Categories
Those That Serve Them

Books

(first published in 2012)

Ask any bartender worth his salt and they will have a favourite bar book. It might be The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (Dick Bradsell), the Savoy Cocktail Book (Paul Martin) or the Waldorf Astoria Bar Book (Paul Harrington). I myself am a fan of the 1971 Playboy Host and Bar book – but the less said about that the better. Books are knowledge and knowledge is power and be you professional or home bartender a reference manual is paramount for mixology. 

I was brought up to have a healthy respect for books and the written word. From childhood with author father to student life at Oxford I have relied on, and been entranced by, books. “You can never learn less” was drummed into me early and I see books as the physical proof of that. As I moved more into bars and out of libraries my only reading was the labels on bottles and trashy novels early in the morning when you can’t sleep. Yes I had Mr Boston’s and the Bartenders Bible but who didn’t? It was when I was interviewing Dale deGroff in 1998 and he showed me his office and some of his ‘Library’ that I caught the bug again and realised my two passions of drinks and books did mix perfectly…

Not many of you may know but I have been given the dubious title of “walking drinks encyclopaedia” by several people in my time  and it is a title I take some pride in, however undeserved it is. Part of it is due to my constant reading of books about cocktails and I thought I might take this short opportunity to talk about the role of literature and the writer in both teaching and inspiring me in what I, and what you dear reader, do.

When I started bartending over 23 years ago the job was significantly simpler to be honest and the books I could buy and read on the subject reflected that. There was no interest in the ‘old ways’ and so all the vintage books that are now so highly prized where unknown to all but the historically minded. And with so few products and cocktails available or being popular it was easier to seem an expert. But our industry has exploded and the amount of knowledge, cocktails, trends and tips that we need has grown to match.

My library has grown accordingly in that time to include now nearly 800 books. From the ancient texts like Harry Johnson and O.H. Byron to cutting edge e-books from hip cool bars in foreign cities. From obscure and technical tomes on distillation to ‘civilian’ books like the History of the Pineapple my shelves and mind groan with the mass of literature and information.

 We now have recipe books (both general and also bar specific as bartenders have become the new chefs and got published), technique books to teach about new-fangled ways, we have memoirs and advice for the novice mixer and we have books packed to the end-pages with product and brand information. So what books do I think every Modern Professional Bartender should, as my old history teacher used to  say “read, mark , learn and inwardly digest”?

  1. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (David Embury): the most academic and intellectual book about the mechanics of creating cocktails written by an American lawyer no less. His detachment from the industry gives perspective. Considered by many to be the greatest classic text this book was very much the first time that drinks mixing was seen as a topic that merited intellectual thought and investigation leading to theory as well as practice. He looked at how his drinks were mixed and why they tasted as they did and then projected his learnings into his own shaker.
  2. The Gentleman’s Companion (Charles Baker): filled not just with great recipes obtained by CHB in his travels but also written with humour and style that makes the experiences of the drinks come to life. It is eloquent and knowledgeably written and brings out the joie de vivre and style of drinking cocktails (on a side note this is the book that everyone says I should try and copy as I am a modern day Baker)
  3. The Joy of Mixology (Gary Regan): one of the Gurus of today wrote a simple yet comprehensive book about both technique but also philosophy of bartending and service. Best described as reviewed on Amazon as “That rare, highly distinguished, distinctive and classical product that represents a benchmark within its category. A standard against which its peers can be measured. A product of extraordinary quality, scope and character which transcends price”
  4. Difford’s Guide (Simon Difford): the recipe book to end all recipe books that is updated every year and so stays current and fashionable yet with Classics aplenty. Simon Difford can be seen as the publisher of record for the London Bar Scene and this, his recipe book, is a must have snapshot of that scene.
  5. Imbibe (David Wondrich): aka the ‘Historical Oracle’ this book not only covers a biography of the father of bartending (Jerry Thomas) but also his drinks and other ancient cocktails. Perhaps the most academic of books on the list but it explains why we are all ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and details the first Golden Age of the Bartender (we are now in the Second)
  6.  The Ultimate Bar Book (Andre Domine): a massive tome of a book that looks dull but is perhaps the most comprehensive book for product knowledge I have read for many years. Worth it. And worth reading. And more importantly worth remembering. If I had to choose a single book on this list that  would want my bartenders to learn then this would be it.
  7. The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (Jim Meehan): not just a great snapshot into the world of the modern American “speakeasy” and bartending renaissance but also to show how good and influential one man/bar can be. Truly aspirational as well as educational.

That’s it. Just seven must read books. Of course there are a huge amount of specialised books on spirits and liqueurs but they will go into far more depth than you will ever need to know and will never use.

