January 19th, 2010

We’ve seen this before


West Coast cocktail writers Camper English and Paul Clarke have sparked a debate that I can’t resist joining, because it’s oh so familiar.

A trio of recent articles by these gentlemen, and especially the comments those articles have generated, show that there is some, ah, disagreement over bartenders’ approach to customers in the world of craft cocktails.

English got things started with a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle called “Bartenders shift from lecture to nurture.” He observes that bartenders at many successful craft cocktail bars (including Boston’s Drink) are softening their attitude toward those who haven’t converted to the Church of the Serious Cocktail and are instead winning drinkers’ hearts and minds with good, old hospitality. The article generated comments ranging from this:

[Cocktail] MENUS??? What…. like Free Range BOURBON? Geeezus gimme a break…shot o’ Jack in a dirty glass thank you very much. And yeah.. the bartender works for ME. He’ll take my order and LIKE IT. Belch.

to this:

Just about every single person who commented completely missed the mark. You don’t walk into a corner liquor store in the Tenderloin if you want fine champagne and you don’t go to the K&L Wines on 4th street if you want malt liquor. Bars like the Rickhouse pride themselves on quality drinks. If you want a Cosmo there 999 other places that will make it for you. They don’t need your business. They have plenty.

English expanded on the idea in the latter comment with a follow-up post on his blog titled Why Can’t I Get a McDonald’s Hamburger at Chez Panisse? Clarke then threw his hat into the ring with Serious Cocktails: Is the Customer Always Right? He writes:

Most bartenders employ some aspect of the “Customer is always right” principle. If the ingredients are available, they will make the requested drink. But does the customer have a responsibility as well? Possibly to distinguish the types of drinks they’ll order based on the type of bar they’re visiting?

Yes, Paul. At least, the customer should have that responsibility. And it is up to mixology-minded bartenders to help the customer understand that. That means continually educating guests — most of whom don’t read cocktail blogs — about the fact that in certain places, bartending has reached a new level and that the drinks there are different. Many people, like Mr. Shot O’ Jack above, will start out thinking it’s all just a pretentious fad. But once they sample a few really well-made drinks and notice that more and more of their friends are doing the same, they’ll come around. The thing is, it always takes more time than the passionate early converts realize.

All this has happened before with food, wine and beer. It wasn’t all that long ago that lettuce was Iceberg, wine was Inglenook in a jug, and beer was Bud in a can. Anyone who clamored for more variety and better quality was considered a fussy elitist. Now, regular Joes at your average chain restaurant consume arugula, Chardonnay and India pale ale without comment.

I experienced this kind of change first-hand during my brief stint in the craft brewing industry in the late ’90s. Even though craft beer had been proliferating for over a decade at that point, people would still walk into a brewpub and order a Miller Lite. The bartender would explain that there was no Miller Lite on tap, that the establishment sold only beer that was made on the premises, and he would suggest a golden ale — milder than the pub’s other beers but still way more flavorful than mass-produced light lager. The customer would either leave or try the golden ale. If he tried it and liked it enough, he might get adventuresome later on and order an IPA or a porter. It was a process, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Did my fellow brewers and I privately snicker at those Miller Lite-ordering rubes? Yes — just as today’s craft bartenders do with the Cosmo set. But luckily for both beer nerds and cocktail geeks, the impulse to win over the unenlightened triumphs over the impulse to mock them. A little less zealotry, a little more diplomacy. Which means that, in a few years’ time, Mr. Shot O’ Jack might walk into a bar, glance at the cocktail menu without raising an eyebrow, and respectfully ask the bartender to suggest a rye for his Sazerac.

Trust me, it’ll happen. Eventually.

Permalink | Filed under Bartenders, Booze in the news |

25 Responses to “We’ve seen this before”

  1. MC Slim JB

    Always an aptly-chosen photo here! “Hair of the dog that bit me, Lloyd.”

    I fully agree with your position on this, Lauren. We’re still in the evangelism phase, and customers should be chipping in to help the pros educate the benighted. Find five friends who are still drinking vodka, and drag them gently up the path a bit.

    I also think it helps to fight inauthenticity, to deflate and shun the fake craft cocktail bars that are exploiting the trend without the benefit of any serious technical chops, scholarship or heart. These are dangerous to the ongoing Enlightenment, the sorts of places that will convince the uneducated that the whole thing is all light and no heat.

    Also, the Revolution starts at home. You might not be able to easily drag a friend to a great bar, but you could serve them something wonderful that you crafted in your own kitchen. Small, dogged steps are what will keep The Movement moving.

