I thought it would be interesting to put up a list of what I view as the single best value out there in each of the six great cocktail spirit categories. To be clear, these are hardly the best exemplars of Whiskey (North American), Rum, Gin, Brandy, Tequila, and Vodka, nor are they the cheapest. Far from it in both instances. These hit the sweet spot where the price and quality curves intersect. Prices, of course, will vary wherever you are, and in what mood the bottlers, distributors, and Chet behind the counter are in... These bottles also are Swiss Army Knife products, in that they aren't just good, they work well pretty much across the spectrum of drinks you might make with each. There might be a better gin, price to quality, if you only make Dry Martinis with it, but that gin might not be so great a value in an Alexander or a Pegu. So let's begin.
The Bar Institute is a new series of annual events around the US, dedicated to many areas of skill development for bar industry types. I have just returned from three days attending the Bar Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. There should be several posts to follow about a number of excellent individual events I attended, but I want to start with an outline of exactly what goes on at a Bar Institute, what it is, and what it is not. I think this is important because the BI's marketing materials give a slick and beautiful idea of what kind of people would benefit from attending, they leave out a lot of detail about what to expect. I think that might leave a lot of people who should go hesitant to do so, and hopefully this may help a few of you decide to take the plunge. Bar Institute is the direct descendant/successor to the education component of Portland Cocktail Week. This is an excellent pedigree, and it is good for the industry to see the program expanded to other geographic areas. This year, there are five regional gatherings, and a national event to culminate the year. The northeast and southwest regionals have already occurred, in Baltimore and Phoenix, and the remaining 2016 cities are Miami, Austin, and Portland, with the national event in New York. The specific content from one city to the next will vary, as will the presenters, but the categories will be the same throughout. The three main categories are:
- Advanced Bartending & Technique. These classes cover subjects ranging from skills and techniques, to the use or creation of specialty ingredients, to customer interaction, with some oddball but useful classes like one on the differences in creating a menu for a large, mature market, versus a smaller one. This last subject came up in several classes I attended, and I mention it here specifically because I think it is an important point of failure for a lot of otherwise promising projects in cities like Columbus where I live.
- Bar Management & Ownership. More classes were offered in this category than any other, which reflects the Bar Institute's underlying focus on the somewhat novel concept that with this much money flowing through this industry, it really ought to be profitable for somebody. The selections here range from nuts and bolts things like costing a menu or reading a cash flow statement, to aspirational stuff like assembling a staff that will make you proud. Each regional BI has a different focus, and many sessions in the southwest event were centered on the design aesthetic from lighting to upon what what you decide to let your customers set their asses.
- Consulting & Ambassadorship. For those professionals who aspire to challenges (and income) beyond crafting drinks, but who don't incline toward the eternal dance with fiscal death that is bar ownership, the modern cocktail industry offers a host of jobs, large and small, to satisfy that urge. The classes in this category focus on these opportunities, with some additional insights on how bar workers and owners can leverage these services as well.
- Proprietors 360. This is a special category of classes, all of which are offered by the principals of Proprietors, LLC, the bar ownership and consultant group behind Death & Co, and many more. These classes cover subjects in all of the first three categories, but offer a cohesive set of real-world examples that ties them all together.
- Electives. Many of these classes focus on professional health and wellness issues for bar professionals. Like athletes, a bartender's body is their livelihood. Other classes hosted discussions about entertainment and work life balance. A session on the increasing opportunities for women in the upper professional ranks turned out to be especially timely....