And that’s part of the ‘problem’. Books are great for knowledge but bartending is not just about knowledge – it’s about people primarily. Modern Bartenders seem to think that they become ‘better bartenders’ by reading more books but they don’t – they become more educated bartenders but as we all know having your nose stuck in a book often means you miss out on other things.  That’s why I suggest only 7 books and why after you buy them when you finish reading this article you should go out and talk to people, smell the coffee and enjoy life – cos that will make you  a far better bartender than books ever will!

Categories
Owners & Managers

The Bar Manual

            It has often been said that successful catering is all about theatre, consistency and experience. This has never been so true in bartending today. The modern bartender can be compared to an actor using props (the liquids and the tools of the trade), an audience (the expectant guest), a script (the banter between drinker and server) and even a director (the bar manager or owner). But often we rely on the skill of the players and we assume that they are suitably equipped and trained. But even actors must go  through acting class and have talented directors and a great script. Thus is it with bartenders but we have it easy… all we need is a good Bar Manual.

            It is constantly surprising that bars do not have a solid manual. Where else can bartenders learn about the products that they stock, know how it is served in that bar and know in what style the owner wants it served? What about cleaning rotas, till systems and all the business end of catering. The editor of this magazine once told me she liked going to bars with no ‘stars’ or ‘celebrity bartenders’ because you weren’t disappointed by not being served by the Faces/Names and you could gauge the bar team as whole and the back of house support they got and the training they had received. Much of that will be down to the quality of the bar manual they adhere to.. so what should the ideal bar manual consist of?

            In an ideal world it would have three sections. As a chain is as only as strong as its weakest link the manual should be understandable by both the newbies and the old hand – in fact far too often we assume that the experienced bartender is also a knowledgeable one… and we all know what happens if you assume…the manual should also be updated regularly with feedback from all involved parties.

            Section one should be a basic bartending training manual. This section would cover everything from what alcohol is to the techniques used to serve it in its many wonderful guises. The mechanics and tradecraft of drinks serving; the health and safety of food and drink handling; the legal aspects of the job and the venue I which it is served. Not only how a cocktail is shaken but why and the do’s and don’ts of those techniques. This can be updated as new techniques become more relevant and important (muddling has become an integral part of bartending where 15 years ago it hardly featured and ‘throwing’ drinks may be the next must know skill…) This section will mean that server becomes a craftsman with a detailed knowledge of the physical skills and necessary responsible requirements of their job. It should also outline every team member’s role in the smooth running of the bar and their individual responsibilities.

            The second section should be a product knowledge guide to provide as much knowledge about the actual bottles that the bartender is serving to allow them to ‘sell them’. The Sauce Guides are a wonderful and much-to-be-admired but to be frank the detailed tasting notes about various Poteens or £500-a-bottle tequilas are near-as-dammit useless to most readers. Your manual should have in depth knowledge about the products you sell and the questions you would ask the guest when they ask for it or the variety of interesting was to serve it to the un-initiated. Can I serve it neat? Frozen? On the rocks? With a mixer? In a Classic Cocktail? In a signature drink? For the higher levels you may have a tasting matrix of does it go with certain still mixers or certain carbonates but those long and detailed tasting notes never get repeated and merely clog up the brain. Be specific, be relevant and be concise.

            The first two parts of the manual can pretty much be copied from any one of the plethora of drinks magazines or bartending books on the market today with judicious editing. Section three you will have to write yourself. This is the unit specific section. From the mundane (what times shifts start, where the rubbish goes and what you are expected to wear) to the service style (what you garnish your cokes and diet cokes with and how to serve absinthe… or even why you don’t serve absinthe) to the subtle nuances that is behind the owner’s vision for their bar and operation. This will have your recipes for both the must know drinks that you may not have on your list but every bartender should know how to make to your specifications and also all your new and funky drinks. Every drink must be the same regardless of the bartender who makes it and this can only be accomplished if the owner or bar manager writes it down in stone. As with acting ad-libbing or ‘improv’ is great if done well but appalling if done badly.   

