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
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
The good photos in this post can be found larger on Rye's site.
I had a chance to visit Seattle this Summer with my family. Since we had the kids with us, I didn't get a chance to do a real detailed exploration of this, one of America's premier cocktail towns, but I made sure to have enough time to hit a few highlights, and to get a feel for the general cocktail environment in town. For a variety of reasons, I will lead with a review of Liberty, at 517 15th Ave. E. (@LibertyLovesYou on Twitter) Liberty is the love child of cocktail warriors Andrew Friedman and Keith Waldbauer. Andrew started Liberty in 2006, with Keith joining him later, so that makes this a very well-established and long-lived high-end bar. I've known, or at least "internet known", Keith since I started blogging, as his now fallow Moving at the Speed of Life was one of the first cocktail blogs I read and among the first such blogs written by a working pro. Liberty and its owners take great care to characterize it as "just a neighborhood bar", rather than some Fancy Dan Craft Bar. This is a load of bull fritters. I insist that this is a fabulous, high-end bar. From the back wall (pictured above) full of a head-spinning array of ingredients headlined by a magnificent but not over the top selection of whisk(e)ys, to the menu filled with a great selection of classics and modern creations, to each and every drink that I saw placed before me or any other customer, Liberty is a cocktail lover's dream. This is place with drinks like the Point of No Return, which simply lists fire among its ingredients. (If you visit Liberty, be sure to try one. It's both delicious and a lot of fun to watch being made.) There is also an excellent balance between the types of drinks on the menu. Andrew and Keith offer not just a wide variety of spirit bases and flavor profiles, but also what I'll call "levels" of drinks. Many craft palaces I enter have menus of naught but ridiculously baroque concoctions that will be awesome to talk about with one's fellow geeks at Tales of the Cocktail, but are too bitter, complex, or simply weird for anyone else. There are drinks here for the snob who isn't "on duty" that evening, and the "training wheels" offerings still have something of interest to be learned from. That said, Liberty also really is a neighborhood joint. Liberty's location is one of the things that really strikes me about it. It is is located on a fairly modest stretch of retail shopping in a quiet residential neighborhood, rather than in the restaurant, tourist, or entertainment districts where most "serious" craft bars dwell. Tourists like me are an anomaly in Liberty, and businessmen drinking here are likely doing so on their own dime, rather than an expense account. As a result, the prices are almost shockingly modest for such offerings. To satisfy the Licensing Gods' demand for food service, not to mention that of any reasonable drinker's stomach, Liberty has the elegant and tasty solution of devoting about five feet of its bar to a sushi counter, with one or two cutters as demand warrants. The place has that well-used feel of many older bars, the kind that have been open forever, have seen weddings and wakes, sometimes for the same customer, yet never ever feel run-down, through the sheer force of the love and responsibility of its proprietors. The seating is comfortable, both at the bar and around the room. The bar itself is moderately sized and fits in visually, rather than dominating the space like some altar to the Gods of Fernet and Angostura. There is even a large back room for meetings and private parties, but which is essentially invisible to the regular clientele. Your average oblivious Jack and Coke drinker could make of Liberty his Third Place happily for years and never care or even realize that he was spending his time in a temple of high-end concoctions. And this last point, the seamless melding of tavern and cocktail palace is what makes Liberty so interesting to me and, so important to the craft movement. Craft cocktails as an industry have had a fascinating decade-plus of growth now, and are in a different stage of development in nearly every city in America. When you travel like I do all over the country killing people, you can move forward and backward through the whole history of the craft, using airline or auto as your time machine. Many locales still have yet to see the first blush of our passion; the only "lime" in bars still has with the word "Rose's" writ upon the bottle. Other cities have merely discovered the joys, and the commercial possibilities, of fresh or more exotic ingredients. Many, like my own Columbus, have a few restaurants and bars that are making a try at true high-end drinks. And cities like Seattle or New York have reached the point where the craft bars are a well-understood phenomenon, and most high-end restaurants have reached the point of having to offer competitive programs of their own. But like any movement that is reaching maturity, at least in some markets, there is now a lot of angst about where to go from here. Because the simple facts are, craft cocktails made with exotic syrups, or oddball bitters, or cinnamon smoke, are not for everyone. And even among those who do enjoy them, they are unprepared to drink them all the time. There are very real limits to speed of growth and profitability in the craft movement. This is why bars like Liberty, and Anvil in Houston, and to some extent Passenger or Bourbon in Washington, DC, are so significant, and why I admire them so much. These are places that serve all drinkers well, not just our specific clientele. The aforementioned Mr. Jack and Coke can happily hang out there with his buddy Mr. Vieux Carre. And Mr. Sazerac can find the opportunity to hit on Miss Greyhound here. (Mr. Grey Goose Martini, don't waste your time hitting on Miss Knob Creek Old-Fashioned. It's not going to end well for you.) Bar like Liberty are where previously undiscovered reserves of cocktail lovers (as opposed to cocktail drinkers) will be uncovered. The easy atmosphere provides no barrier to entry for the uninitiated (quite the contrary), but the magnificent offerings are the sort that can open doors and minds. If you visit Seattle, take the time one evening to cab your way to Liberty and settle in for a great evening. If you live there, this is the kind of place you take your uninitiated friends when they are resisting being initiated....abc
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