Monthly Archives: March 2012

5 Reasons Why Bartenders Matter

I love my country and plan to stay here for good.  That being said, Santorum doing well in the polls had me starting to worry.  Whenever I become afflicted by the “Republican itch,” I often scratch it by contemplating moves to other countries.  The thing is, I’m in the wrong field when it comes to immigrating to another place. Despite the fact that some countries occasionally decide that bartenders aren’t so bad, bartending is not generally considered to be skilled labor, and thus isn’t on the shortlist of occupations thought to be attractive in immigrants.  Long story short: if I was a nuclear physicist, I could go anywhere I wanted to.

Bartending is considered, by and large, to be unskilled labor.  I can certainly understand how that misconception could come about.  In fact, an ill-fated and rather hilariously disastrous attempt to acquire a drink at a wedding a couple of years ago (first a martini, then a simple scotch on the rocks) left me temporarily convinced that foreign immigration officials might be on to something. But one night spent on a bar stool at a decent dive bar will leave one with the understanding that a guy or gal doesn’t have to be a fedora-wearing, suspender-snapping mixologist in order to have valuable skills.

I contend that bartending, in its best sense, is skilled labor. It’s an important, valuable asset to the community, and goes beyond a simple “service job.” On some nights, I’m in manufacturing.  On others, I’m an artist.  Read on to understand my rationale. Here are my five reasons why bartenders matter:

1. Bartenders are historians.

No, I’m not talking about our annoying habit of recalling the disastrous effects of prohibition, or the esoteric minutiae of our favorite cocktails. A good bartender is an expert in the sort of history that matters to you.  We remember that drink you had last Saturday that you loved. And we remember the one you had on Friday that made you sick.  We remember where we had the best cup of coffee of our lives, and how to get there. We know what that cute girl at the end of the bar does for a living, and whether she has a boyfriend. If she has a boyfriend, we know what they were fighting about last week.  We remember your favorite drink, your birthday, and where you went on vacation last spring. We know the score of the Knicks game, and how much Mark Sanchez is getting paid next year to lose more games for the Jets. Okay, we might not have remembered your name the first few times you came in, but no one is perfect. The point is, we are the keepers of whatever information is relevant and important. I get asked a lot of questions about a great many things when I’m behind the bar. Why? Because I am expected to know. Why? Because I am a bartender.

2. Bartenders are artists.

I like to take pictures of the drinks I make. I do this because I don’t have any children or pets. And, like a child, or an adorable puppy, a cocktail can and should be a beautiful thing. True, things can go wrong.  It’s not uncommon to see a cocktail that looks like this, or the Seinfeld baby. But usually, if your cocktail has a solid pedigree, it can come out looking like something beautiful. Andy Goldsworthy is applauded for creating marvelous works of art designed to be washed away by the tides, melted, or otherwise destroyed by natural processes.  But no one would doubt he is an artist. So, too, are bartenders taking time to craft things that widen the eyes, only to have them destroyed within minutes. Cocktails are edible art. We learn about ice, about sugar, about the merits of various cocktail spoon designs, glassware, strainers, garnish, and just about every other factor that can determine how a cocktail looks and tastes.  We want every cocktail to be the best. We want each one to be perfect before it goes out. And we recognize that we taste with our eyes as much as we do with our mouths. We are artists. Our works sell for $12 a pop in darkened lounges rather than for $12,000 in brightly-lit galleries, yet we don’t complain. Every night, we ask how you liked it, then say “thank you” and “good night.”

3. Bartenders are craftsmen.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word craftsman as:

  1. A worker who practices a trade or handicraft.
  2. One who performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts.

A bartender works with specific tools and skills in order to produce a cocktail. First, we must learn how to use those tools. Julep strainers, swizzle sticks, even a simple bar spoon, all require endless practice until muscle memory kicks in and drinks become second nature. Secondly, we must develop the knowledge to use those tools effectively. The ingredients and other components and factors of a drink (ice, glassware, ambient temperature, etc.) all must be taken into account if those tools are to be used to their greatest potential. Some bartenders retain their own set of bar tools that they carry with them from job to job, confident that their unique relationship with the form and function of their personal implements will enhance the work they do. These are not the habits of an unskilled laborer.

4. A bartender is a therapist and confidant.

I was hesitant to include this one because it is such a cliché. In the end, I found that I had to, because it is undeniably true. The simple fact is that, at his or her best, a bartender will know what a guest wants or needs before they even know themselves. Our job is to anticipate needs and clarify desires, and then fulfill both to complete satisfaction. We have to be good listeners, or else we won’t be good at our job. These skills help us choose the perfect drink, but they also help us advise you on whether to put in an offer on that condo, or how to deal with your mother in law. The relationship between a frequent guest and a bartender can be a deep one, and it frequently results in friendship outside of the workplace. This is not an accident, and you’d be hard pressed to find any other job in the so-called “service sector” that engenders such trust and mutual respect.

