Mixology, Bartending and Cocktail Culture

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We all know that cocktails are seeing a resurgence, especially in the metropolitan centers of the United States, and that there are bars which are paying more attention to the drinks that they serve, but there are questions that arise concerning what motivates these changes, and where can they be found?  How come cocktails are seeing new found places and bars (new in terms of the grand scheme of drinking)?  Why are people moving to pay more for these drinks?  What drives these bartenders to go out of their way for customers, to produce top quality drinks which many people take for granted? 


First, apologies for not posting in a while.  I have been traveling, busy with existential crises, and just plain old busy.  But, in the last month, having traveled around the states, visiting a few bars, talking to some bartenders, and reading articles published in throw-away papers about night life and the cocktail, I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot more to this cocktail movement than just what gets published online or talked about in terms of the East and West coast geography.

While in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I had read a list of great bars by Santa Fe Barman,  and ran across a few throwaway papers about the nightlife, and more importantly, cocktails in Albuquerque, with bars that I wasn’t aware existed, including Casa Vieja where bartender / mixologist Katy Gerwin works.  And at places that are just outside of the metropolitan vigor, such as LA, you have great bars appearing, such as 320 Main (which is where most of these photos were taken).  In Houston, where I currently reside, there are great bars, even though Houston is not necessarily considered a cultural center of the US, including Anvil.

Cocktails have taken off in literature and popular culture as well.  With shows like Mad Men bringing attention to the cocktail as a libation, we see lots of people starting to go for more classical styled cocktails rather than those drinks which came out of the late vodka-koolaid period.  In Japan, some mangaka authors have written and created pieces on wine and cocktails, exhibiting their own cultural viewpoints about the various drinks, service surrounding it, and the history of the phenomena.  In Asia, these have been incredibly powerful, especially some of the wine comics, which have affected import sales of certain wine makers.  Overall, in the online global community, there is increasing attention to the cult of the cocktail, as we see advertising campaigns aimed at those who are informed about cocktail culture, as shown in the case of Bacardi’s “True Originals” series.

Beyond media representations, we have the physical spaces which are incredibly numerous.  The wide diversity of bars, specifically bars that specialize in either vintage, classic, or craft drinks is a fascinating phenomena.  The UK, which has a longstanding bartending profession and attention to the mixed drink, thanks in part of the popularity of gin, is exemplary of this, along with other countries in Europe or Latin America.  Japan on the other hand, has an interesting culture, which is very focused on aesthetic and flavor, and their introduction to cocktails after World War II has left them with a longstanding craft cocktail history, especially one in which bartenders are treated as experts.  Cocktails, as well as food, thanks in part to the internet, but also transnational flows of capital, people, and information through rapid transit such as air-travel has helped to create new found syncretisms in between quite a few different cultures.  The attentiveness to cutting edge food with molecular gastronomy, originating (at least in theory) in Spain and France, has grown to be a worldwide, and very cosmopolitan phenomena, and has found its’ place in cocktails, thanks to the efforts of Jamie Boudreau and others.  Even new bar kitchens have appeared which are dedicated to this concept (The Aviary or Tailor).

The cocktail, and the rebirth of it as a cultural phenomena is drawing upon our imagined past, drawing upon the contemporary attitudes towards cuisine and taste, and juxtaposing it with aesthetics that are built around global exchanges of information and cultural capital.  Perhaps the roots of this rebirth of cocktail culture, this “cocktailia,” is another aspect of the movement towards more ethnic, adventurous or complex-flavored foods in the early 90s and late 80s, which would definitely coincide with the dawn of cocktail culture; the creation of the molecular mixology being an offshoot of its’ brother, molecular gastronomy.  Yet, even with all the diversity between bars, their aesthetic and their geographic or cultural local, some things stand out which are commonplace to them.

Historically, we can see changes to the types of alcohol that are present or consumed thanks to manufacturing changes, tariffs, and legislation such as the Prohibition.  With the Prohibition, we saw alcohol become a different type of phenomena, moving from the public sphere to the private, and the legal exchange of the liquid, at least in this country, being associated with medicine.  Liquors such remained produced in the Caribbean, but moved away form the United States; absinthe had been banned and only recently came into the market again after the legislation had been reversed in 2000.  gin, which was cheap and easier to make, since it was rarely aged, found quite a bit of popularity in the United States during the Prohibition, while Whiskey moved away from the main stay and focus it had exhibited years prior.  We see bars adopting specific spirits as if they were patron saints, and that adoption gives the bar a bit of personality or purpose, driving it into niche markets and into new experiences.  And with the global flow of capital, ideas, and product, we see the exchange of new found liquors finding their way into bars which were only heard of on other continents and are now commonplace (e.g. cachaça).

