In France, one of the basic tests of a chef is simply to see how well they can make an omelette. Sure, it might be a very simple and common dish, but it still takes skill, knowledge, and passion to make it properly. Likewise, I have a cocktail which I have found helps me understand if a bartender really has a firm foundation of the art of the cocktail.
Finding A Touchstone
When you have a bar and a bartender that you really know well, you feel comfortable and safe. You know what sorts of drinks that they make well, and you know what to order. But what if you find yourself in a new bar, and you want to find out what sort of place this is, and how well they make their drinks. Is this the sort of place that you’d better just stick with a Gin & Tonic? Or can you trust them to not only make some of your favorite drinks properly, but perhaps to even be able to recommend some new drinks that suit your tastes?
As part of my research, I try to go to as many different cocktail bars as possible. Anytime I hear of a new bar opening up in Seattle, I make it a point to go check them out. There are a broad number of things I am looking for in a Quality bar. In addition to just straight forward qualitative observations, I have also developed a short set of tests that I run a first-time bartender through in order to get a quick idea about their abilities and knowledge. In the upcoming series of articles, I’ll cover these tests one at a time, and include a detailed explanation of how I arrived at this test, and what I am looking for.
Test #1: Making A Cocktail
As a first test, I want to find out pure and simply how much attention the bartender has paid to learning how to make "a" cocktail well. The cocktail needs to be one that is common enough to be relatively well known, but no so common that it has evolved to a point that almost any recipe is correct. It also needs to be one that has some specific complexities of design and flavor that take some skill and understanding to execute properly. This would mean that a cocktail like the Martini would not be a good choice.
It is probably just by chance that I settled in on the Old Fashioned cocktail as the one that I use for testing bartenders with. I suppose that there are several others that I could have used, but I’ve come to realize that the Old Fashioned really works well for finding out how much attention a bartender really pays to the drinks they make.
The Old Fashioned was one of the first cocktails that I taught myself how to make when I got started down this path. So many recipes just list the ingredients and a very general description of how to combine them together, if at all. So while it might sound trivial to teach yourself such a simple drink as the Old Fashioned, to do it properly means carefully thinking through what each of the ingredients are adding to the drink, and what process of putting them together brings out the best characteristics.
As I settled in on my recipe I found that I had grown very fond of this drink. Prior to this, it had been a cocktail I knew the name of but really hadn’t ever ordered it in a bar. So on my next foray out to the bars of Seattle, I found myself ordering an Old Fashioned. Wham! Suddenly the harsh reality of the bartender’s skill slapped me in the face. I found that I was being served a drink that bore little resemblance to the wonderful drink that I had grown accustomed to. Perhaps it was just this one bar. It was one I had never been to before, and so perhaps I needed to go find a better one. But one after another, I found that no matter what bar I would try, none of them would make this drink as good as mine. Many were good, but not great. But most, and I do mean most, were horrid.
These guys were professionals. I was just a hobbyist. They had often been working for years learning how to make cocktails. I was just messing around. So what did they know that I didn’t? Was the drink I was making myself not really an Old Fashioned? I paid attention to how they were making it. The primary difference between theirs and mine was the addition of soda water. Most of the time, their Old Fashioneds were made up of half soda water. To my tastes, the more soda water they had, the worse they were. I scoured through any cocktail recipe book I could find, and none of them indicated this much soda water. At most, they would mention a "splash" of either water, or soda. Even the Angostura bitters bottle indicated that the water was only being added to help dissolve the sugar.
On my next trip out I made it a point to sit at the bar near where the bartender mixed up his drinks. I ordered an Old Fashioned, and he of course topped it off with a healthy dose of Soda. As I sipped this horrid concoction, I casually asked the bartender what the purpose of the soda in an Old Fashioned was. "I don’t know" was the response, "that’s just the way I was taught how to make it."
Which is when the light bulb came on for me.
The difference between the bartender, and me was that for him it was just a job. For me, it was a passion. He was just trying to mix up cocktails as quickly and efficiently as possible, with little care or concern as to what might really make them great. He could just as easily have been flipping burgers at a hamburger joint.
So, I had discovered a touchstone. I had found a test by which I could measure a bartenders understanding and interest in Quality cocktail. And it was a test that I should expect most bartenders to fail. One of my earliest successes with this test was at "Mona’s", a little restaurant in North Seattle. I dropped in and ask the bartender for an Old Fashioned. He looked at me and rather matter of factly warned me that it might not be what I was used to, because he made his the right way. And he did.
And one of my most recent successes was just the other night at a new little café in downtown Seattle, the "Zig Zag Café". Another bartender had told me that they claimed to really know their cocktails, so I decided that they were due a visit. Not only did they know their stuff. But in making the Old Fashioned, they used simple syrup instead of sugar, just so that they could both avoid adding any water to this drink, as well as making sure that the sugar got fully dissolved.
This is what it is all about. Finding bars and bartenders that take pride in the cocktails they serve. For me, I have found that an Old Fashioned is a good way to separate the true professionals from the rank amateurs. There are other cocktails that could be used to check out different levels of appreciation and ability. The Sidecar could be used to determine both their interest in using quality ingredients, as well as their knowledge of how to properly balance the flavors. The Manhattan could be used to determine if they truly understand the importance of bitters in a cocktail. And even something as trendy as a Lemon Drop could be used to find out if they simply try to follow everybody else’s lead, or if they really understand the alchemy behind bartending.