September 21st, 2018 | By Lou Trope
The craft cocktail movement has been upon us for several years and is no longer a movement but an expectation from today’s guest. However, let’s not underestimate the amount of time, training and commitment it takes to truly build a fine-tuned craft cocktail program, not to mention attracting the team that can pull it off consistently, drink after drink.
Whenever I go to a bar or restaurant for the first time, I do a simple test: I order a classic Negroni. This is the most basic cocktail – equal parts of Gin, Sweet Vermouth and Campari mixed in a mixing glass (although some bartenders will make it in the same glass it’s served in) with ice and then strained over new ice, with an orange peel garnish. This is an easy layup for any skilled bartender. Ordering this simple classic cocktail tells me everything I need to know about this establishment. As you can imagine, I have gotten them shaken with a cherry, made with the wrong spirits, completely out of balance and served with every garnish you can imagine, but I have also been served a perfect Negroni. So how can we create a culture and environment of producing great craft cocktails when most can’t even get the basics right? Well, it’s simple: Master the basics and build on them.
The famous Japanese bartender Kazuo Uyeda of Tender Bar in Tokyo notes in his book, Cocktail Techniques, that a guest decides in the first five seconds after entering the bar whether they will like their drink or not. So let’s start with the bar and its appearance. The back bar should be fully stocked and organized. Spirits should be grouped by style with all labels facing out. When possible, bottles should be displayed with accent lighting. The bar should be free of any personal items and clutter. The front bar should be set up with pristine fresh garnishes and professional bartending tools like mixing glasses, bar spoons, citrus juicers and strainers. It should look clean, organized and professional. The guest’s first impression should give them a sense of anticipation that this is going to be a special experience.
As with anything, technique matters. Understanding and mastering basic techniques, from stirring in a mixing glass to proper cocktail shaking, is paramount. All bartenders should instinctively know which cocktails are mixed and which are shaken. All spirit cocktails are typically prepared in a mixing glass, stirred 30-45 times and then strained on new ice. Shaken cocktails usually contain a spirit and a juice, and should be shaken in a Boston Shaker approximately 20 times to promote optimal dilution and aeration. Confident and masterful showmanship of basic cocktail-making techniques with the proper equipment (mixing glasses and shakers) can make a huge first and lasting impression on the guest.
Making a great cocktail is not simple. In fact, it is a very precise process; a quarter ounce too much or too little can throw off the balance. The wrong mixer or poor juice quality can also have a detrimental effect on the outcome. Cocktail making is like baking – it is about exact measurements. Even the most skilled baker would never just grab a bunch of flour, sugar and eggs and start throwing them in a bowl to make a cake. Everything must be measured. The same holds true for bartending. Every drink needs to be measured to ensure balance, consistency and, most importantly, precision.
Dale DeGroff, known as the “King of Cocktails,” helped us all understand the DNA of cocktails by encouraging us to focus on the components of a classic Whiskey Sour, which are 1 1/2 ounce of Bourbon, 3/4 ounce of lemon juice and 3/4 ounce of simple syrup. Using this formula, we can build off this basic recipe to create thousands of different cocktails just by switching out different ingredients. Understanding this basic formula opens up the world of innovation. Simple syrup can be substituted with everything from agave to honey syrup or house-made simple syrups infused with unique flavors such as blackberry, cinnamon, lemon grass and jalapeño, just to name a few. The combinations are endless. In contrast, it is also critical to master and understand the classics such as the Martini, Negroni, Mule, Old Fashion, Manhattan, Margarita, Sidecar, Boulevardier and Sazerac, many of which share a common cocktail structure. Like anything you want to master, this will require constant training and practice but the outcome is worth the effort.
Now that we have our bar looking sharp and the team is creating balanced, precise cocktails using excellent technique, it’s time to engage the guest. It’s all about the delivery to sell the experience. This starts with making sure the cocktail looks fantastic. Proper glassware, great ice and a fresh garnish are critical. If the cocktail calls for a mint garnish, don’t use a wilted mint leaf; use a fresh, vibrant mint sprig. Look at the basics, such as whether the ends are cut off of lemons and seeds are removed from wedges. It all matters. When presenting the drink to the guest, place a cocktail napkin in front of them, introduce the drink, look them in the eye and smile. It sounds simple but it is the difference.
So there you have it. We all have seen the master craftsmen behind the bar – they make it look like a graceful choreographed dance as they meticulously mix hundreds of cocktails while giving every guest the sensation that they just received something very personal and special. This skill does not come overnight and requires thousands of hours of training, practice and dedication. However, you can start the journey by enlisting and mastering the building blocks of creating a clean and organized bar, practicing and mastering basic technique, and understanding cocktail structure and the classics, all culminating with attentive and professional guest service. In the end, it’s all about finesse and precision. Cheers!