            Section three can also be where the experience of the owner or bar manager can be expounded on. The purpose of, and lines to use while, upselling; greetings and farewells and ways to start conversations to make the customer start feeling like a guest; methods to learn and remember drinks and the ‘fluffy’ side of catering all live in this section. As more and more bars and restaurants open so the business side of an operation increases in importance. As the typical guest becomes more discerning and more educated so the role and importance of one’s staff increases. A good bar manual will engender consistency, set standards and make sure that every staff member has the tools to treat every guest as tho’ the writer/owner is doing it themselves…

Categories
Those That Serve Them

The Second Golden Age of the Bartender

So I am in a difficult position. I do not have enough grey hairs to be considered a Bartending Grand Master alongside with Dorelli, Regan, Schumann and DeGroff and yet I don’t not have enough hair full stop to be considered a young stud. And yet I figure I have been in the game long enough and flown enough miles to make a few comments about the state of our Industry now as opposed to when I started in 2 B.C. (two years before cranberry juice).  To quote English Prime Minister Harold McMillan “we have never had it so good” – we are in the midst of perhaps the greatest Golden Age of bartending since the late 19th century and here is why.

Firstly we are seeing a meta-trend among our consumers for three main desires. On the main our people are searching for Authenticity in their activities and their consumption. No longer do we want instant coffee when we can have espresso; no longer do we want boy bands when we can listen to real musicians playing real instruments; no longer do we want package holidays where someone else tells us where to go and what to be impressed by and no longer do we want mass produced products.  Increasingly people are searching for products and experiences that seem more ‘real’ and  have heritage. Nextly we are seeing a rise in Connoisseurship whereby we want to be seen to be discerning in our choices of products, services and experiences: we want to show our sophistication and knowledge to explain why we are drinking our brands or where we drink them. Finally we are seeing a desire for increased Flavour in our food and drink – we want slow food and not fast food and we want big, bold and flavoursome experiences. All three of these together give us as bartenders a willing audience to show of our skills to.

And our skills are being developed as never before. Again firstly shows like the Australian Bar Show, Tales of the Cocktail, Bar Convent Berlin, Paris’ Cocktails and Spirits and several others exist where 10 years ago Trade Shows were dull conferences where sales reps mingled with sales reps. Now the cream of the industry pontificates and educates and inspires and what’s more bartenders from around the planet are travelling to see what other nations are doing.  Secondly Brands are training bartenders in increasingly large numbers where in my day they relied on cool T-shirts and branded bar tools to convince us to sell their products (tho’ I have to say the loss of the Bar T Shirt is a great one that I miss dreadfully). Finally the rise of the ‘Academic Bartender’ and the increased availability of bartending books both old and new means that old skills are being revised, histories are being learned and the profession of the Bartender is being revived and understood.

Finally as I referred to in my opening with the BC comment the average bartender of today has a back bar that most older bartenders would have killed for. Twenty years ago when I started behind the stick if we had two ‘brands’ of vodka, gin, bourbon etc we were smug bastards. Yet now there are a wider array of brands and also whole categories that we never dreamed of like Anejo Tequilas, Agricole rums, Rye whisky, Old Tom gin and the like…never before has the back bar offered such opportunity and such choice and thank god because of the above trends we get to use them.

Yet we must be extra careful with our position as nothing lasts forever. Yes it may be nice to have a choice of 20 tequila brands in 3 styles of each and yet if we do not sell them regularly we will go out of business. Yes it is nice to be called Mixologists in the media and yet if we can serve the wine drinker and the beer drinker and even the non drinker and make them feel welcome and important we shall disappear up our own collective backsides.  We must still remember to be humble and understanding with our guests, be business-like in our whims and also give suitable respect to those that have gone before us and seen times when they were not as golden as today… like me for example!

Categories
General Waffle

Prohibition

“Dark and guarded doors opened into a spreading world of enchantment; a world of soft-lights, seductive scents, silken music, adroit entertainment, smoke and laughter, of perfection of food and service, of wines and liquors of the first quality, all in a setting of gold and silver and brocade, velvet, iron, glass and exotic woods”

For many people Joseph Sobol’s description of a 1920s speakeasy sums up  Prohibition and its effects on the drinking public in the US. It was a time of luxury, excess and refinement; it was the golden era of the bartender and the cradle for Cocktail Culture as we know it today. Everyone was either drinking, had just finished a drink or was just about to have one. It was populated by larger than life figures such as “Lucky” Luciano and of course “ Scarface” Capone and every socially conscious young man carried a hip flask (or Hip flask!).

Yet the reality is somewhat different. Yes, Prohibition was a paradigm shift in the alcohol industry, the drinking habits of a nation ( and by extension the world) and the world of bartending. But it was only a silver age, following a golden period at the turn of the century and preceding a bronze age that is only now fading away. It was an excessive reaction to an excessive law and the hyper accelerated metabolism of Prohibition changed the social landscape in ways that the Drys ( as the anti-alcohol movement was called) could never have imagined and would never have wanted.

