Monday, June 15, 2009

Fails of the Cocktail


Here in the Liquor Lab we endeavor to do the best we can when making drinks. If we're making a classic, established cocktail, we attempt to do the necessary research so as to have at least a cursory idea of what it is we're doing. Bar guides are perused, online resources are tapped and fellow booze nerds are consulted.

If we're trying our hand at coming up with an original drink, the process is similar, although a lot more trail-and-error is involved. Still, the goal is the same: To make a drink that someone will enjoy...and hopefully want again.

This has been on my mind lately because the annual hooch-centric extravaganza known as Tales of the Cocktail is less than a month away, and I'm looking forward to marinating in a continuous stream of finely-prepared cocktails assembled by a legion of skilled and talented mixologists who bring their considerable powers to bear. These folks take drink-making very seriously, and it's a wonderful experience to be on the receiving end of their abilities.

But what happens when this isn't the case? What if you don't find yourself in the capable hands of a conscientious bartender? What about that moment that occurs between idea and execution when things go terribly, terribly awry?

I think almost everyone who enjoys a cocktail even semi-regularly has had the misfortune of being served a drink so puzzling, so ill-fashioned, so irredeemably wrong, that it sears itself into memory. Attempts to completely block them out inevitably fail, and their resurrection can potentially be triggered by almost any drinking occasion, even years later. These unfortunate mental spectres lie dormant, almost forgotten, but always somehow spring back to the fore.

My own encounter with a very wrong drink occurred several years ago, and went pretty much like this...

At a wedding reception held in a fairly nice country club-type place, I approached what looked to be a reasonably well-appointed bar. The staff was polite, sharply dressed, and was speedily (though not carelessly) dispensing cocktails. To all appearances , this was a crew who knew what they were doing, and I was optimistic.

I was in the mood for a Martini, and I figured its few ingredients and ease of construction would make it a good choice as far as the staff was concerned...I try not to make anyone's life difficult if I can help it. As I stepped to the bar, one of the bartenders slid over and I was glad to see he had a head of fully gray hair. He was well into his fifties at least, and I thought to myself, "If anyone here knows how to make a Martini, it's this guy."

He gruffly asked what I'd like, and my response was, "Could I get a Martini?"

Now, there are times in one's life when you say something and immediately realize you never should have said what just emerged from your mouth. These are the times when you wish life had a rewind button. This was one of those times. Whatever instinct that signaled me I should never have asked for a Martini from this particular gentleman at this particular event came about 3 seconds late.

His expression immediately turned sour, and with a grunt, he rummaged below the bar and produced a bottle of gin.* Next, he swiftly placed a clear plastic cup that resembled a miniature double-old-fashioned glass on the bar and shoveled three small, dripping ice cubes into it. The final step was to haphazardly slosh an indeterminate amount of gin into the cup. He then pushed the drink my way and briskly spun off without a word to attend to someone else. The entire transaction took approximately 8 seconds.

I won't even attempt to itemize the myriad ways in which this drink was wrong. Like many drinks, the Martini is subject to a degree of personal interpretation, but there are some ground rules nonetheless. (and if you read this blog, I'm confident you know what they are). This drink violated a bunch of them.

Like a dope, I actually took a couple sips. I don't know what I was expecting, but a lukewarm plastic cup of gin did not transmogrify into a bracing, refreshing cocktail just because I wished really hard. Maybe some perverse part of me wanted to see just how bad it actually could be. I found out, and relegated it to the nearest trash can.

Let's just say that bad booze +bad preparation + bad customer relations = lousy drink.

This isn't meant to be an indictment of this particular bartender- Who knows why he made such a poor drink? (misleading tips from dubious online bartending videos may be the culprit. Jeffrey Morgenthaler has been unearthing tons of them lately) . If there's a lesson here, I think it's that a bad drink can be just as memorable as a good one. Maybe more so. However, I've had far more good drinks** than bad ones, so I chalk that up as a win overall. But when the opportunity presents itself, I still like to ask people:

What's the worst drink you've ever had?

* I can't recall the specific brand, but it was not good. Really not good.

** Several of these were made during Mixology Monday, which happens to be today...and I completely forgot about it yet again.