  2. ljclark

    Yeah, Slim, you’re right to mention the role of the fellow drinker in all this. Regarding your thoughts about “fake” cocktail bars. I decided not to delve into this in the post, but this sort of thing is part of the process, too. When I was brewing, it was during a time of shake-up in the craft beer industry. A lot of breweries that either sucked or were poorly run (or both) closed. Market over-saturation. This prompted those who thought craft beer was just a flash in the pan to say ‘I told you so.’ They were proven wrong as newer and stronger breweries thrived. By the way, I’d like to know which cocktail bars you consider “fake.”

  3. Sean

    I think its happening at a nice pace. Over the last year, the dominance of the cosmo (at least at my bar) has been replaced by old cubans. Took time, but it still happened. And I’m in the ‘burbs!


  4. MC Slim JB

    Two fakers that immediately spring to mind are Post 390 and Prohibited. The former has Golden Age cocktails on its specialty list but appears clueless as to how to make them; the latter apes the trappings of a speakeasy, which hints at craft cocktails there, but is little better than your basic faux-Irish bar with a full license. I’m withholding judgment for now on some newcomers that I still have hopes for, but I’ve been underwhelmed in the early going: you can probably guess at some of these.

  5. Matt R.

    I’ve been following Paul and Camper’s ongoing investigation into this aspect of drinking and it’s fascinating.

    As a snobby elitist when it comes to drinking, I’ve had to work to convert a few friends over to my way of thinking.

    I can remember the first time I took my brother and a few friends to Seven Grand here in LA, constantly talking up the great cocktails and my brother constantly retorting with derogatory remarks about what a snob I was.

    After one drinks he looked at me and asked if we could make such trips a weekly occurrence, and now generally announces each visit to my apartment with a text message including a drink order (usually a Sazerac).

    It’s always fascinating to watch the bartenders at one of these cocktail bars on a busy night (nights when I’m often shooed away because, as I’m often told, “It’s amateur night”) while they try to explain that they don’t do Jack & Coke and it’s 5 or 6 deep at the bar.

    It’s always a good reminder to me that what I hope is a lasting trend hasn’t caught everyone yet. Heck, here in Orange County, where I live, the culture is very much still a beer and a shot and cocktails are 3 gallon [insertflavorhere]tinis.

    It’ll come, just needs time.

  6. k.

    Meh. It’s not much of a bar if it can’t serve up a shot and a beer (or a well made cosmo) with a smile and distinct lack of lecturing. Figure it this way: I think adults who read Harry Potter and rave about it barely squeak by as literate. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be able to buy a copy in a first rate bookstore without being scorned by some snotty bookseller.

  7. ljclark

    Wowee, Sean, where is your bar?

  8. pinky gonzales

    Wow, I’d drink whatever I was served, Cosmo or cheapo beer, if I were sitting at THAT bar, in the hotel from The Shining (: Great food-for-thought article. I’ve come to believe hospitality in it’s many forms will always win hearts more than any perfect cocktail will.

  9. Aaron

    Pinky, that last sentence is spot on.

    Hospitality will convert a cosmo drinker to an Pegu Club or an Old Cuban. I try to convert with a smile rather than a lecture.

    Oh, and the picture is great. The funny thing is, when Jack orders bourbon at the bar, Lloyd gives him Jack Daniels. Tsk Tsk 😉

  10. Sean

    We’re up at Tryst, in Beverly. Suburbs are a hard nut to crack, cocktail wise, but not impossible. Still have to make jack and cokes, however. 🙂

  11. Alex

    I’m just waiting for the resurgence of the independently owned ‘fern bar’ so I can drink my Cosmos and Harvey Wallbangers in peace.

  12. ljclark

    Wow, good on you, Sean, for promoting the Old Cuban in Beverly. Pinky, Alex, etc, there’s a whole ‘nother good discussion to have about the notion that the bar where you’re sitting dictates what you’ll be having, whether a shot and a beer, a Cosmo, a Harvey Wallbanger (wow) or an Old-Fashioned. I look forward to that.

  13. Patrick Maguire

    Great, timely post. The comments in response to all of the linked articles really reinforce how difficult it is to please all of the people all of the time. There needs to be a little give and take on both sides.

    I had a nice conversation with John Gertsen about this a few months back at Drink. I had some friends in from the ‘burbs, and coached them up on what Drink was all about before we got there. Misty suggested some cocktails, and my friends loved them and are still raving about their drinks and the service. The gang at Drink hasn’t lost sight of the importance of hospitality first.

    Reading customers is an art. Some of today’s mixologist “startenders” would be well served to remember that they are tending bar and not on stage. There is still a real dearth of seasoned professionals behind the bar in most of Boston’s restaurants. Several of the newcomers need to realize that it’s not about them. I still cringe when I hear bartenders use mixologist. I get it, but in the wrong company, it sounds arrogant.

