Category: review
Bartenders, Marketing, reviews, Vacations

What is The Bar Institute?

The Bar Institute 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. BarInstitute 2016 Map 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....
As a whole, the aforementioned subjects form the meat of the curriculum for Bar Institute, and are almost all one hour classes. They run from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM on Monday and Tuesday, with half hour breaks in between. Attendees may attend any and all classes that they wish. There is no advance signup for classes, so seats are allocated on a first arrived, first taken basis until the room is full. Most classes had plenty of room, however. As for the one or two I attended that completely filled up... bartenders are friendly folk and make room where it is to be had. Just be prepared for a good bit of The Grass is Greener feeling, as there are between five and eight offerings during each block. The other two major daytime elements of Bar Institute are the Upfronts and the Exhibition. The Upfronts start about the time of the last class, and run until dinnertime. These are a bit like TEDTalks. Each Upfront is a presentation by the management and ownership of a particularly interesting establishment in the region, showcasing their concept, menu, and other elements of their story. The Upfronts are entertaining and a good look at how many different ways there are to successfully put together the granular sort of concepts covered earlier in the classes. The Exhibition is essentially the trade show floor of Bar Institute. It is open on Sunday afternoon and all day Monday and Tuesday. It is the only real daytime "content" on Sunday, so I wold recommend you take the time explore it a good deal on that day, as you will not have the time to do so if you take advantage of all the other offerings on Monday and Tuesday. The Exhibition at Southwest was not particularly large, but still had plenty of interesting stuff, more stuff, in fact, than an attendee could take in if he or she attended a full slate of classes and Upfronts. Gentleman Jack had a booth that was larger, and better decorated, than some good bars I've been in. At various times, they offered a photographer taking professional headshots, a social media maven presenting a mini class in Instagram PR, and make your own bitters workshops with fellow exhibitor Hella Bitters. Other brands, large and small, offered tastings and cocktails throughout the day. Local Phoenix bars rotated through a mini "Upfront" booth, showing off their stories and their drinks. and there were other offerings that don't fit into these categories as well. Hopefully, I'll get to some posts about individual elements of the Exhibition before I run out of steam. JDParty Evenings are obviously an important part of Bar Institute. To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, "Bartenders, they wanna have fun." Specific evening entertainment varies from city to city, of course, but at southwest, attendees were offered two nights (Monday and Tuesday) of sponsored free food, drink, and entertainment for dinner, and two late nights (Sunday and Monday) of free drink and frivolity. (Warning: Chain-shooting coconut rum after an evening of good cocktails can make that morning class you were looking forward to seem awfully optional when the sun comes up.) That wraps up most of the kind of details I think potential attendees might be interested in, but aren't really covered by Bar institute's own promotional stuff. I want to finish with what Bar Institute is not. It is not Tales of the Cocktail. Nor is it trying to be. First off, it is a butt-load cheaper. Aside from travel expenses, total cost of attending a three day Bar Institute is twenty five bucks. Total. That's for admission, dinners, parties, and all the classes you can go to without a time machine. BI classes are very different in character to Tales sessions. Classes are smaller, more focused on serious subject matter, and have more opportunity for give and take discussion. Individual Bar Institute classes are not sponsored, however, so there are no cocktails provided during them. The upsides are that there is no bandwidth wasted on promoting sponsors, and your chances of remembering what you learned are vastly higher. The downsides are, no drinks, a dearth of crazy over-the-top demonstrations, nothing outright weird, and no drinks. Your day-drinking opportunities at Bar Institute are limited (with some exceptions during the Upfronts) to the Exhibition, where you will have to make do with local original cocktails, lounging in a tent on floor cushions while sipping Chartreuse, or guzzling Hennessey XO. [caption id="attachment_11217" align="aligncenter" width="1500"]Caveat: Unless you are Stuart Little, you will not be receiving enough XO to actually "guzzle".... Caveat: Unless you are Stuart Little, you will not be receiving enough XO to actually "guzzle"....[/caption] In short, Bar Institute is not the immersive, possibly overwhelming, experience that Tales is. Tales is a celebration, with some very serious underpinnings. Bar Institute is a serious endeavor, made fun.abc
General Cocktails, Marketing, reviews, Rule 4

A Review of That New Fancy Cocktail Bar Near You

That Bar 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
Books, Garnish, General Cocktails, Rule 2

