August 19th, 2010
I’ve hit a wall — a wall of cocktails. No, I haven’t had too much to drink (the night is young). Rather, I can’t decide what to drink in the first place. There are too many cocktails out there. This is a fabulous problem.
Talented bartenders around the city are in a spasm of creativity. When they’re not creating new cocktails for their oft-rotating menus or to satisfy their individual customers’ nightly whims, they’re whipping up new recipes for liquor brand-sponsored contests and promotions. (And as we know, more and more bartenders are going further, moonlighting as mixologists for spirits companies.) At the same time, they’re continually digging old cocktails out of obscurity as re-printings of vintage bartending manuals proliferate.
Hence, I can always order something I’ve never had before at a half-dozen or more bars around town. What I end up with is usually pretty satisfying. But is it memorable? This is where I hit that proverbial wall. Either I don’t give enough cocktails a chance to cast a spell over my senses, or not enough cocktails are that magical in the first place.
I’m not going to get all Bernard DeVoto and say that there are only two cocktails, a slug of whiskey and a Martini (although those are on my desert island list). I’m saying that, like writing or filmmaking, cocktailing — both production and consumption — needs a little editing. Or sometimes a lot of editing.
And different kinds of editing, too. Think of a bar as a publishing house. There are the acquisitions editors, who curate the recipes according to the house philosophy and the season. There are the content editors, who pick apart a recipe, try different proportions, add a barspoon of this or a twist of that, and form it into a workable draft. There are the copyeditors, who refine things further by suggesting perhaps a different brand of gin or a flamed peel. And there are the proofreaders, who notice mistakes like a lipstick-stained glass or wilted mint.
The wrinkle, of course, is that the bartender has to fill most if not all these roles. The customer generally works in the proofreading department but sometimes takes on some copy and content editing, depending on his knowledge of cocktails and rapport with the bartender.
Customers have to be their own editors, too. If you, like me, have hit a cocktail wall, maybe you need to pare down a bit. Stick with, say, 10 different cocktails and get to know them over the course of a year. Choose depth over variety. After that period, you might have acquired enough wisdom, palate-wise, to quote Samuel Johnson to an up-and-comer behind the bar who just served you his fourth new creation of the evening: “Read your own compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”