On Saturday July 18 the best cocktail bars in the world were judged at the Tales of the Cocktail Annual Spirited Awards in New Orleans. New York City was well represented. The Dead Rabbit took home awards for the World's Best Cocktail Bar and Menu. Employees Only was awarded the Best American Bar Team and High Volume Bar. Ivy Mix of Leyenda in Brooklyn, which opened in May, was named American Bartender of the Year.
One of the most ridiculous things about the modern age, according to the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, is that people are so busy that they never stop to reflect on their lives. He was writing in the 1800s and lives are no less busy now. Cocktail bars offer a space to call a time-out from routines and habits and to savor time with others.
Philosophy and cocktails have an intimate history. In fact, a cocktail inspired French existentialism. One evening in 1932, Simone de Beauvoir and her boyfriend Jean-Paul Sartre were drinking with Raymond Aron in a trendy Parisian bar, the Bec de Gaz, in Rue Montparnasse. Aron said that if they were phenomenologists, they could philosophize about their apricot cocktails. Sartre thought, 'Finally there is philosophy'.
Beauvoir and Sartre became famous for creating a philosophy about everyday things, and infamous for their drinking habits. Beauvoir flirted with gin fizzes, and routinely drank two vodkas from a Mexican tumbler in the morning, and a few scotch whiskeys later in the day. Her leaden hand would pour around five shots per glass.
Sartre enjoyed a fifth of scotch most nights. He found it to be an excellent social lubricator and tool for overcoming language barriers: "Two phrases only are necessary for a whole evening of English conversation, I have found: 'Scotch-and-soda?' and 'Why not?' By alternating them, it is impossible to make a mistake".
Friedrich Nietzsche, the grandfather of existentialism, would have been concerned about the level of his intellectual progenies' alcohol consumption. Overindulgence at its best turns us into "happy idiots" and at its worst, drags us down into decadence, hedonism, and a failure of self-mastery that he scorned as the ugly side of humanity. (Nietzsche could have also been the grandfather of prohibition.)
Nietzsche veered away from alcohol entirely. A little alcohol depressed him, and too much made him act "like a sailor on shore leave". Even one glass, he confessed, "is enough to turn life into a valley of tears for me". He switched to drinking water and occasionally splurged on milk.
The first description of a cocktail appears in May 1806 in a New York publication called The Balance and Columbian Repository. The editor, Harry Croswell, noted that a cock-tail is a potion that "renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head". Croswell was a political journalist who also taunted that cocktails are "of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else".
Modern cocktail culture is less concerned with head fuddling or copious consumption and more focused on quality. Concealed or complex entrance requirements - such as behind a fortuneteller's curtain at Employees Only, through the back door of a jewelry store at Beauty and Essex, or via a telephone booth in a hot dog shop at PDT - help to detach drinkers from the chaotic world and pace the journey of the cocktail experience.
The dignified cadence inside is also distinct from the everyday world. Bartenders prepare cocktails individually, taking time to recommend if called upon, then to measure, mix, taste, carve filtered ice (Attaboy), chill glasses with liquid nitrogen from a local welding supply company (Booker and Dax), spritz them with the scent of bonfire (Manhattan Cricket Club), or embellish them with sensuous purple orchids (Flatiron Lounge) or edible pansies (Pegu Club) that can look and smell almost too pretty to drink.
Cocktail alchemy has come a long way since the drinks became popular during prohibition in the 1920s. Back then, flavors were added mainly to mask the taste of moonshine, or often crudely made gin, which is quicker to distill than whiskey.
Gin is still a prolific spirit in cocktails. Other ingredients, now free from the role of camouflage, are transcending traditional boundaries of taste and scent. Experimentation with ingredients is fuelling liquid art and science. Mixologists at Mace Bar fat-wash cognac with brown butter and hay and infuse spirits with flowers, herbs, and seaweed. At Booker and Dax, they centrifuge juices, tinker with enzymes and acids, and nitro-muddle.
The renaissance of the cocktail is challenging taste buds to become more discerning and sophisticated. It invites reflection on what one is drinking and, like deconstructing a perfume, to be mindful of the balance or juxtapositions between top, heart, and base notes.
While Nietzsche disapproved of drinking towards unconsciousness, he respected intoxication's "transfiguring power". He says that intoxication, like sex, is one of the "oldest festal joys of mankind". It enhances life by making it more beautiful, exciting, euphoric, and exhilarating. It can stimulate creativity and cultivate feelings of power that encourages us to do and achieve great things. Thus, Nietzsche declares, "how wise it is at times to be a little tipsy!"
Yet the intoxicating qualities of cocktails derive not only from the effects of alcohol itself, but also from the experience. Cocktail lounges offer an aesthetic adventure that engages participants beyond taste to smell and sight. For example, subtle perfumes emanating from cinnamon agave brewing quietly at The Summit Bar seduce one's olfactory nerves as one's eyes adjust to soft mood lighting, in case visitors wish also to engage their sense of touch.
Nietzsche thought that sharing pleasure and joy makes us better natured and ultimately better people. Cocktail lounges inspire this by creating intimate sanctuaries for 'speaking easily'. They also encourage engagement between patrons and hosts in new ways. At Attaboy, menus are redundant. Customers are beckoned to take a leap of faith and put their trust in the professionals. Bespoke potions are spontaneously fashioned after patrons are encouraged to confess their moods and preferences. At other bars, quirky cocktail names and unusual ingredients provoke us to ask questions and such knowledge enhances our understanding about what we are consuming and preferences.
Cocktail bars can be forums for philosophical exploration because they create a haven to reflect away from the chaos of the quotidian, to explore and deepen relationships, and gently to push our sensory boundaries, if we are strong enough to get just a little tipsy.
Skye Cleary (PhD, MBA) is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.