5. Bartenders can handle it.

Experienced bartenders are a special class of people.  Please indulge me while I tell a story:

Early on in my bartending career, I was working in a reputable place that was a favorite spot for nearby restaurant professionals. On a semi-regular basis I poured drinks (always Dewar’s on the rocks) for a quiet, well-groomed man in his 60’s. One night things were slow and I got a chance to chat with him.  I found out that he was the food and beverage director for a very well-known hotel nearby. Before he’d gotten into that side of the business, he’d been a bartender for over 20 years.

“Let me let you in on a little secret,” he said. “You like your job?”

“Sure. I like it.”

“No, I don’t mean this job in this place.  I mean as a bartender. Do you like it?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Good, because it’s the greatest job in the world. You’ll come to understand why in a few years, when you come to appreciate what it’s done for you. Stick it out, and eventually you’ll realize that this job has left you prepared for pretty much anything, ready to deal with any kind of person.  You are going to see things in this job you never thought you would see, and deal with situations you never imagined could happen, and eventually you are going to learn to handle these things as if they happen all the time.  It won’t just be behind the bar. People fuck with you all the time, everywhere. People you know, people you don’t know, and people you wish you didn’t know. What this job teaches you is how to adapt and how to react. It teaches you about people, and once you understand people, you know the world, and then there’s nothing that can touch you.”

That man was right.

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The Blood and Sand, Carefully Considered

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It can certainly be said that of well-known classic cocktails, the Blood and Sand suffers from a less-than-cuddly reputation. It could be the name, and it could be the ingredients. I certainly doubted the worth of the drink until I tasted it for the first time. On paper, it looks awful, which is one of the things I love about it. Modern cocktailing suffers from a number of disturbing trends, one of which is that many cocktails I find in bars and restaurants look amazing on paper but fail to deliver once mixed and served. Good cocktails are good for one reason only: they taste great. The Blood and Sand is no exception. When pressed, I might even say it’s my favorite cocktail.

As with many classic drinks, not much is known about the cocktail’s origins. But that doesn’t stop the Internet from being rife with details. The most common story is that it was invented to celebrate the premier of the 1922 film Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino as a matador. Most will also say that it was made with blood orange juice. (An understandable assumption given the cocktail’s name.) The truth is that the first printed mention of the drink is in Harry Craddock’s 1930 volume, The Savoy Cocktail Book. Unlike modern cocktail books, this volume lacked flowery descriptions of the recipes within it. (Mr. Craddock was probably betting on smarmy bloggers taking care of that a few generations later.) His recipe was simple: equal parts scotch, Italian vermouth (sweet vermouth), cherry brandy and orange juice.

It could be that the story of the blood orange cocktail invented for the premier of a film is true, simply being passed down orally until later being written down. I can find no record of anyone coming forward with evidence to disprove this story. But, the tale could have just as easily been made up by someone writing about the drink, later to be taken as fact. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the drink came about. What matters is that it is truly delicious when made properly. When thinking about cocktails, the most important thing to consider is the taste. It all starts with ingredients.

The Scotch

Many people make the mistake of using a very lightly-peated or unpeated scotch. I’ve seen recipes calling for Glenlivet, Dewar’s, Oban and others. These scotches get overwhelmed by the other ingredients and disappear into the background. This leads some to worry that the Blood and Sand needs to taste “more like scotch,” and ambitious cocktailers often try to remedy this perceived imbalance by changing the proportions of the drink to increase the amount of scotch present, and/or using a total smoke-bomb. People who do this are missing the point.

Yes, there are some old cocktail recipes that just don’t work. For example, I will never agree with the “French school” view on the sidecar, a recipe that calls for equal parts lemon juice, cointreau and cognac. I, and most other people, find that to be un-palatable. Then the “English school” emerged, thanks (once again) to none other than Harry Craddock, who published an updated ratio for the drink in his 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book: 2 parts brandy to one part each of Cointreau and lemon juice. Most would agree this is a much better drink. We should all recognize that Craddock was a good judge of taste in this case, yet chose to preserve the equal-parts ratio for the Blood and Sand. Surely, he had a reason. Indeed, in the case of the Blood and Sand, we should seek not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to grease the axel: What matters are the ingredients; the proportions are perfect. In fact, they are vital.