Like in the Prohibition era, in which spirits were sold for medicinal purposes, alcohol has been something that has a long standing medicinal background.  The use of wine in ancient Egypt and Greece, among others, are great examples of this; fortified wines, hippocras, and drinks that featured herbs demonstrate an association with the beverage and various tonics.  Alcohol had always been associated with medicine, and it still is today, as we see it turned on its’ head as it is analyzed in terms of health benefits.  But it also has been a medicine for the soul, tendered to the imbiber from the bottle, and in many cases from a bartender.

 What makes a great bartender?  Their ability to see what the patron wants, to give them a taste that is suited for them, and excites and tantalizes the imbiber.  Yet, bartenders hardly can produce something personally suited for the patron without first knowing a bit about the patron’s preferences: certain people enjoy drinks more sour, sweeter, drier, with more floral-notes or bitters or effervescence.  To be a great bartender in this case, and to make something that truly excites the patron requires time and a relationship.  Truly great bartenders are those who have developed a rapport with the drinker; and we see in a lot of places that mentality coming to fruition, yet quite often those who are drinking at many bars go there for the atmosphere or company of their friends.  There is a disconnect in many cases between the consumer and the producer.

To excite the patrons, we see bars starting to use more obscure, old, and rare ingredients, in attempts to create new and interesting tastes, but also as throwbacks to the past, to the vintage period in which drinks seemed to be something more than what they were after the Second World War.  In many specialized bars, such as ones focusing upon a specific ingredient or spirit, the bartenders explore what flavors complement what, and treat each of the individual spirits as unique ingredients.  For this reason, the use of ingredients, not necessarily fanciful and obscure ones, but just common place ones, and the attentive mind to the taste of each ingredient has created a new found exploration and pleasure to drinking, especially since each taste will differ.  The atmosphere contributes to the taste of the drink as well, just as the mood of the imbiber.

The cost of drinks goes up as the ingredient quality goes up, but also as the service increases in terms of quality.  Also, as the venue increases in terms of decor or location, the cost of drinks goes up.  These things really come off to those who are hurting in this economy as high priced, but in reality, the drinks, when made to high specifications and are pleasing to the eye, nose, tongue and soul are well worth the price of admission for a temporary elixir that brings joy.  The juxtaposition and combination of the drink to the venue, the company of friends or potentially new acquaintances makes the price of admission for a cocktail or a few seem cheap, seeing as how these places and bars are becoming quite the exciting aesthetic venues, drawing upon different styles ranging from steampunk to apothecaries to speakeasies.  While these venues are supposed to be secret, and they rapidly become more opaque as the internet helps cocktail fanatics to visit them, the venues provide a bit of escapism due to their fantastic aesthetic atmospheres.

We like to use the word mixology now.  Yet that word is pretty problematic, seeing as how a bartender, through and through, is a bartender, and is in a customer service oriented industry.  Expert knowledge, which is linked with the word, is something which is intrinsic and not necessarily given by a specific connotation.  There are no degrees in being a mixologist.  As a society, we treat degrees and education as the end all factor, but in reality, the experiences that we have as individuals are by far more important; the professor, who has a doctorate, is entitled to his title of doctor, but really all the effort he put into acquiring the knowledge he has is what makes him an expert, not necessarily a specific title or piece of paper.  Plus, expert knowledge is only expertise if it is appreciated or acknowledged by someone else; to many people, who like very simple drinks, that knowledge is irrelevant.  The place of value in the bartending industry and cocktail culture still is service.   Whether that service comes with a bit of flair, perhaps linked with “utility” as in the case of the hard shake, there is a still a link between style and service, just as there is with quality of ingredients and service.  The bartenders that are great, those who establish rapport with customers, or who pay attention the customers needs are just paying mind to the calling of the profession, and the service oriented heart of it.

As we face struggles in our own personal lives, and crises in the public and economic spheres, we turn to cocktails and bars to help us cope with our problems.  Not as if we were alcoholics, but as if we wanted a bit of escapism, which helps explain all these bars which have interesting decor, locations, et cetera.  Simultaneously, we turn to bars to celebrate and be with others, whether the other is another patron, a bartender, or our own thoughts.  The market is ripe for new lines of service oriented consumption, especially seeing as how our economy is continuing to progress into spheres of service industries rather than material production.

Without a doubt, the bar is a very special place, but it is made a special place thanks to the efforts of the individuals in the bar.  Not just the different customers and types of clientele who patronage these watering holes that range from dives to speakeasies to lounges.  The bar is made a special place by the efforts of the bartender who is behind the stick, who provides service that allows you to forget about your worries and continue on with this crazy life which we all lead.

For now, just sit back, and enjoy that drink.