We’re playing a game when we’re making cocktails. It’s a social game, and it has different victory conditions depending who you’re talking to. One we accept that 1) people are playing different games and 2) the real game is other people, we realize that the real game is the interpersonal game: why are we making this drink, who is it for, what purpose is it supposed to serve?
When I first watched the anime Bartender, I didn’t understand. The entire show was about the emotional significance of the drink to protagonist-of-the-week. This did not interest me. I wanted to understand the technique; the ingredients; the mechanics of flavor. But they would spend an entire episode talking about childhood memories, and then the drink of the episode would be whiskey stirred over ice. Melodramatic? No, this is the very soul of cocktailcraft. What is the social context and purpose of the drink?
Making drinks for the internet is different from making drinks for people you meet face to face. On the web, you only have images. You could put food dye and water in a cocktail glass and tell a story and no one would be the wiser. You could pour up a coupe full of frothy paint. But in fact, this reveals something essential about mixology. The story of the cocktail is the most important ingredient. A good story tastes better than any mixture of ethanol, water, acid, and sugar.
When I make a drink for you on a blog, and I show you the photos, I’m telling a story. The goal of that story is to get attention. It’s to make you feel something about a picture of a glass full of (we assume) ethanol, water, acid, and sugar. Aside from the – let’s be honest – chemical compulsion of a nice glass of booze, what’s the difference between a forty of Old English and an Acid Trip #2? They both get you effed up, isn’t that right? When you pay 150$ for a glass of Pappy Van Winkle, do you think you’re just paying for oak sugars that take 15 years to dissolve? You might think so, but in fact you are paying for the privilege of telling your friends that you drank a glass of Pappy. “It’s so hard to find,” you’ll tell them. “It used to be easy to get, but now? Honestly, I’m not sure it was worth it. I think it’s overrated.”
And what next-level mixology is about is realizing that the story is the thing you’re really pouring into that glass. That’s why “drinking alone” supposedly makes you an alcoholic; because the only story most people know about that is the one where you feel drunk and sad and pass out. The other story is some gossamer falderal about the flavor. Ostensibly you like the taste. Even if it’s true, no one believes you. The narrative of the cocktail is the alchemy that transforms “it gets you drunk” into something personal and socially constructive, and beyond learning how to wave a spoon through a glass, that’s what you really need to learn how to mix.
“Craft Cocktails” is a story. Whiskey, sugar, and lemon are the ingredients of a whiskey sour. What are the ingredients of “Craft Cocktails?” This is another way to ask, what is it are we doing, when we are playing the craft cocktails game? I think there’s not one game, but several:
- Game 1: Novel Ingredients. This is a game you also see in the world of fine dining. Every season there are new ingredient trends like borage, microgreens, sea buckthorn, hen-of-the-woods, and so on. You win this game by serving an ingredient that your rival chefs / mixologists haven’t heard of. In the cocktail world, this game has an added dimension because new spirits are released all the time. I like this game. It’s why I mix drinks with tonka beans. If you run out of ingredients, you can also escalate on technique. Agar agar clarification? Centrifuging strawberry seeds? Lacto-fermented sea snail ephemera? Can you show me, precisely, where the ephemera is located on the snail?
- Game 2: Diminishing returns of refinement. There are 68 bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, thousands of different bourbons and hundreds of sweet vermouths, surely. When you consider the possibilities afforded by varying ratios, using different cocktail bitters, and so on, there are more possible Manhattans in this world than there are particles in universe. Surely, one of them is some heretofore unimagined revelation, the nectar of the gods, the drink that will redefine alcoholism for a generation. I once had a barrel-aged Manhattan made with sherry, raspberry shrub, Van Winkle rye, and Abbot’s bitters, and lo, it was 2% better than any other Manhattan I’ve ever had.
- Game 3: Knowledge of history and/or the rectification of names: who invented the Mai Tai? Was it Don the Beachcomber? Was it Trader Vic? What rums did they use, what recipe, what ratios? How many classic variants were there? How does the Vic Mai Tai compare to the obscure mixture of unobtainium and impossibilium described in an apocryphal notebook that belonged to Don’s second cousin? This is the dumbest game by far, cocktail nerds swordfighting with irrelevant trivia. “That’s a decent Martinez you’ve got there, but the authentic version is so much better. You simply must try it.” The secret ingredient is pretentiousness.
- Game 3.5: The minor league version of the above is the novice drinker who is still trying to master the canon. Manhattan, Martini, Zombie, Corpse Reviver #2, Slippery Nipple, Slow Screw Against The Wall… sorry, what was I saying? It’s as if the name of each drink were some secret handshake, and by spouting them off you get yourself into the club.
- Game 4: “I don’t know about all this high-falutin’ rum diddly dum business, just give me a shot of bourbon” – If you can’t win the other three games you can try to bunt by pretending to be above it all and indicating that you are more of a hard-nosed alcoholic than your opponent. Everyone loses when you make this gambit. The trick to this is the affectation of humility, the implicit renunciation of snobbery, as if the anti-snob isn’t a type of snob. When you watch someone like James Hoffman, who would never dream of playing this card, you can see how careful he is not to offend all the people who do. I’m not sure he would condone eggshells in coffee, but he knows an awful lot about walking on eggshells.
If you spend enough time slinging drinks you get sick of all these games. You learn how to pull flavors into liquids, you stop caring about recipes and names, and you just mix from the heart. That other game, the one I lead off with, the people game, you win that one by noticing the games other people are playing and letting them win. Does that bruise your ego? Much like shaking a martini “bruises” the gin, this is nonsense. Let it go.
At Measure and Stir, we strive to be like the Buddha, renouncing all of these ego games. (Notice that this, too, is a posture, a metagame, the game of being above all the games.) Why did I make this drink? Because I like the taste. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t name it, and I won’t remember it. You cannot grasp onto raindrops. If I find myself in a similar mood, with the same bottles ready at hand, these drops might fall again.
Untitled. Brown, Bitter, and Stirred.
2 oz Grappa OF Barrique
1/3 oz Amaro Nonino
Build it in the glass, stir until you find the softness.
Garnish with a lemon peel.
The appropriate level of dilution for a cocktail is something like 3/4 water, 1/4 other, where other is the sugar, acid, and spirit. Nardini has citrusy sweetness and a cooling intimation of mint on the finish. The raisiny, winter spice taste of the grappa flows continuously into amaro. Lemon oil lifts the citrus in the amaro, gently enunciating a middle note that might otherwise be lost.