Book Review: The Bar Book, by Jeffrey Morganthaler

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, by Jeffrey Morganthaler Jeff Morganthaler is one of my favorite people in the cocktail industry. This isn't surprising, since the Morganthler is among the favorite people of most everybody in this line of work. Aside from running the bar at Clyde Common, an iconic bar in one of the world's iconic cocktail cities, he is one of the most quoted and profiled bartenders anywhere. Jeff also wrote one of the first, and still most respected, cocktail blogs out there, and while he doesn't update it as much as he used to, many of his posts remain standard references for professional and amateur mixers years after their publication. Now he has written his first book, and like everything else he sets his mind to, it is a true winner. The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique is a pretty unique book in a number of ways, all of them good. I divide cocktail books into two general types: References, and Reads. References are books filled with discrete, useful ideas that you grab when you need to refresh yourself on something specific you are working on, usually recipes. Reads are books you can relax with in a comfy patio chair while you toss back a Gin Rickey on a lazy weekend afternoon. The Bar Book is that very rare cat that is both of these. More importantly, The Bar Book manages to break new ground in its central subject matter: technique. Morganthaler assembles an exhaustive A to Z of what it takes to actually make a great drink. The first half of the book focuses on the selection, care, and handling of the for the most part non-alcoholic ingredients that make or break most great drinks. He starts with citrus and other fruits; how to purchase, handle, and juice them to get the most, best out of them. In covering carbonation and carbonated mixers, Jeff combines some interesting historical reflection on "mixers" with detailed how-tos for things like his signature ginger beer and tonic syrup. He moves on to simple syrups, examining the different types of sugar, their flavors and textures, and how they each effect a drink. How many times do you see a recipe that calls for demerara simple, or honey syrup, with no explanation for why it was chosen? Building on that is a great chapter on more advanced syrups such as the borderline molecular mixological gomme syrup, and all manner of herb and fruit concoctions. An author could probably do a three volume set on the production of bitters and tinctures, but the chapter here gives a clear and detailed enough outline of the basics to enable anyone with the creative culinary chops to produce anything worthwhile more than enough to go on. The chapters on measuring, dairy and eggs, and ice all seem like insanely simple subjects, but mess any of them up and your product will fail. The twenty pages on shaking and stirring are hugely entertaining and if you disagree with the slightest detail therein... you are wrong. There is a huge and fun section on all the sort of tools and techniques where a lot of the fun in making drinks, and watching them be made, come in. Jeff's discussion of things like muddlers, swizzles (the real kind), and especially fire as cocktail tools is going to fascinate, whether you are a newbie or an old pro. The final chapter is fittingly on the garnish. He combines his discussion of with some evangelization for the subject of garnish. It is true that too many bartenders, even higher end pros and crafty amateurs (like me on occasion), view the garnish as an afterthought to be omitted when one can get away with it. To this, Morganthaler replies,
Although I applaud the modernist, minimal approach in the right situation, there is a time and place for everything. And when it comes to garnishing, the time is often, and the place is in your drink.
In my liver-ruiningly comprehensive experience, good garnishes make you happy, bad garnishes make you sad, and no garnish makes you bored. No one making a drink for anyone, even themselves, should be in the business of making the recipient sad or bored. Throughout, The Bar Book is filled with beautiful photographs that are much more than just drinkporn, but essential elements of the instruction, often filling in details that would have been very hard to otherwise describe. Jeff told me and a few of Columbus's best at a meeting of our book club that it took eight straight 12-14 hour days to do all the pictures for this book, and that time and effort shows through. Indeed, my only real complaint with the entire book was that there weren't more pictures in a few places. And while it is in no way a recipe book, there are a bunch of recipes throughout, each one designed and placed to illustrate an ingredient or technique or concept that was just discussed. Drinking your way through The Bar Book over the course of a couple of weeks would make an excellent final exam, a test of how well you've absorbed the knowledge therein. For a hundred years, no major cocktail book has given much more than a perfunctory nod to the bedrock, essential skills, tools, and techniques a person must possess to properly construct all the marvelous recipes that are being created or rediscovered in modern days. Detailed treatment of technique in the preparation of food has always been an essential part of cookbooks and culinary texts. As cocktails gain more and more respect as a culinary art, this kind of book is well past due. What took you so long, Jeff? Current and aspiring professionals who would like to be able to work in the high craft end of the bar industry will need virtually every piece of knowledge in The Bar Book at some point in their careers. Buying it, reading it, absorbing it, and at least making a start at proficiency with many of the skills taught in it will put you head and shoulders ahead of competing applicants. And please also understand, even if your bartending aspirations are just rocking away Saturday nights behind the stick at Applebee's while you complete your degree, there is plenty here to help in that environment as well. And while the Bar Book is primarily aimed at working bartenders, I think it deserves prime shelf space on the shelf of any amateur mixer who aspires to make great drinks as well. The Bar Book is currently available from Amazon for about twenty one bucks, or thirteen in Kindle format. If I were you, I'd get it in hardcover. This is a seminal cocktail work, and is going to be a standard reference for the craft and general cocktail industry for years, and probably decades to come. abc
reviews, Vacations

Bar Review: Rye in Louisville

VISUAL | RYE
The good photos in this post can be found larger on Rye's site.

