Can we talk? It is time to recognize that another word has gotten out of control. It is rampaging through the cocktail (and general culinary) industry, making those who employ it look insufferably twee. And worse, making the entire industry which is perilously close to embracing it look twee as well. I mean more twee than craft cocktails already kind of are. To be sure, this word is also being abused in many other arenas as well, but I write about cocktails, so that's where it pisses me off the most. It's just pretentious as hell. I'm talking about our sudden need to claim that we "curate" everything. Stop it. First off, most people don't know what it means, even if they just read the bare bones definition a few minutes ago. Most folks hear curate or curator and think of it as someone who collects and presents rare and precious things in museums. The positive image that probably lurks in their subconscious when they think of curators, especially if they are considering identifying themselves as such, is this guy: No. That guy is in "Purchasing". A curator is more this guy. Not quite the same, huh? But either way, the subtext cocktail types who employ the word curate want to portray is collecting, organizing, presenting, and protecting things that represent the great works of a civilization. You know, as in, "This belongs in a museum!" And that is the subtext most people who see the word employed have as well. And that's the problem. A cocktail menu, I don't care it is Dead Rabbit's or Smuggler's Cove's, is not a collection of the great works of a civilization. Sure, the Manhattan may well be the single greatest culinary achievement of American civilization. I happen to think it is. But let's face it, your list of house-created seasonal recipes is not the Louvre. It's not even Ripley's. And even if a cocktail menu is made up of nothing but time-honored masterworks, prepared to perfection... it's a list of drinks. And putting them on a menu does nothing to protect them for posterity. It is a colossally pretentious word for a list of products available for sale in, for practical purposes, unlimited quantities. Even if you have a "carefully curated selection of rare whiskeys", it is still a bunch of bottles on a shelf or three. If a particular bottle is still made, it is something for sale, again, in relatively unlimited quantities. If it has been discontinued, the purpose of offering it for sale is ultimately to destroy it permanently. None of all this is curation. The most charitable interpretation of this phenomenon is just another cutesy element in an industry that already dances so close with being "precious", a chaperone needs to swing by with a ruler to separate them for the craft's own good. At it's worst, this "curation" fetish is self-important, "Tulip Bubble" kind of thinking that encourages a dangerous disconnect between the value of a product as perceived by customers and by producers. Whether you are Le Lion de Paris or Bob's Bar (The Cultural Hub of the Midwest!), You. Are. A. Business. You are not a revered academic institution. Seriously guys, this term is creeping into use by people I both like and highly respect. Stop it. You are only damaging your industry and your own enterprise. And looking just a bit like an ass doing it.abc
[caption id="attachment_10915" align="aligncenter" width="447"] "This old thing? Just something I threw on..."[/caption] There is a pretty wide range of hassle in making drinks. For every Jack and Coke, there is a seven ingredient monster that calls for a tincture of mistletoe harvested with a golden sickle and caught in a oaken bowl before it could hit the ground. At midnight. During a Full Moon. I don't care how transcendent the latter is, I'm not making it at home. Not to be all heteronormist here, but you marry the one and you date the other. Briefly. But, while at home I strongly favor drinks that make my life easy to make (there is a reason it is only Tiki Month once a year), there are a few high-maintenance gals that make the effort worthwhile. Exhibit A, in what I optimistically plan to become a series, is the Whiskey Sour. To much of the populace the Whiskey Sour is the sort of faceless drink that leathered old men in dive bars might nurse while watching the results roll in on closed-circuit from Aquaduct. And the Whiskey Sour in that mental picture is indeed no Kim Kardashian. You just slip some Jim Beam into a glass with some ice and a splash of sour mix and call it a day. And while this is a perfectly serviceable drink, it is not going to be a common tipple for the portion of the human race who have the knowledge to appreciate a really good cocktail. I am talking about this Whiskey Sour. This here is a high-maintenance cocktail, folks. Check out the recipe I use to see why.
WHISKEY SOURFor the home bartender, making a round of proper Whiskey Sours means a lot of cleanup. Eggs make a mess, and if you are smart you will clean the counters and your bar tools immediately, before you get to enjoy your cocktail. If you don't, you will have a royal pain of a cleanup. You also ought to take into consideration the tiny chance that those raw egg whites could make you sick. Wash your hands. Thoroughly. It takes at least twice as long to make one of these, than it does to whip up, say, a proper Daiquiri. [caption id="attachment_10918" align="aligncenter" width="236"] But is this high-maintenance beauty worth it?[/caption] Oh Lordy, yes. As you saw above, it is gorgeous. If "mouthfeel" was not a term already, you'd have to pretty much invent it to talk about the unctuous, rich texture of each sip on your tongue. The flavors last beautifully. You can easily adjust the ratio of ingredients to suit your personal tastes. (Mine runs to the sour side.) For spirits aficionados, the Whiskey Sour has the virtue of both making mediocre bourbon taste great, but still retaining the ability to showcase that much nicer bottle you got from your brother at Christmas.
- 2 oz. low-premium bourbon (Four Roses Small Batch)
- 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 oz. not-quite-rich simple syrup (1.5:1)
- 1 fresh egg white
Disclaimer: The Pegu Blog is not advocating making Whiskey Sours with that bottle of Pappy Van Winkle....Make the Whiskey Sour a part of your regular rotation. It is worth hauling all those packages.abc
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
Mixing VesselsMost people who ask how to assemble a cocktail kit start with, "I'll need a shaker, then what else?" But mixing vessels are too big a question to just skip over so blithely. If you are just starting out mixing drinks, your needs in mixing vessels will be different from an experienced home drink maker's, which will be different from a professional bartender's. First, there are two very different mixing tasks that the cocktail maker will perform throughout his life: shaking and stirring. And we need the right tool for the right job, remember? We'll start with shaking. There are two basic categories of cocktail shakers.
- Boston Shakers: These are the two piece shakers consisting of a metal vessel (the "tin") and a pint glass or second metal tin that fit together. These are what you will see the majority of professional bartenders using. They have the virtue of being cheap, easy to clean, and very, very fast. But the Boston is hard to learn to use, and may need other equipment to use it properly. If your gift recipient majored in Eastern Polynesian Studies or the like, you might want to get him or her the Boston so he or she can learn an actual marketable skill, and be able to move out of your house. But for the beginner who doesn't need a bartending job, I'd recommend the three-piece Cobbler shaker.
- Cobblers: These are the shakers you usually see people like Frank Sinatra or William Powell using in the movies. They are usually three pieces: a tin, a lid with built-in strainer, and a cap. In a pinch, the cobbler is the only mixing vessel you need, as you could stir in the tin, then strain with the lid. A good Cobbler is dead easy to use, suave and debonaire to employ, and will look good just sitting on the shelf. But they are not so easy to clean, nor very fast and efficient if you have to make lots of different drinks. And a bad cobbler is a nightmare to use. Quality matters in a cobbler. If yours is badly made, it may leak all over the place, or just as bad, it may be impossible to open and get your freshly created drink out without first jumping around and struggling with the lid like a frustrated monkey in a behavioral lab. Cobblers can also be ruinously expensive.
- Boston: Basic 28 oz. Stainless Steel Shaker with an equally basic tempered rim pint glass.
- Cobbler: Basic but still elegant: Oggi Marilyn Tall and Slim.
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