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act which preceded it have long been misinterpreted and abused.  It was conceived as a necessary measure to save America from the drunkenness and moral corruption that many saw as ever increasing. After the US effort in the Great War which saw a successful dry run for Prohibition the Drys saw an opportunity to return to a more Victorian Era. Through a powerful lobby group the Temperance Society convinced many politicians to support their Bill to ban the making or distribution of alcohol except for medicinal purposes. With hindsight we can see that this was as naïve as a belief in the Tooth Fairy and the discovery of a still producing 130 gallons of Whiskey a day on the farm of one of the authors of the Amendment two years into it shows the ‘political’ nature of the decision. But on 16th Jan 1920 America awoke to life under Prohibition – “a great social and economic experiment” as President Hoover called it.

Loopholes in the law were quickly exploited – it was only illegal to make, transport, buy or sell alcohol- if you had purchased it before Prohibition then you could still drink. Thus private clubs would claim pre-1920 purchase  and the cocktail party in private houses became de rigeur. Much of this was hardly new to some people however with the wealthier classes long appreciating the Bronx and the Martini before dinner. What the Drys had underestimated is the effect of denying spirits to a population who had no real experience of them – suddenly huge tracts of the US that had traditionally drunk only beer or whiskey became thirsty for spirits and the Cocktail Age had begun.

Another potential problem was the mere enforceability of the Act when it came to prohibiting supply of alcohol. With the 18th came 1520 new Federal agents to guard the 19000 miles of borders and coastline and Prohibition  soon came to be seen as an open invitation for anyone who was even marginally involved in the rackets to enrich themselves beyond their wildest beliefs. From Capone ( earning an estimated $60m a year before payoffs) to the beat cop warning gangsters of forthcoming raids money flowed as freely as the illicit booze. Captain Bill McCoy became one of the most feted of ‘rumrunners’ with his unvarying quality and lack of skulduggery and his name still endures as a mark of  authenticity.

It was due to patchy quality and unscrupulous traders that cocktails became more prevalent. With this inconsistency in the basic liquors came imaginative concoctions to improve and smooth away the rough edges of less refined spirits. For the first time ingredients such as grenadine, bitters and juices became more popular, as did cream. Yet these were very much American concoctions: as they say “In America we drink to get drunk, whilst the British are  only interested in seeing how much you can drink without getting drunk” this was described more accurately in the post Prohibition Standard Bartender’s Guide that talked of drinks “obviously of irresponsible origin”. Cocktails, though now drunk by the masses, were primarily in two types: sweet and thick to disguise the poor quality or quick and easy for fast intake. Their names often predicted their effects, such as the aptly named Mule Hind Leg Cocktail!

The pattern of American drinking was changing, sometimes permanently. First Irish Whiskey became unpopular because much of the lowest quality bootleg hooch was invariably passed off as ‘Irish’. Secondly Gin assumed great popularity because of the simplicity of making it at home (ethyl alcohol and Oil of juniper). It has long been said that the Bronx died because of overuse during Prohibition. Finally  America moved steadily away from its preoccupation with bourbon and into Rum from the Caribbean, Tequila from Mexico and Canadian whiskey. Being forced to look abroad did much for the variations in new drink recipes.  

Conversely however,  professional bartending suffered.  If you could pour a drink you could have a job in 1920s America but the ‘great bartenders’ chose to pursue their careers  legitimately elsewhere – predominantly in the “American Bars” in London and on the Continent. One US writer lamented the loss of such favourites as “ the Bamboo Cocktails at the Holland House… the Clover Clubs at the Buckingham…(and) the Old Fashioneds at the Imperial” whilst bars like Harry’s New York Bar in Paris became the new shakeries with the creation of such drinks as the Sidecar, the White Lady and of course the Red Snapper (which was to become the Bloody Mary). Post Prohibition cocktail invention became the preserve of marketing departments such as Galliano’s Harvey Wallbanger and Seagram’s gin and grapefruit failure called a Seabreeze. Never again could we think of “the cocktail’s laboratory being the local bar- its chief scientist being the fellow with the handlebar moustache standing behind the mahogany, its consumer and judge the man with his foot on the brass rail”.

What Prohibition took away from one side of the bar it added to the other. For the first time women were admitted equally with men to the new breed of bar. No speakeasy could afford to discriminate by gender, so women, from “well born damsels with one foot on the brass rail, tossing off Martinis” to Mother accompanying Father down to Cassidy’s, helped to civilise bars in a way the Drys couldn’t – they ordered drinks alongside the men. Although critics grumbled the easy social mingling and the legal cocktail lounges they spawned were too obviously an improvement on before.

