Last week in the New York Times food section I found an article by Robert Willey entitled, "Here's to Your Summer Cocktails Made Simpler." It talked about how complicated cocktails have become as of late, and knowing that the readership of the Times might want to make some of the newer drinks at home, offered an opportunity for bartenders to come up with three ingredient drinks, not counting garnishes that could be made by anyone.
The last two years the editors of Food & Wine have published two books, Cocktails 2010 and Cocktails 2011. They have and are widely available and are generally found at the checkout counters of most grocery stores. They are very well done, and have many spectacular recipes in them. The one common denominator in most of the recipes is the sheer volume of ingredients, and in many cases the obscurity of them. They gave great insight into just what is considered a press-worthy cocktail these days, and I'm sure for the casual reader they give some pause. One might have been forgiven if one simply sighed at one point in the reading and realized that to duplicate the recipes at home or in one's bar might seem a daunting if not impossible task. These were true mixologists' who with a passion for their craft, and a chance at immortality, created elixirs with amazing ingredients and they all read as such. The question is: can one duplicate them easily?
We are living in an unprecedented age in food, wine, and spirits, and most of us can say that what we now know about these categories and what we have come to expect when we go out to dine, has far surpassed anything we could have imagined just ten or fifteen years ago. Food and Wine's learning curves came first; in fact they started in the '80s. Cocktails came later, but with such a fury that we haven't had much time to stop and examine what we've done, and what direction we are headed in. One of the problems has been the lack of modern classics that will help define this remarkable era, and make what has been an exhilarating time for the connoisseur of cocktails a memorable one. A classic becomes one when it can be duplicated by bartenders anywhere, and memorized by customers so they can announce it with the surety that it will be understood and created. Tiki drinks excluded, most classics have a short-list of ingredients and therefore not only can be easily memorized, but can be made with the ingredients that most bars have in stock.
Bars are adaptable entities, and a case in point was when the army of cranberry-based drinks were introduced in the '70s. Most bars didn't carry cranberry juice, but they quickly adapted due to the high demand for the Cosmopolitan, Cape Cod, Madras, Sea Breeze, etc., and it was a rare bar that didn't carry cranberry juice after a certain point. In the '90s, it wasn't unusual for bars to make sours, margaritas and Collins with an artificial soda mix which oftentimes came out of a soda gun. By now, it would be a rare high-end bar that didn't use fresh lemon and lime juice with agave or simple syrup. Now bars are stocking items that often appear on cocktail lists, but it is the more esoteric spirits or tinctures or bitters and juices that might not be in their inventories just yet due to a lack of consensus as to just what the bars should carry.
Muddling, the bane of many a bartender in a fast-paced establishment has become recognized by the general public, and often dictated in their drink orders. Cucumber, mint, fruits, and herbs of all kinds are more often employed as part of the drink ordering lexicon, and so muddlers have become de rigueur in most establishments. Syrups of all varieties have been introduced and play a big part in the mixology world these days. So have beer, sherry, port, and amaro based cocktails. You walk into many bars today, and the sheer array of product available is remarkable, and to some, perhaps daunting. What you have is choices, and choices in spades. What you don't have is some consensus on which of these choices might rise to the level of a classic. So we often get orders as bartenders for things that we can't make due to the lack of either essential ingredients, or the inability of the customer to relate back to the bartender just what it is that they are ordering. Sure, we can improvise and often give them something as good or better, but like favorite songs or movies of an era, we naturally long for those drinks that will define for better or worse the singles or teen decades of this century, just like the cocktails from the decades before them did.
There are so many brilliant cocktails out there right now in such numbers that like stars in the sky, we can't possibly comprehend them. From America, to Europe, to Asia, and South America, we have taken our collective knowledge of all things alcohol and made a smorgasbord of combinations. What we don't necessarily have, is the visceral understanding of these drinks so that we all can share them wherever we may be. Who doesn't love to travel either blocks miles or frequent flier journeys to far flung places, and order a classic like the margarita or the manhattan and get it spot-on just like you would had you ordered it in any of your favorite drinking establishments? Sure the exactness may be slightly different, but the basic truth is in your glass and you are content with it. The joys of localism should and won't ever stop pleasing us with their terroir or sense of place. We all love to walk in to a bar and know that some drink constructed there is one that we could only have at that place. That is special and is part of the craft of the mixologist who wants to create something that can't be duplicated and is perhaps analogous to the menu or neighborhood or city in which they toil. But immortality is now within a mixologist's grasp, and creating a masterpiece that transcends all geographic constraints and brings us elixirs that we wish to imbibe in no matter the location is a goal that should not be ignored.
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So, I call upon all mixologists, professionally employed or not, to offer their cocktails that they feel could be classics or in fact might even be classics in their minds. The rules are: it has to be something that is truly a cocktail, which is of our times and offers something that speaks to the craft of the cocktail but doesn't overwhelm us with an army of ingredients. Additionally, it should contain ingredients that can be found without too much difficulty in most markets. Simply respond with your recipe in your comments or tweet me at @BEHINDTHESTICK. I will post some of them in a future column. Good luck and I/we can't wait to hear your ideas.
I'll see you when I see you.