Beachbum Berry's Total Tiki is simultaneously as expensive a cocktail app as I know of, and the single best value in such apps. And one of the best values in apps in general, as far as I can see. It clocks in at a hefty $9.99, which is way past my two dollar line of demarcation between "I'll just download this," and a considered purchase. It took me all of a few minutes to consider back when I bought Total Tiki almost two years ago. No regrets. Total Tiki is a compilation of over 230 Tiki recipes from the books of modern archaeologist and wet-nurse of the modern Tiki craze, Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. While I own all the Bum's books, and recommend you buy them all (Though Remixed and Sippin' Safari will do to get you started), Total Tiki is massively more convenient and usable when it comes time to actually make some drinks. Since the very first cocktail apps came out, including Jeff's first app, the now defunct Tiki+, it has been very clear that electronic search on name and ingredients is a quantum leap in usability over a shelf of even the very best indexed books. The huge amount of quality content from Jeff's library and the basic functionality advantages inherent to being an app alone would make the price tag of Total Tiki something to swallow, if with difficulty... But there is so much more to Total Tiki that adds huge value over all the first generation cocktail apps on the market. The search and filter functions are incredibly robust, yet easy to use. Want a medium strength cocktail that uses falernum, but not rum? Bam, take your pick of Bourbon Special or Western Sour. Want a strong rum-based drink with lime, from the 1950s, that you don't need a blender for? There are 10 entries. The ability to do a single search that filters the database on ingredients, characteristics, and history, either excluded or required, is... well, it is huge. Once you have found the recipe you like, the entry the app returns is also very full-featured. The itemized recipes are clear and concise (for Tiki drinks). You can set the amounts to be listed in Imperial, Metric, or Gills(?). And every single item, from lime juice to Okolehao, is hyperlinked to a separate page with appropriate information about preparation, history, brands, and potential substitution options. The recipe directions are detailed. The entry finishes with an illustration, usually of what the drink is intended to look like, and some historical information as well as the published source of the recipe. If the cocktail was popular long enough to have multiple accepted versions, you can wheel through them on a timeline atop the entry. A final tremendous feature is the inventory filter. There is a list of every single ingredient called for in all the recipes in the database. There is a toggle beside each, so that you can record whether or not you keep that item in your bar (be it home or business or traveling kit). You can narrow your recipe browsing or your searches to just drinks you can make with things on hand. Many ingredients are specific, for example Mount Gay Eclipse. Other recipes might simply call for gold rum, or perhaps a specific variety such as Barbados gold rum. The app is intelligent enough to realize that if you checked the Eclipse, you can make recipes calling for gold rum. It will also realize that you can also make a recipe that calls for, say, Stroh. The inventory feature is a bit of a double-edged sword, especially with fresh ingredients. If you had clicked "No" on an ingredient like grapefruit juice when you first went through the inventory, you would miss out on a lot of recipes later when playing "what can I make?" I err on the side of usually including ingredients I am likely to have. Be warned that the ingredient database is extensive. It will take you a lot of time to read through it all and mark what you tend to keep on hand. Now we come to the final cool, and new, feature of Total Tiki: inventory sync. MixologyTech makes more than just Total Tiki. They also offer six other themed cocktail apps that all use the same engine as Total Tiki, with the same features. They have now set up a cloud server that allows you to connect your inventory information from one app you own to another. So if you are making a Tiki drink and note that you now have a bottle of apricot liqueur on your inventory in Total Tiki, the next time you open the Punch app, apricot liqueur will show as on-hand there too! This is a huge time saver, and makes the purchase of additional MixologyTech apps that much easier. The other apps available with this engine are:
- Shaken and Stirred: A great beginner collection of recipes from the craft school of cocktails. The killer feature here is that each recipe has embedded the Small Screen Networks tutorial video for that drink. This would be my suggested first purchase for anyone wanting to get serious about drinks for the first time.
- Modern Classics: This app features so-called "modern classics", i.e. drinks invented in the 21st Century for the most part that seem destined to stick around after everyone forgets who invented them. This app only has 99 entries as of this writing, so it takes a ding on the value scale.
- Martin's Cocktails: This is the biggest database of the bunch, with over 2100 recipes, mostly from the pre- and early post-Prohibition eras. It also is the database that is most often updated, I think. The comprehensive nature of the collection does lead to a problem or two. It is hard to find what you want, even with all the engine's awesome filtering capabilities. The recipe quality is decidedly uneven, unlike the other apps. But it is one hell of a resource.
