My wife just loves it when I’m wrong. She’s kinder about it than most and would never admit it anyway, but I can tell. When I put my foot in my mouth she cradles my idiocy like a warm cup of coffee on a crisp fall morning, savoring every molecule of my shame.
The good news is I’m not wrong very often but, when I am, look out, ‘cuz it’s usually a doozy….. So what have I been wrong about most recently? I was wrong to think what is currently termed “mixology” was bad for cocktail culture. It isn’t….completely.
Now, bear in mind I hate anything trendy or overblown. My favorite steakhouse is the Tartan Room on Tustin Avenue and if that makes me the trashiest of white trash so be it.
I have been tough on the whole mixology/craft cocktail thing and have caught a lot of flak, even from some very close quarters, but I’m not some sort of cocktail history hater. In fact I have a fairly formidable collection of vintage beverage books, most notably, two rare Esquire treasures from the 40s that are the Terminators One and Two, respectively, of spirit scripture. I have a few contemporary ones as well, but they generally strike me as fairly pedantic. A notable exception is Ted Haigh’s “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” which, in this case, is the leper with the most fingers. The long and short of it is I’m a “just put the booze in the f’ing glass” kind of guy.
What I wasn’t wrong about was finding the whole mixology thing kind of irritating, because it is. I don’t get the Dungeons and Dragons-esque cocktail history revisionism which may or may not be as accurate as portraying Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter. The whole thing smacks of the Society for Creative Anachronism without the wacky foam swords. Hanging around people who drone on and on for hours about tinctures, herbal-infused aperitifs and house made tonic water just gets plain old boring. I think world class ice programs are silly and you can argue that if you need one of those orb ice cubes you’re taking too long to drink your drink (but they do look cool, don’t they!)
I understand some guests and peeps in The Biz like “the show” as they term it, with jiggers-a-flying and bartenders taking five minutes to make that perfect drink. But the same was said many years ago during the “Flair Bartending” era. If you don’t remember it don’t feel bad, it was pretty forgettable. It did, however, leave us with an epically crappy Tom Cruise movie, 1988’s Cocktail, which is a must see if you want to understand misguided booze trends, like the early’s 90’s shooter phase. That was another annoying one, with a slew of shots like the “Skylab Fallout” and “Deutschland Reunited.” Yep, that really happened.
Mixology makes things tough on bartenders too. It takes five times as long to make a drink, which equals less tips. You usually need two bartenders on even a regular night which means more labor cost for the shop and half the tips for each bartender. Also, a lot of people are getting sick of waiting forever to get a beverage, especially when they just want a shot and a beer with no sideshow. Even my most enthusiastic mixology buddies realize its foibles. In fact, the more experienced the more they realize it.
What I was wrong about was categorically thinking there was no upside to the whole thing and this is my very public mea culpa. Mixology has done a couple things that will positively affect cocktail culture for decades to come.
First off, it’s made for better bartenders, including me. There, I said it. I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the bar and learned from some very skilled old-timers, but prior to the whole mixology thing I didn’t know what a whip, flip or buck was. Not only is that good for the current generation but it will be passed down as bartenders train others in the future. It’s also revived a lot of lost spirits that might have gone the way of the dinosaur had mixology not come along. There is a whole slew of off-the-grid amaros, rye whiskies and many others that have become part of the new cocktail lexicon. No longer are Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark the only whiskies on the shelf and people have come to expect more than a Manhattan made with that crappy Gallo vermouth. Customers are better informed as well, sometimes to a fault, knowing what they want and how they want it made. The old days of every customer getting the same thing the same way are long gone.
Mixology as we’ve known it for the past few years is slowly fading and people are starting to see through the faux speakeasies and past all mixology’s bluster. Mark my words, Applebee’s or TGIFridays is gonna feature a craft cocktail menu sometime soon and the whole thing is gonna be over, much like that Gap commercial during the Superbowl killed the swing revival in one fell swoop. Not that I’ll miss the wacky vests, barbershop quartet haircuts and old-timey facial hair, ‘cuz I won’t. (Although the latter was an absolute boon to moustache wax companies!) But the post-mixology era will leave us with much, much more than bad bartending movies and anachronistic shot names. It will leave us with skilled bartenders, great booze and a revived knowledge base that might have otherwise faded into the mists of history. And those are all good things.