighborhood, current events, and be ubiquitous to aid and comfort the guests. Moreover, Sean brought up how there was "such a focus on mixology that hospitality got lost, but it was a necessary step to elevate the science and history of our craft." Indeed, Ivy believes that bartenders "got their noses stuck in their jiggers" during that period.

A good anecdote about how to better serve people came about when one of Erick's bartenders asked him if he should get a second job somewhere to round out his skill set and asked Erick where it should be. Erick replied, "A sports bar. You learn how to get regulars to see you -- not your new amaro or gadget." I would add here perhaps a day shift where the clientele is seeking a friendly face more than a well made libation. Erick later continued with, "Bartending is cutting people off, getting people laid, and washing glassware. Not about making fancy drinks."

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