Let us go back to the question of the scotch. Harry Craddock was working at the Savoy Hotel in London when he published his famous cocktail guide. The odds are very good that he was using something common: Johnnie Walker, or something like it. I certainly doubt that he was using anything light and delicate. (Sorry Glenlivet fans, but scotch makers weren’t widely using bourbon barrels for aging until the late 1930’s. In Harry Craddock’s London, the scotch would have been a bolder sherry-aged spirit). If we use Johnnie Walker Black Label as a benchmark, what this cocktail needs is something smokey and flavorful that will shine through to join (but not overpower) the other ingredients. Ardbeg or Laphroaig, although amusing to use, do not make for the best drink.

Lately, I have taken a liking to using Highland Park 12 in the Blood and Sand. It is well-rounded, smoky enough, but not so bold as to dominate the drink. It plays fair with the other ingredients. Sadly (but justifiably) the stuff is not cheap. Johnnie Walker Black Label works wonderfully, is affordable, and is likely authentic when it comes to replicating the cocktail as it was intended.

The Cherry Brandy

Some would have you believe that the cocktail has always been made with Cherry Heering. Of course it’s possible that this was the very liqueur the Blood and Sand was first made with. Peter Heering’s famous cordial has been the gold standard in cherry brandy for many, many years. But there were, and are, many other brands.

It is important to distinguish between “cherry brandy,” a term used for sweet cherry flavored liqueur that doesn’t necessarily have to contain any brandy at all, and cherry eau-de-vie, commonly known as Kirschwasser, or Kirsch. Kirsch, though delicious, has no business being in a Blood and Sand. I have also seen it happen that, in the absence of Cherry Heering, inexperienced bartenders and uninformed amateurs at home will try substituting Luxardo’s famous Maraschino liqueur. Anyone familiar with both products knows that this is not a wise choice, as the two liqueurs have little in common other than cherries.

It’s not much of a stretch to presume that Cherry Heering was the very “cherry brandy” that Harry Craddock used at the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel all those years ago. But I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that if he wasn’t using it, he should have been. You won’t find a better dark cherry liqueur on the market today, and evidence suggests that in the past 100 years at least, the product hasn’t changed much. You shouldn’t make a Blood and Sand without using Cherry Heering. Period.

The Vermouth

Craddock’s recipe calls for “Italian vermouth.” At the time, this was understood as meaning sweet, red vermouth, whereas “French vermouth” referred to the dry, white variety. Nowadays, of course, you can find sweet and dry vermouth from both countries, as well as a variety of other places. But I see no reason to try anything fancy by diverging from Craddock’s description. So, Italian vermouth it is. Punt e Mes is one of my favorite vermouths, but it’s far too bitter for this cocktail. Carpano’s other, more well-known vermouth, Antica Formula, is also disqualified. Although delicious, the vanilla in the recipe ends up being rather conspicuous in the finished cocktail.

My favorite Italian vermouth at the moment, and one I think goes best in this particular drink, is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, a spectacular vermouth made from a 1891 recipe. This is a vermouth well-worth sipping on its own, a necessary quality in anything you are going to mix into a drink.

The Orange Juice

Here is perhaps the biggest point of contention when it comes to the Blood and Sand. It is a common misconception that the original recipe for the Blood and Sand called for blood orange juice. There are some who say that this is the “blood” in the cocktail’s name. It’s an odd notion, actually, considering that the red hues of both Cherry Heering and sweet vermouth could both just as easily be “blood.” I prefer to see things that way, with the scotch and the orange juice representing the “sand.” Harry Craddock certainly doesn’t specify anything more than “orange juice” in his recipe. Although, of course, it’s possible that the cocktail’s creator used blood orange juice, there’s no real reason to believe this is so.

As it turns out, blood orange juice is quite delicious in this cocktail. The tart, grapefruity notes of the juice lend an interesting character to the drink. But blood orange juice should by no means be considered necessary, and in fact I may prefer the juice of a simple Valencia orange over it. What is most important to consider, above all, is that whatever juice you use must be freshly squeezed.

The Recipe

To sum up, if I were to make a Blood and Sand right now with my preferred ingredients, it would consist of:

1 part Highland Park 12
1 part Cherry Heering
1 part Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1 part freshly squeezed orange juice

I like 1oz across the board. It yields a drink big enough to say I mean business, but not so big that it becomes indulgent (not to mention tasteless). My general rule is: Always keep your cocktail just small enough that passing up a second drink would be pointless and shameful.

When made correctly, this drink is nothing short of divine. If you prefer things differently, I would love to compare notes.

Cheers.