The largest economic effect of Prohibition, other than the enriching of the gangsters was in the drinks companies. Before Prohibition America was dotted with small distillers with names like Sunny Brook, Chicken Cock and Green River Bourbon. Post Prohibition the public had developed tastes for gin and moved slowly back to Bourbon thus it was the plentifully stocked Canadian Seagram and the British firms like Gordons who benefited. It was due to Prohibition that three of the world’s largest drinks companies are British and not American owned. A period of ‘merger mania’ took place and some of America’s finest independent distilleries closed. But not only brands disappeared: almost overnight the US Rye whiskey vanished and took with it a host of cocktails for which Bourbon was a poor substitute.

After 14 years of hip flasks lifted above faces both male and female; of speakeasies; gangster bootleggers and government agents (or G-men) in comic-opera disguises the government repealed prohibition on December 5th 1933. The ‘great noble experiment’ was finally over. A massive folly that rather than reduce drinking made the cocktail an act of defiance, a blow for civilised values and the urban citizens’ rebuff to Bible Belt tyranny.

Categories
Drinks

Modern Classics

So one of the best parts of my career is creating training modules and presentations to roll out at Bar Shows and education sessions around the world. One is either given a totally free hand and/or is trusted to come up with interesting and educational topics and information that will help inspire bartenders to be creative, bring their standards up or teach them valid lessons. I have found the key to this is to research heavily, to choose wisely and to have a structure that creates a flow and a credible dialogue. I never intend them to be slavishly followed and am happy when attendees bring up arguments or points I did not consider and love it when it creates ripples throughout the world of bartending (or at least the attendees).

I bring this up because I recently gave a talk at the inaugural Athens Bar Show entitled “The Seven Wonders of the Modern Cocktail World” in which I attempted to show that in the time I have been bartending or involved with the world of cocktails and bartending there have only been perhaps seven drinks that have been created and are destined to be (or already are) cocktails that all bartenders from now on will need to know in the future. And as you can imagine it ruffled some feathers and started some pretty intense conversations.

My theory was this. Ninety years ago the list of “Must Know” aka Classic cocktails was very different to 40 years ago and is different to now. At the turn of the 20th century drinks like Clover Clubs, Cobblers, Sazeracs and Silver Fizzes were the bartenders staples. Skip forward 50 years and Mojitos, Margaritas, Mai Tais and Bloody Mary’s were on everyone’s lips. Yet what drinks have been created in the last 30 years (I chose my bartending careers start date as one I could use realistically) will stand the tests of time and be added to the roll call of great cocktails?  As Mixology has become more established, credible, creative and widespread so the number of ‘Signature’ cocktails has increased and surely there are many great new cocktails out there… or are there? The key really (other than being a seriously dedicated and well-travelled bartender who has drunk a fair amount of new cocktails) was the criteria that I used to  decide what made a Modern Classic.

Firstly the drink had to have a practical side: it must use ingredients that are fairly common around the world or at least can be substituted fairly easily. Also on a practical nature it must have  a name that is easy to say and ‘call’ in a bar and is funny or memorable.

Secondly it must taste great of course (often meaning that the exact proportions can be varied successfully  to accommodate a range of palates. But this taste should also come due to innovation – either in new/irregular combinations of flavours or ingredients or new techniques being used to create those flavours.

Thirdly it must be popular (dur!) by which I mean not just that drinkers love it but other bartenders copy it and thus it starts to show up around the world on cocktail menus. Too many drinks have been lost by bartenders keeping recipes secret and it is a feather in any bartenders cap when colleagues in other bars like a drink so much they drop their pride and ask for the recipe.

This leads to the fourth criteria I used to select the drinks: they must inspire bartenders to copy or tweak the recipe in much the same way that the great Classics have done with twisted Negronis, Manhattans and Old Fashioned’s being examples of. 

My Magnificent Seven?

Bramble

Tommy’s Margarita

Vodka Espresso aka Espresso Martini

Breakfast Martini

Penicillin

Paper Plane

Gin Basil Smash 

One of the downsides of modern bartending is new bartender desperately cling to the idea that totally new drinks are the key to guest satisfaction. I professionally have drunk literally thousands of ‘new’ drinks that, tasty tho they may be, are relatively  forgettable and, according to the ‘market’, are unworthy of the title Modern Classic. 

Any list is not definitive as I stated at the beginning and I intended it only to show off some of the criteria that I think will aid bartenders create modern classics in the future as well as showcasing great drinks  that exist right now… as well as reinforcing my selection by having bartenders push these drinks in the future. Now all I have to do is listen to my own work and create one myself! Tho in the short term I look forward to hearing howls of protest and suggestions from you dear reader… cheers!