    On the other hand, customers would benefit from doing a little research before they go to a restaurant or bar. With all of the resources available on-line, there’s really no excuse for not knowing what a place is all about, and whether or not it will work for you.

  14. pinky gonzales

    P.S. the back room bar at Silvertone always reminded me of ‘Lloyd’s’ – it’s quite lovely

  15. ljclark

    Patrick, I agree: the bartenders at Drink and many of their colleagues around Boston get it right. They have actually made a conscious pact of sorts to make Boston bartending known for hospitality over celebrity (not that they entirely shun the latter).

    Oh, yeah, Pinky, I know what you mean!

  16. Frederic

    I remember sitting at the bar at Eastern Standard and two ladies approached the bar to my right. They asked bartender Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli about how he makes an espresso martini in a way that expressed a doubt that Eastern’s was any good. Tommy took the time to not only explain the house recipe in detail but to use such poetry that I was almost sucked into wanting one. That level of hospitality, no matter how low brow the drink is (although ESK’s espresso martini is a little more gussied up than other places’), set the bar for how things should be done. Although that might be allowed to go away when the customers are rather rude to the barstaff from the get-go with their crappy drink order (the Bacardi-Limon guy at Drink).

  17. Randy

    I don’t know, i will just say this (not to beat a dead horse..literally? ) The B-side always had your back. From the highest of the high to the lowest of the low. You all know you could walk in there and get a negroni or a pony bud and a jack. In my eyes it proved it could be both, and neither. It was good to know that one bar could accommodate any of your whims anytime of the day or night and no one blinked an eye.

  18. ljclark

    Randy, I think you’ll hear a loud, collective ‘here’s to that’ in response. Fred, your ES story couldn’t illustrate Boston bartenders’ hospitality better.

  19. john

    The internationally acclaimed bartender, Stan Vadrna, sums it up perfectly with his interpretation of the Japanese mantra “ichigo ichie”. To him, this phrase means “one encounter, one opportunity”.

    Gaz Regan also has a great line “Bartenders don’t serve drinks, they serve people”.

  20. Alcachofa

    “The Bacardi-Limon guy at Drink”… I gotta hear about this.

  21. John the Barman

    Thank you for this write up. It just takes time. At Seven Grand we encourage the drinking of whiskey in classic drinks or on its own. We will still make a Jack and Coke or a Cosmo. When its 5 deep we don’t recommend other drinks because we don’t have time and we care about getting everyone what they want without a huge wait. Earlier in the night we make an effort to encourage Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, etc… We keep one crap beer, High Life, for people that want nothing else but that. You can’t win over everybody. That said, there is nothing wrong with a bar not carrying crap beer or cranberry so they can’t serve cosmos. Thats their way of educating. Much more aggressive then ours, but it still educates.

  22. Roz

    Hi, Lauren et al,
    I’d love to bring a little New England savvy to my readers here in Atlanta. I’m intrigued by the idea of old school vs. new school cocktails. I still ccasionally order a Yellow Bird or a Harvey Wallbanger, but am too embarrassed now to order a Cosmo (after reading these posts). Think I’d like to do a piece that can help upgrade my ATL readers from Cosmos to something more up to date. Anybody got any drink recipes that might move a Cosmo lover off the dime? I’ll be happy to publish with full attribution. Also, what’s the average price of a craft cocktail at a place like Lloyd’s or Drink; obviously it would be with a premium call. I’ll check back here for your responses or you can leave them as comments on examiner.com/x-36449-atlanta-bartender-examiner. Sorry to barge in like this, but this is one of the most interesting (and thirst producing) articles and conversations I’ve come across in quite a while. Way to go, Lauren and fans!

  23. ljclark

    John, Seven Grand’s philosophy is pretty much the norm here in Boston — a good thing, I think. Roz, thanks for joining in! A perfect drink to steer the Cosmo drinker toward classic cocktails is the Jack Rose: 1.5 oz applejack, 1/2 oz lemon or lime juice, 1/2 oz real pomegranate grenadine (http://drinkboston.com/2009/06/03/grenadine-real-pomegranate/). It’s pink and accessible, but a serious cocktail.

  24. Roz

    Thanks mucho much, Lauren! I think the Jack Rose will also make a nice suggestion for Valentine’s Day! I’ll post a piece next week with a link to you, thank you very much!

    If any of your readers have more suggestions for old school replacements, send them on! I’ll be a regular on your blog from now on. Love your stuff and the knowledgeable contributions of your readers. Guess that’s Boston for you!

    Roz, Atlanta Bartender Examiner

  25. Mark

    Hey Roz, try a Maiden’s Prayer: 1.5oz gin, 0.5oz cointreau, 0.5oz lemon juice, 0.5oz orange juice. That’s a drink I’ve had success making for friends that typically order Cosmo-ish cocktails.

    Good luck!

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