Death to Mixology: Why Bartenders Need to Forget ‘Cocktail Geekiness’ and Focus on Taste
I grew up just outside Newport, Rhode Island in a house with a garden that my father manicured. We had fruit trees, berry patches, and every type of vegetable imaginable. I had terrible allergies and couldn’t smell very well, so I wound up developing this tasting superpower. I used to grab some strawberries and sneak out to the garage where I found my Oma’s five-gallon jug of Ernest and Gallo and mix it with the berries and ginger ale, even add an orange wedge for good measure. Voila! My first foray into bartending.
Having access to that garden really shaped my skills in balancing and blending flavors. I got into the culinary side of cocktails by working with chefs like Geoffrey Zakarian and Eric Ripert, but it was at the Mercer Kitchen, working with Jean Georges and pastry chef Karen Hatfield, that I started incorporating savory herbs and spices into drinks. It opened Pandora’s box for me.
New York’s Milk & Honey had an important impact on our industry when it opened in 2000. They were one of the first to use proper ice, and brought back prohibition-era cocktails that were well made. But we have better ingredients now, so using all of these over-sweetened cordials doesn’t make any sense. We have access to fresh spices and incredibly dynamic ingredients like Rooibos, forbidden forest teas, smoked cinnamon, honey powder, toasted acacia, and various peppercorns from all over the world! Yet every bar serves retro drinks now. It would be like chefs at Noma cooking standard French dishes instead of being inspired by the earth’s bounty.
It traces back to a lack of understanding as to how flavors interact with each other. There’s no alchemy. It stems from a gap in real apprenticeship: a generation of bartenders is reading the same recipes without anyone teaching them technique or training their palate.
How are you going to make a six-ingredient drink when you can’t even make a pitch-perfect old-fashioned?
Nobody starts off peeling the potatoes anymore. I mean listen, if you’re a young cook and you want to become a chef, no top-tier restaurant is going to just let you start making crazy shit. You have to prove to the chef that you can cook an egg—like 30 different ways—perfectly.
Art is mastering your craft and then communicating it to the world. What “mixology” is missing the most is that original creative energy. It doesn’t exist when all you’re doing is taking someone else’s recipe and adding extra bitters and liqueurs until it’s unrecognizable. I ordered a bourbon-based drink, but I can’t even taste the bourbon!
Bartenders have lost the art of balance. The fascination with adding ingredients or how the menu looks has superseded the most important and obvious element of a great cocktail—taste.
A great cocktail starts with inspiration. I went to South Africa and came across a red bush Rooibos in a botanical garden that had this amazing honeyed floral scent. Blew me away. Now I have an emotional attachment and I guarantee you can taste that passion when I put Rooibos in a drink.
When I opened Summit Bar in 2009, we were making the best cocktails in New York City. Other bars were stuck adding on to recipes from the 1950s; our drink list was totally original and executed without all the cocktail geekiness.
I took this mentality and elevated it further at Manhattan Cricket Club, forming partnerships with purveyors like Roderick Marcus at Rare Tea Cellar in Chicago.
[And then there’s] the other missing piece—nobody knows how to cultivate a kick-ass scene anymore. Where’s the environment? The honest hospitality? Where are the characters that make a bar great? Bartenders are hosts, they set the tone. That’s what the job is.
Stop pensively staring at your nine-ingredient cocktail, while you stir counter-clockwise 57 times, and look up and smile at somebody.
– As told to Nate Storey