Should Cocktails get simple again?

As hand-crafted cocktails and homemade infusions revolution has grown, so has the trend to create new and unique drink concoctions which displays the skills of the bartender. Cocktails have become, especially in high end establishments, ever more complex and time-consuming. The bartending profession has become noble again so the bartender’s need to shine and re-invent their career has come to the forefront. The more complex the cocktail, the more impressive the bartender appears.

Some bartenders are experimenting with molecular gastronomy techniques (known in the world of bartending as molecular mixology) behind the bar, which historically, have been used in the kitchen by world-renowned chefs. Making foams for cocktails, using beakers and imitation ice, and cocktails from liquid nitrogen has become trendy and depicted on several different TV shows.

Between these elaborate cocktail creations and science and the chemical molecular movement, it appears that ordering a simple cocktail is becoming a learning environment for the bartender and customer. When did going to a bar or working behind the bar require a chemistry degree?

For example, a cocktail that requires you to squeeze multiple juices on the spot, muddle mint and egg white with syrups, shaken spirits and liqueurs for at least 30 seconds, then layered with foams and sprays and garnishes might look great and taste delicious, but is it worth the customer anxiously waiting for five minutes or more to get a cocktail. Some bar patrons and bartenders are debating this fact and just want a good tasting cocktail without all the aesthetics and fanciness. Is there anything wrong with the good old-fashioned way of getting a good cocktail perfectly crafted with unique and fresh ingredients with great flavor balance that takes two minutes or less to prepare and looks beautiful while employing flair, showmanship, and great customer service? We are starting to see mixed reviews of the molecular mixology infiltration in bars.

Furthermore, cocktails like these on a really bust night, can drive the most conscientious and competent bartender deeper into the weeds. Once you are in a place like this, it is hard to climb your way out of it. Bartenders like to be in control and don’t want their rhythm to be disrupted. Simplicity is making its way back.

Some bars are pushing back and emphasizing classic martinis, 3-ingredient cocktails, and classic highballs and rocks cocktails. Some are gravitating toward pouring premixed cocktails from a bottle and cocktails from a tap system. I’m not in favor of the new age cocktail pouring systems. Sure, it is efficient and saves time (and accommodates those bartenders who don’t know how to pour a drink), reduces stress off the bartender, and helps maintain flow in the bar, but it takes away from the artistry and appeal of bartending. Bartending is an art and a craft. Cocktails should be made-to-order. That’s the appeal of the profession and that’s what some patrons are looking for when they visit a bar. Plus, if patrons know you are simply pouring out of a bottle or tap, then it raises the question of freshness and skills behind the bar. How long ago was the pre-mix mixed? When was the last time the lines were cleaned? Is it left over from the previous night?

This is not to say that batching cocktails is a bad thing. If you anticipate a busy night or you have a specialty cocktail on special, then it is reasonable to prepare the cocktail in advance pre-shift or during slow periods of the night. Note: It is more socially acceptable to batch cocktails for the dining room or lounge customers where the observance of cocktail making isn’t so desired as those sitting at the bar. But many patrons enjoy the theatrics of a well-constructed cocktail and are willing to wait and observe the artistry because they want a cocktail that has good flavor balance, not overpowering, and is aesthetically appealing. Most like to converse and interact with the bartender and watch and learn how to make it at home or pass along to other bartenders in other bars.

Most bars are serving cocktails in simple ways, but with a few variations, which is necessary to keep patrons interested. Words of advice, though, please toss out all the pre-bottled sour mixes, margarita mixes, lime and lemon juices, and any other store bought flavor enhancers, with the exception of Rose’s lime juice and grenadine. They are essential in some cocktails, but I would highly recommend making your own grenadine by using pomegranate juice and simple syrup and sweetened lime juice by squeezing fresh lime and mixing it with simple syrup. Also, squeezing any fruit juice into a cocktail is ideal, unless it serves as a mixer (3oz or more) for a classic highball drink. Although it is inconvenient, bottled tonic water and soda water work best unless you have a good soda gun system. It’s not fun when you run out of CO2 in the middle of your shift.

Many bars need to improve the quality of the cocktails they serve by serving good, fresh ingredients. Of course, it depends on the type of establishment. In neighborhood bars or dive bars, it is perfectly acceptable to serve a Rum & Coke or Gin & Tonic the standard way. If that is your customer base and market, then there is no need to delve into the world of hand-crafted cocktails. Other bars which specialize in serving a more sophisticated clientele and hold a niche as a specialty bar, it is more important to present cocktails that are a break from the norm. Bars that have bottle service would benefit from bottled mixes because it saves time for the server and bartender and makes it for the drinker to enjoy.

Finding that right balance is what it’s all about. The fact that bars are incorporating a straightforward, simplistic approach to cocktail creating is a pleasant sign – the bottom line is providing great service along with high quality cocktails. Finding the right balance with customer wait time is the key.Should cocktails get simple again? I would say no. The important thing to remember is for customers to know what they want and can expect when they go out to a bar. Knowing what kind of bar it is and the skill level of the bartenders working there dictates what kind of cocktail you will receive. There are tons of bars out there that can match what you’re looking for, whether it be a cold one that you can get right away or have to work through the crowd to get or a complex cocktail that will take 5-10 to decide on from a cocktail menu and another 5-10 minutes to prepare, or asking the bartender to mix you up something special based on your flavor profile. Either way, there is a place for you. You just have to look a little harder.