A Companion for the Young Imbiber

Archive for October, 2007

(( General Discussion ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on October 24, 2007

Spoiling The Kids

I keep hearing we’ve entered the second great cocktail renaissance, a time when the craft of bartending is returning to a professional prestige of the 1890s, that much-loved and heralded Golden Age. That was a time when the craft of a bar was a thing of wonder: tall gentleman in pinstripe shirts and bow ties mixing drinks for their customers, consulting a library of spirits and an arsenal of house-made bitters, all the while being earnestly watched by an apprentice. These were not the bars of our modern era, by and large. No, these were meant for a higher echelon of society, the caste of cosmopolitan culture imbued with their Old World traditions of formality and pedigree. The Bar Man, it seems, lived up to that expectation with his professionalism and knowledge, his depth of skill and a profound passion for the craft. It’s sad – so miserably depressing – that those Debbie Downers of the Temperance League ruined what had been such a fine party. Thanks to the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, the profession was thrown to the perils of bootleg liquor (with its substantial impurities) and the exportation of the industry’s finest bar men to foreign lands. And then it really started getting bad.

But things seem to be recovering from Prohibition – finally. According to people who’ve worked much, much longer in the industry than I have, a remarkable transition in the last ten or so years has occurred; customers, by and large, are much more likely to consult a specialty cocktail list than ever before. They’re willing to experiment, to talk with their bartender about what’s going on in the glass, and ultimately to learn what cocktails can do past being an inebriant. We’re coming to a time again, I’m beginning to feel, when the bartender is not only getting more respect, but is holding up his or her end of the bargain. He is the beacon of knowledge in the room, the bad ass that can have extensive discourse on the virtues of large ice, the importance of bitters, how great whiskey is, and always willing to share other places a customer can get a good drink – all at the same time, and with different people. It’s an art in its organization, research, and finesse, and I find it amazing when it comes across as effortless.

It’s this customer-bartender relationship that has allowed so many cocktail-centered bars to open up. They fuel the forward progression of each other, obviously, and I’m very excited to be working in two places now that are at the forefront of that movement in slightly different, though connected, ways. There is an expectation at that level to know your shit – to really know your shit – because the customer knowledge base now is so vast.

Here’s looking at you, fellow internet cocktail geeks.

I’m not trying to pat myself or anyone else on the back. I’m just really happy that there are more and more places popping up that employ dedicated and passionate bartenders, and that they are successful because people want them around. Simple economics – supply and demand – and it’s awesome.

I’m wondering now about the next evolutionary step. At what point do we as bartenders cease being mere booze slingers, and become more like a cook in our practice and education? We find ourselves in the kitchen more and more these days, using the cook’s techniques and consulting the chef on flavor combinations, so why not bridge this gap even more? Eben Freeman’s work at Tailor is a good example of this, where the kitchen and the bar work very, very closely together. Perhaps this is my own personal inclination and interest in the world of cooking, an interest that often has me reading Michael Ruhlman’s and Anthony Bourdain’s books with the intensity of a Harry Potter novel. How lame, I know, but I can’t help myself. It’s like crack.

The mentality of a cook, and the determination with which cooks address their work, either fits with our profession or just my personal ethos – I’m not sure which. If bartenders were trained as cooks, or in the same manner and philosophy as cooks, I think the industry would evolve in absolutely amazing ways. Can you imagine if that particular barrier between front- and back-of-house were broken down in some way? If you’ve ever seen the beauty that is an efficient line during service, you probably know what I mean – God damn it’s inspiring.

And yet the bartender already exists in an odd world of server/cook, expected to provide strong service and produce a quality product at the same time, but I think for myself something more can be done. As I look to the future of my own career, I can’t help thinking about what I can do to be different, to be special. I want to have such a vast understanding of not only the stuff that would normally be found at a high-end bar, but also have an understanding of flavors so deep that I can pick from the hat of classic culinary education in my work. I want to conquer the go-to formulas for cocktails and branch outward. I’m really not sure how to do it, but there are vague murmurings somewhere in mind. Should I think seriously about culinary school? Beg the kitchen to let me work with them? I’m not sure…

Ultimately, I want my customer to take a sip, eyes widen slightly, and stare into their glass, if only for the slightest moment, with the look of Wow.

That’s my utopian idea, and that’s my personal nirvana.

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