- Wondrich's Index of Punch: Also a small catalog, with less than 70 entries, but with punches, I think this is less of a concern. The search by available ingredients is very important when considering a punch, and for the experienced drink mixer, you are seldom going to follow a recipe slavishly anyway. The Punch app has saved my butt when I found myself with an unanticipatedly large crowd of thirsty guests.
- PDT: This collection of over 400 recipes is a continuously updated listing of every drink, house-devised or classic, that has ever been on the menu at PDT in New York. I have a confession to make. I was underwhelmed when I visited PDT. And I am underwhelmed with the content here. Simply put, the recipes are too esoteric, and too difficult to execute for my taste. But if you want to test your mixing skills, or show them off, the PDT collection is ideal.
- 101 Best New Cocktails: Cocktail Godfather Gaz Regan has maintained a rolling list of the 101 best new drinks on the scene since 2011. This app has all of the nearly 400 recipes that have been on the list at some point in time. While all the recipes are available on line, the collection here is accessed through the wonderful engine of MixologyTech. A lot of these recipes suffer from the problems of the PDT collection, in that they are hard to make, difficult to source, and/or weirdly specific in the kind of taste to which they will appeal. But they come from a vastly wider array of inventors, so if one or another is not to your taste, many others likely will be.
I want to review today that new bar that recently opened nearby. It is actually a restaurant, but the main architectural feature is the bar, which dominates the wall. The food is really quite good, though a little weird in some parts of the menu. But as this is a cocktail blog, I'll concentrate on the drinks, which are what make this place part of a newer phenomenon anyway. A tremendous amount of thought and skill went into the physical design of the bar. The long, sweeping extent of the bartop, with its natural surfaced top, sends the message, "this is a place for serious drinks of substance." The seating is also striking and unusual, but I think they spent a bit too much time and money on the unique legacy look, and not quite enough on the comfortable place to park my butt functionality. About half the stools wobble a little bit. When a cocktail lover like myself sits down, the huge wall of the back bar shows so much promise it can't help but bring a smile of anticipation to the face. There are tons of bottles back there, but no rows of identical flavored vodkas. There is no prominent display of any major, commercial brands, actually. They are all there, even the vodkas, but the bottles filling the featured spaces are a varied collection of the kind of product that is the hallmark of modern craft cocktails. Bottles from micro-distilleries, especially the local ones, are front and center, surrounded by an exotic imported gin, an Irish whiskey you don't often see, and a bottle or two of Whistle Pig I think, or maybe it was some good Templeton. I'm not sure, but they have some good rye. The rum selection is a little meager, but hey... There are a number of the more useful liqueurs, all topped off by the real clinchers of modern cocktail insiderdom, a bottle of Fernet, another amaro or two, and a full bottle of Creme de Violette. In the bartender's workstation near your seat, you see a selection of bitters. Most of them are Fee's though. I like Joe Fee a lot, and many of his products are extremely useful, but I do get a little sad when I see a bitters tray that is filled with a lone bottle of Ango and a bunch of Joe's kids. Whatever, the menu is very promising. A single sheet, the back side is all beverages. The front is a fairly mouth-watering array of that slightly weird food I mentioned above. (Even if you are only there for a drink or two, get the fries.) On the side that matters for this review, there are a bunch of micro-brews. Someone has gone to great lengths to ensure that each one has been carefully selected so that a guy like me will have never heard of any of them. But the hops nerd three stools down will be making excited noises, which is as much recommendation as I need if suds are your thing. The wine offerings are perfunctory. The cocktail list will reignite your anticipation. It is a nice collection of standards offered correctly (the Margarita is served up, not blended, for instance), and some appealing sounding house cocktails. Only a few of them are vodka and sweet things in a glass, the rest are made with real spirits. One of the better bartenders downtown consulted on the list from what I hear, so there is a nice, broad selection. The renewed anticipation is a problem, since it may take a bit for one of the surprisingly large number of bartenders to actually take your order. The problem isn't sloth. Everybody back behind the stick is working their butts off. But the head bartender is a grizzled vet of maybe 28 years old, and his underlings, all identically attired in jeans and black logo-bearing t-shirts, are fresh-faced and, um, fresh-fingered. When you watch them