Rye is a restaurant and bar located in Louisville, Kentucky, and while I am sure I'm not revealing any secrets to residents, people who visit Louisville should keep in mind that the corner of Market and Campbell is an outstanding location to both eat and drink. Rye occupies a narrow, renovated, brick two-story with an attractive patio and extensive kitchen garden outside. They have their own parking, though I have no idea how sufficient it is, as our visit was late on a Sunday evening. The main floor is split into two fairly equal parts, the dining area and the bar. The barroom is huge, with high ceilings and lots of open floor space. The bar itself is a massive, light-colored, wooden surface with very heavy iron and wood stools that provide seating for 6-8 guests at each end of the bar, with a wide standing area in the center. I really like this design element in a bar as this stretch provides patrons access to the bartenders when the place is packed. The rest of the room is fairly open, with the length of the opposite wall lined with standing height shelf-tables, complete with more stools. There is plenty of light as well. The overall feel possesses that vaguely 20's vibe that seems so de rigeur of craft bar/restaurants these days, but completely avoids the twee bits which send such decor over the edge in many instances. We ate at the bar, and I will start with the food. To be honest, I was really paying attention only to the drinks when we arrived, so the extraordinary quality of the food caught us pleasantly off-guard. The "Coulotte Steak" was a perfect medium rare, no ordinary feat in itself for such a thick cut. And while I must admit to usually viewing any significant sauces on my beef as distractingly gilding the umami, the gorgeous one offered here complimented the meat both to the eye and to the tongue. The triple-cooked fries we shared were exactly what french fires are supposed to look and taste like. I think we may have been the last customers of the night, and the kitchen had already started to break down the fryer when we came in and ordered. Instead of saying it was too late for the fries, or some other excuse, they set it back up and got us our deliciousness. This is called a desire to take care of the customer.... The real highlight however was the Berskshire Pork Chop my wife had. Delicious, but what struck me was that it was every bit as moist and tender as my steak. That is something you just don't see with modern pigs. I understand that Rye buys their pigs whole and cuts them on site, so our chops had likely still been part of a whole pig that morning.
Rye Pig
They do other interesting things with pig, too.
All in all, chef William Morris knows what he's doing, as you can see from all the time I've spent on the food in a bar review. Our bartender was Ben Greer, and he took great care of us, even when I lingered over dinner on a Sunday night where he might otherwise have gotten home at a reasonable hour. Thanks, Ben. The back bar at Rye is not one of those showy craft bar walls with the bewildering floor to ceiling selection of bottles you will never get around to trying. It being Kentucky, they simply spread out their excellent, sizable collection of whiskeys all the way down the back shelf. It didn't surprise me that they had a truly impressive selection of ryes, in addition to all those lovely bourbons. The rest of their more than sufficient inventory is tucked away, leaving a neat, uncluttered arena. Rye Backbar The cocktail menu holds two pages of a variety of originals, as well as a page of suggested classics. The offerings tend toward the strong and aromatic, but there are enough lighter efforts to keep any responsible drinker happy. Among the real standouts is their Santa Anita, which is made with Cerrano-infused tequila, a bouquet of citruses and cilantro, and Hellfire Bitters. We were warned it was spicy, and it was. But lordy was it delicious, and seriously refreshing, too. Even if you aren't usually a fan of spicy cocktails, I recommend giving this one a try. Of course, you also learn a lot about a bar staff by going off the menu, and the slightly modified Whiskey Sour, complete with Peychaud's-garished froth, was just as delicious. Rye features fresh juices and house-made syrups, of course, but these days that could just mean the kitchen boils up some simple every Thursday. Not here. Any time I can have a fifteen minute conversation on the making and application of bar syrups, I a) am in cocktail geek heaven, and b) can tell there is going to be all manner of clever and interesting flavor offerings for the clientele. (Beyond those I personally sampled, that is) To wrap up, I'll come back to where I started. If you live in Louisville and haven't tried Rye, why on Earth are you waiting for me to tell you to get down there? And if you plan to visit Louisville, I don't think you'll go wrong making an evening of it at Rye. They're on Open Table, so set up your date. They are also on Twitter @RyeOnMarket, and their feed is active and full of information and good pictures. Oh, and a quick thank you and shout out to Lindsey Johnson (@LiveTheLushLife on Twitter), who sent me to Rye, and who has been a wealth of knowledge about all sorts of places to perch, in Louisville and elsewhere.abc
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