By and large, the cocktail revolution of the early 21st century has been welcome. A lot of great historical drinks have been uncovered, many people have moved beyond the chocolate vodka martini bar days of a decade ago, and an expanded range of ingredients have made for some awfully interesting drinks. But like any revolution, there is excess and a necessary backlash. I thought Pete Wells’ essay the bad, over-fancy drinks served at so many bars and restaurants pretty much right on. A brief excerpt.
Several forces conspire against restaurants that try to serve knockout drinks. The demand for talented bartenders far exceeds the supply these days. The few who are on the job market are often more tempted by offers from high-minded bars where they can focus on their ice-pebble techniques without having to go back to the kitchen to tell an intemperate cook that the man at the end of the bar thinks the tuna tartare is undercooked.
Those bartenders who don’t mind the extra hassles of restaurant work may be asked, for the first time in their lives, to write a cocktail menu. “And they are being influenced by others telling them what to put on there, a sommelier or wine director or a chef,” Mr. Freeman said. “Those things can be very positive, but it can also be very confusing to be told, ‘I want you to make this drink I had at Death & Co.’ ”
To make life more complicated for these bartenders, the cocktail menu is supposed to reflect the restaurant’s point of view, which may be obvious (Havana in the ’50s) or more abstract (the Weimar Republic filtered through contemporary Bushwick). Oh, and all the recipes need to be original. Almost every restaurant with a liquor license now insists on a menu of proprietary drinks, not classics.
Do the math on this, and you quickly run into thousands of new cocktails being cranked up solely to fill these menus. What are the chances that every single one rolling off the factory line is going to deserve a place on the fireplace mantle next to the Hemingway daiquiri and the Negroni?
This is logical. Basically, people are demanding fancy drinks and bartenders aren’t competent enough to make them. Nor are most drinkers evidently competent enough at drinking them to care. Although if customers are happy with it, who cares. A fairly straightforward supply and demand situation. Still, a return to just making a really great Manhattan or Negroni would also be a wonderful thing. In fact, I find that these are often the cocktails I go to at a bar with a cocktail list because unless the place has a preexisting reputation for making great drinks (like this place in Providence), it’s a good way to test whether they know what they are doing.
On the other hand, the excess also often takes an awful form. Exhibit A: artisnal ice.
A Manhattan will set you back $14 at forthcoming downtown restaurant and bar Second State. Want it on the rocks? That will be a dollar more—for a total of $15.
The Pennsylvania-themed spot, which is set to open in the former Mighty Pint space at 1831 M St. NW on Oct. 21, will be the first place in D.C. with an ice surcharge listed on its cocktail menu. (Most bars eat the cost or build it into the price of the drink.) Granted, these are no freezer-burned, generic tray cubes. This is the fancy, unclouded artisanal stuff from D.C.’s boutique ice company, Favourite Ice, founded by local bartenders Owen Thomson and Joseph Ambrose. Second State bartenders will chip off the eight corners for a more spherical shape that sits in the glass like an iceberg.
“It’s worth it,” says bar manager Phil Clark. “When it goes into a cocktail, it’s crystal clear. It’s purified water, so there’s no minerally taste.”
Bring your own pitchforks and torches.