My relationship with Frangelico began innocently enough (or not-so-innocently, depending on your perspective) in the spring of 2001. I was 18, and it was just a year after I had decided that bartending was a noble pursuit. I was infatuated with a 23-year-old woman, and was standing in her kitchen. We’d gone to dinner, and she’d taken me back to her place and put some coffee on. She also had an unopened half-bottle of Frangelico on hand. At the time, I thought this made her unbelievably sophisticated. Now, before you cry foul over this story of an older woman corrupting an underage drinker with alcohol, fear not: No booze was consumed that night because we could not get the damned bottle open. The cap simply spun around and around but would not unscrew. We both worked at it for several minutes using a variety of different techniques, but the result remained the same: The Frangelico was staying in the bottle that night.
I’ve been marked for life by this event. First of all, I can’t look at the silhouette of the Frangelico bottle’s pious friar without thinking of the curves of a beautiful, smart, and unpredictable young woman who was ultimately too much for me to handle. (Some might find this to be weird, but my argument is that all bottles are inherently phallic anyway, so there’s really nothing new here.) Secondly, the cap to that bottle is still spinning. I don’t mean that particular bottle—I’m sure she eventually opened her bottle and served it to a more mature man who was better prepared for its contents than I was. Back then, I didn’t know what to do with Frangelico (beyond putting it in coffee). And now, even though I’ve opened many bottles since then, I still often find myself perplexed. Eleven years later, it’s just as mysterious to me as it was in that kitchen in Silverlake. So, in that sense, I still can’t get the darn thing open.
There are a lot of popular liqueurs that I banish from my home and from bars left and right, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with Frangelico. First of all, it’s Italian, which means its sheik and artsy. Secondly, it’s “all natural.” And lastly, it’s really delicious. I don’t think anyone can take this over the rocks and complain it doesn’t taste good. But there’s a problem: It’s pungent.
I feel confident enough to work with nearly every ingredient in any bar. I’ve put together an entire menu of amaro cocktails. Absinthe? No problem. Strega, grappa, Islay Scotch, blackstrap rum, batavia arrack—throw them at me and I’ll knock them all down. As long as a spirit or liqueur is of fine quality in its own right, I will confidently make a delicious drink. But when it comes to Frangelico, I have often found myself shrugging my shoulders in resignation.
Frangelico is what is know as a noisette, which is French for “hazelnut,” and also refers to a liqueur featuring the same flavor. Although it markets itself as “the original hazelnut liqueur,” with “origins” dating back over 300 years, and has a bottle that calls to mind something old and traditional, Frangelico has actually only been around since the 1980’s. It’s made with real hazelnuts, which are steeped in an alcohol solution. This solution is then distilled again, resulting in a hazelnut distillate. Then other ingredients are added, including cocoa and vanilla. Although I don’t know for sure, I would wager there’s fruit in there as well, berries in particular.
Frangelico’s modern origins are surprising for the reasons listed above, and for this one: It doesn’t exactly play to a young crowd. It’s been passed over by the craft cocktail movement, and lacks horrible TV commercials with a “bartender” explaining the subtle art of pouring Frangelico into a glass with ice. Instead, it sits on the back bar gathering dust, brought out only to go into a coffee, or when someone wants something sweet on the rocks after a meal.
A few months ago, I’d had enough of this. I decided that I would come up with new and interesting things to do with Frangelico. I figured that if amaretto can get play in cocktails, why not Frangelico? It turned out to be harder than I thought.
There are very few Frangelico cocktails out there that aren’t in the “dessert” category. It is seemingly always paired with one of the following: Coffee, cream, Bailey’s, Kahlua, Creme de Banana or Creme de Cacao. It’s always suffering the indignity of whipped cream, shavings of cinnamon, or, God forbid, playing along in a layered shot. Recently, after I briefly explained my cocktail background and the challenge I had set for myself, one well-meaning liquor store employee excitedly explained to me that mixing equal parts Pinnacle “Whipped” flavored vodka and Frangelico would yield a drink that tastes just like chocolate covered pretzels. (I smiled politely and then narrowly avoided vomiting into a nearby waste bin.)
I worked at it for months during off hours at the bar and prime hours at home, pairing Frangelico with every conceivable ingredient, trying to come up with something that worked. What I wanted was not a cocktail that accepted Frangelico, but one that needed it. But it also had to be fresh, interesting, and something that compelled you to drink more.
Eventually, I came up with this. Although the ingredients may seem unexpected, I believe the combination works extremely well.
1oz reposado tequila (I prefer Casa Noble)
1oz freshly-breweed genmaicha green tea
1/2oz freshly squeezed lime juice
Large pinch of cilantro (10-12 leaves)
Add the cilantro directly to a shaker with the rest of the ingredients.
Strain the drink into an ice-filled rocks glass.
I’d encourage you try try it before rendering judgment. The hazelnut and cilantro match-up is one I’ve long suspected would work, and have not been disappointed by the way this cocktail has come out.
So, I’ve gotten one Frangelico cocktail down. Will it take another several months to create a suitable follow-up? We’ll see. But now, at last, I have something to produce whenever a guest asks, “Do you make anything with Frangelico.”
Despite my new discovery and many years of familiarity with this product, there are still times when I just can’t seem to get the cap off of the bottle. It spins, just like it did all those years before. It’s embarrassing. After all, I’m older and more experienced now, and shouldn’t be running into issues like this. On nights when the problem has come up, bar colleagues and guests have assured me that it happens to every bartender once in a while. I always unconvincingly insist that it’s the first time it’s ever happened to me.
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:
- A worker who practices a trade or handicraft.
- 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.