Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Cocktail Revolution

The cocktail has been around for well over a century, but it didn't really take hold as a social phenomenon until the 1920's, ironically enough during Prohibition [1920-1933]. During the 1960's, the rise of drug usage (not calling alcohol a "drug" here), as well as the wine revolution which developed in succeeding decades, led to a general decline in the interest in mixed drinks. 

But the cocktail has made a comeback. This has led to a resurgence in the art of "mixology" or the development of types and variations of cocktail mixtures. There are dozens of books on mixing, as well as detailed and authoritative monographs on specific spirits (gin, tequila, bourbon, etc.). 

Cocktails are a festive drink. Solitary drinkers tend to like their liquor straight, beer drinking isn't much of a social phenomenon. But cocktails are about good cheer, and conversation, and are best enjoyed either before meals (or by themselves), though light snacks (such as nuts or candy or bite-sized spiced protein) can be good accompaniments. Cocktails are said to stimulate hunger, so are usually served as an introduction to a meal.  

Cocktails have traditionally been considered a "treat" concoction, sweetened with sugar or sugar products. Sugar, like salt, has traditionally been used as an attractor. Lots of people who never would think of becoming inebriated, will politely sip a sweet cocktail. 

Wine enthusiasts frequently enjoy the endless variations in flavor and effect which the grape affords. Spirit enthusiasts do this too, though with somewhat less sophistication, given the range of possible variation. 

For one who enjoys experimenting with mixes, the bar scene can often be frustrating. Most taverns cater to the general public's vague titillation with "fun" drinks. Liquor is traditionally a big money-maker in the restaurant business (as for taverns), and liquor licenses are coveted, and often very expensive when available. But spirits are also traditionally expensive. 

The escalation in the prices of mixed drinks has been accompanied by various short-cuts in their preparation. "Watering down" is still common in the bar business, as is the use of "warm" mixing (in which melted ice contributes to a dilute drink), but the real culprit in the cocktail game these days is the "exotic" drink craze. "Tropical" drink recipes rely heavily on novelty fruit juices. "Featured" drinks, these days, especially those listed on the bar menus--often made with tequila, mescal, or cachaca--may have four or even five ingredients, with a special emphasis on "exotic" fruit flavors (limes, papaya, passionfruit, kumquat, coconut, mango, banana, etc.). 

Cocktails were originally designed to augment raw spirits with alternative flavors and combinations. But the point wasn't simply to sell liquor in adulterated form, as a way of making the "goods" stretch further. Nevertheless, this is often how cocktails have been treated by the bar industry. 

Whenever I go to a tavern these days, I try to find out if the bar-tender knows what he or she is doing. Have they been trained, do they have a license? Or have they simply memorized a dozen common cocktails, or the limited list of "original" novelty "signature" drinks on the menu? Many bar-tenders get nervous when you suggest a custom mix; some even get temperamental and surly. 

Taverns usually try to set a limit on the range of possible mixtures by curtailing the number of different mixing agents. A fully-stocked bar--with adequate supplies of goods (with varying brands), fresh common citrus fruits, and a wide range of proprietary flavors of liqueurs and condiments, not to speak of correct glassware--is an expensive proposition. Bartenders are encouraged to steer customers to the signature listings on the bar-menu. 

The new "tropical drink" craze is being used commonly to serve expensive "Kool-Aid" concoctions with tiny amounts of alcoholic goods. Most customers who order drinks in these taverns wouldn't know a true cocktail from a fruit-juice drink, so the small amount of alcohol used is probably an appropriate product for such clientele.

Nevertheless, such fake "tropical Kool-Aid" cocktails tend to water down the general quality and range of choices available. A well-made cocktail is a thing of beauty, crisp, refreshing, piquant, and sophisticated. It's a shame when you can't find a bartender sufficiently trained, or sufficiently supplied with ingredients, to fix anything but the 15 most common drink mixes outside of the menu list.     

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