work, you can see that they each need to think about each move as they do it, work on only one drink at a time, and spend time searching each time they turn to get a bottle from that marvelous, promising back bar.... They aren't fast, is what I'm saying. The lead guy seems to know his stuff reasonably well, but he's spending most of his time taking care of the servers or answering questions from his assistants. The house originals from the menus, when they finally arrive, are quite tasty. They are not up to the finest offerings from Dead Rabbit, but they don't cost sixteen bucks, and this isn't a multimillion dollar signature bar in lower Manhattan either. But the test of a good bar is how they deliver drinks beyond the 14 menu items they make over and over again. That is the terrain that separates the craft cocktail bar from the place that has ambitious cocktails. This place has ambitions.... Try ordering an Aviation, or some other new era rediscovery. The results, after further delay to consult with the Boss on its recipe, will not excite. I don't mind a bartender consulting a recipe book or app. I do it myself on drinks I've been making for ten years. But go to the book. Don't ask over the shoulder of head bartender who is frantically trying to get orders out to the servers who are stacked up over the service bar station like FedEx jets over Memphis airport at 3AM. If he knows the answer, and if he gets it right, and if your bartender hears it correctly, it still will take forever and still be spotty in the results. I really shouldn't harp on the service speed in and of itself. I'm a Craft Cocktail™ guy. We fetishize slow service as the hallmark of hand-crafted excellence. A really good cocktail bartender takes her time making a drink because she is being exacting, and frankly because she understands what is happening in the tin or glass before her. The staff here is taking a long time because they don't. The jiggering is neither crisp nor consistent; the shake is either just long enough to combine the ingredients, or so long as to over-dilute the drink; and the stirs last until something else distracts the bartender. They don't pipette the drinks, so they don't know whether, in their distraction, they got it right. And if they did pipette the drinks, I'm not sure they have the palate developed yet to judge the results, especially for a drink they don't often make. To be clear, this staff is a bunch of good, hard-working kids. They deserve a good tip. They are friendly and genuinely want to serve you a quality drink. The problem is that they don't know if they are or not, and they don't know that they don't know. The place isn't very near the main entertainment district, so most of the clientele don't often hit any of the really good cocktail places in town, if ever. They don't know that they are getting really pretty ordinary cocktails, billing themselves as this new wave of Craft Cocktails. In fact, chances are a Manhattan they order here would be no better than, if not worse, than the one they'd get from Steve at the dive bar a few blocks over whose t-shirt has stains older than the staff here. This upsets me because for most of these customers, this is their sole experience with what is billed as Craft Cocktails. What they will get here will be OK, of course. And certainly a slight cut above what they are used to from their usual haunts. But what they are missing is the magic. And because they haven't had it anywhere else, they won't know they are missing it. They won't insist that this place keep training hard to eventually deliver it. And worst of all, won't go looking for it and reap the enriching rewards of doing so. Instead, all they will remember will be the fries. They really are good. So what's the name of this place, and where is it? Well, this is a bad review, and I don't name names in bad write-ups on this blog. It's just a policy of mine. But more to the point, this isn't a review of any specific place. It's a review of hundreds of bars all over the country. Most of them are in suburban areas, but not all. The details may differ a bit from those in this post, but not much. I guarantee that you've hit a few of these places yourself. And they piss me off. Every time I got to one for the first time, I'm first disappointed, then grumpy. I see a joint where the owners are simply chasing a trend that they just. don't. get. Worse, I see a whole bunch of customers, some portion of which might really catch the drinks bug if this place delivered, and a lot more of which would appreciate and patronize other premium bars if their experience here was a higher value. Instead, I view a place like this as almost poisoning its own micro market area. If they fail, locals will say of the next place, "They say they are doing craft cocktails? Didn't the place down the street have those? They weren't anything special. And they went OB, so I doubt this one will work either." Worse, the place might succeed. Then it will keep reinforcing the image of mediocrity in craft cocktails and make it even harder for someone else to come in and do it right.abc
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