Thirsty Writer, Libations Marketer
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Beverage Media. Simple can be better – in life and in cocktails. As someone who appreciates my spirits neat or with little fuss, I’ve been seeing much more of this trend in response to the influx of complicated (12 ingredient) cocktails over the years.
Deconstructing the cocktail, then building it back up again with added bells and whistles, has been the focus of the bar world for many years now. This “cocktail renaissance” has spawned the speakeasy, molecular mixology and the much-parodied world of bartenders with exotic facial hair and ironic arm bands. But in the last year or so, a quiet movement toward simpler, stripped-down drinks has taken hold.
Many bartenders, like Angus Winchester, Tanqueray global brand ambassador, say this trend has a lot to do with increased knowledge behind the bar—more ingredients don’t necessarily translate to a better cocktail. “These simplified drinks highlight the masterpiece of spirits and ingredients rather than muddling them up unnecessarily. This can be seen as a nod of respect for the ingredients, as well as an acknowledgement of time pressures in craft bars,” he explains.
One of the biggest complaints from customers at craft bars has been the time it takes to get a cocktail, as well as the price. This backlash has led many operators to rethink their beverage program. Libations consultant Aidan Demarest, the man responsible for some of Los Angeles’s most prominent cocktail haunts (Spare Room, Seven Grand, The Edison), opened his own place, Neat Bar, in October 2011. Located in suburban Glendale, Neat Bar focuses on a decidedly uncomplicated way to serve drinks: choose your spirit, neat or on the rocks; mixers are served on the side.
PURITY OF CONTENT
Taking away the clutter of a cocktail menu, Demarest instead curated a stellar spirits collection and high-quality mixers. This allows bartenders to spend more time talking and tasting customers on spirits. A simple pour is set on a wood tray, with space for a second glass of ice or a chaser. Neat Bar hasn’t totally abandoned cocktails however; each week a well-known bartender plays host and can create a special cocktail for the night.
At the root of many classic cocktail recipes like the Old Fashioned (spirit, sugar, waters and bitters) are simple ingredients. Misty Kalkofen, bar manager at Brick and Mortar in Cambridge, MA, calls this a cyclical process. She was one of the original bartenders at the legendary B-Side Lounge, opened by Patrick Sullivan in 1998.
“When the B-Side first opened we had a cocktail list of six drinks, all classics featuring four ingredients or less,” recalls Kalkofen. “At that time, no one had any idea what an Aviation was. I’ve witnessed the bartender and the consumer becoming more educated about classic cocktails, the ingredients on the back bar and the different ways one can achieve thoughtful, balanced cocktails. I’ve watched as at times the drinks have become too precious and as bartenders have—in the words of my mother—‘gotten too big for their britches’ while the guest has paid the price because of a lack of hospitality.”
When she and Sullivan developed the concept for Brick and Mortar, the emphasis was on serving customers (like themselves) who had been around the cocktail block, so to speak, and appreciate the strong flavors of a spirit-forward cocktail. But as a neighborhood bar, they also realized the drinks need to be accessible. The resulting menu showcases boozy drinks like the Streets of Gettysburg (sherry, rye, Benedictine, ristretto, bitters) and lighter choices like the popular Sister Mary (blanco tequila, St. Germain, Aperol, grapefruit juice). “In either case we knew it was necessary to create a menu that could be executed quickly. We weren’t looking for a high touch concept. We were looking for balanced cocktails that would showcase the quality ingredients that we had chosen and could be presented in a timely fashion,” says Kalkofen.
The pared-down cocktail concept can also be seen at Prizefighter, which opened in November 2011 in Emeryville, CA. The brainchild of Jon Santer and Dylan O’Brien, veterans of the San Francisco drink scene, there’s a focus on uncomplicated classic cocktails like the Margarita (tequila, lime, agave nectar), Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon, honey) and Daiquiri (rum, lime, cane syrup). And in the venerable cocktail mecca of New Orleans, Maurepas Foods offers a list of creative options with just a handful of ingredients like Delight (Nardini Tagliatella, Giffard Crème de Cassis, Clear Creek Douglas Fir eau de vie)and Parse Through Pursed (gin, honey, parsley, lemon).
WHY LESS CAN BE MORE
So what constitutes simple? Winchester believes the greatest cocktails “have four types of ingredients (strong and weak, sweet and sour/bitter), and there are very few great drinks that include more than five ingredients in total.”
Kalkofen concurs: “Simple is usually a word that is associated with the number of ingredients and steps needed to produce a cocktail. It is a very rare occurrence to find a cocktail on the Brick and Mortar list with over five ingredients. In fact I tell the staff that if they are at five ingredients and they still don’t like the cocktail they should probably go back to the drawing board.”
Number of ingredients aside, both Winchester and Kalkofen point out that “simple” does not necessarily correlate to taste. Using the right combination of fresh, quality ingredients coupled with a skillful, friendly bartender is what makes a great cocktail. Based on her theory that what goes around comes around (in the cocktail world and in life), Kalkofen says, “As it always happens, the pendulum is swinging back and bartenders are seeing that the cocktail is only one part of a program that results in consistently happy guests.”