It was spring in 2014 and we’d been tasked to come up with an original summer menu and several easy to put together house drinks to supplement it with. I took the glass part of a Boston shaker, washed the ice with St. Germain elderflower liqueur, squeezed the juice of one lime wedge into the glass and added a dash of orange bitters. Next came two ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin stirred and fine strained into a cocktail glass I had prepared by rubbing the peel of an orange against the inside. I finished with a lemon zest to garnish. Not the most inspired drink I know but it suited the season and became a reasonably popular house pour.
The menu arrived sometime late in May and several nights later I was tending bar to a group of young women, one of whom happened to order my St. Germain martini. The room was less than busy so I took the time to make sure my drinks were going down well but unfortunately there was a complaint.
“I don’t like it she said.”
“Oh I’m sorry,” I professed, “what seems to be the problem?”
“It’s too strong. The drink is,” then a pause, “not quite what I thought it would be.”
Although the description underneath the drink suggested it as a summer substitute for a classic dry martini, the young woman had read the words orange and elderflower without taking into account the greater quantity of gin within the mixture. I apologised and remade the drink as a Collins flavoured with elderflower cordial. Later she left happily with her party and I got to drink the drink myself (well I couldn’t let it go to waste could I?). Everybody wins.
I was temporarily frustrated at having my own creation thrown aback so ignorantly but I contented myself with the afterthought that I certainly was not the first bartender to be met with this mould of animosity by a member of the drinking public. In the past I have oft heard the arrogant mutterings of bartenders keen to brush off criticism with the suggestion that it is in fact the customers who are stupid and unknowing of the culture we hold so dear. But is this really the right attitude to take? The customers are there to be entertained in our playgrounds and regularly pay good money to become intoxicated and enjoy an experience ever so different to that of their local boozer. Who are we to tell them what they can and can’t drink?
Perhaps our aggression should better be levelled at the society around us which has brought to fame such ill fated beverages as the long island ice tea and the dreaded woo woo. If, and I believe that it is the case, that the first names of cocktails we hear of as youngsters are indeed drinks filled with juice and sugar rather than the fine spirits and subtle ingredients traditionally acknowledged by aficionados and professionals then of course a dichotomy is to emerge between what the bartender wants to make as opposed to what actually goes into the shaker. What, as bartenders, can we then do to encourage a shift back to the values of old? I’ll leave that question, for the time being, to the current crop of boys and girls not at this moment living out a retirement from the game in another part of the world.
The argument did however get me thinking about the chronology surrounding how this actually happened. How did we go from the martinis and old fashioned cocktails served up daily in the nineteen fifties to chain pubs adding higher and higher quantities of sweet juice concentrate in an uncouth attempt to disguise the taste of cheap double distilled vodka? Suggestions have been offered. Tom Cruise and in fact the nineteen eighties in general have been blamed. Before that, those failing the recognise the genius of drinks like the Trader Vic Mai Tai and the Beachcomber Zombie chose to rest the bulk of their complaints on the umbrellas tucked intimately beside the straws and pineapple chunks associated with the Tiki craze of the sixties and seventies. More recently Carry Bradshaw and the Cosmopolitan have been chastised for the idea that juice belongs anywhere near a martini glass. All this however, is old hat if you choose to delve deeper into the depths of time and uncover the mystery of when it first became acceptable to put anything other than the hard stuff into a martini glass.
Legend has it there once was a time in America (in the nineteenth century to be precise) when a cocktail was only a cocktail if it followed the instructions,
“Once of bitter, two of sweet,
Three of strong and four of weak.”
This essentially meant that the considered cocktails of the day were based on spirits such as whisky, gin and brandy being flavoured with bitter ingredients like lemon peel and sweet ingredients like, urm, well ... sugar. The four of weak was at first water and then, once it became a little more available, ice. These drinks were consumed on the whole by gentlemen who enjoyed nothing more than getting tanked up of a lunchtime before rolling back to work in the afternoon to partake in a casual doze.
For those who wished to actually get some work done in the afternoon, the strength of the cocktail inevitably posed a problem. This technique was later applied to gin in the apparent evolution of the classic martini albeit, of course, with French vermouth this time around (incidentally do try the Martinez cocktail if you’re searching for the missing link here). From this point in around the 1890s you have a natural progression where various diluting agents are added to the cocktail in order to add flavour in one way or another.
Who exactly was leading the way in this evolution is hard to pin point. We do know however that by 1895 it had become perfectly acceptable to flavour a cocktail with either lemon or lime juice. Perhaps most famously, this method was applied to rum in creating the Daiquiri cocktail originating out of Cuba a decade before the turn of the century. Of course one can certainly imagine the complaints at the time being frightfully similar to those of certain bartenders here in the twenty-first century.
“What the hell do they think they’re doing drowning that lovely gin in all that juice?”
By 1905 we had the Bronx cocktail; a mixture of gin, both vermouths and, to the sheer disgust of many a purist, even orange juice. The flood gates had opened and until prohibition at least it was almost a case of anything goes (as I mentioned in April’s edition they were even putting crème de violette in their Aviations). The twentieth century rolled into full swing and underwent it’s various trends, all of which seemed to have a predominant effect on what went into the booze we chose to imbibe. As bartenders we were dragged kicking and screaming through all of it before arriving here in 2011 when shows likeMad Men and Boardwalk Empire are seriously threatening to answer our prayers and bring the classic cocktail back into fruition at the forefront of our drinking culture.
Still, even if things don’t end up going our way, as bartenders there is little more we can do than continue to encourage our clientele as to what may best suit their palettes and hope for their sakes they make the right decisions. After all, two hundred years ago we’d have all been scoffed at for suggesting the idea of a cocktail resembling anything of a Sidecar or Hemingway Daiquiri. Perhaps after all the ups and downs evolution may end up being a good thing.