A week or two ago, I had the pleasure of two customers have a few drinks at The American Bar at The Savoy. It turns out they were both bartenders – whose names and place of work will go unnamed – with one having visited before and the other visiting for the first time.
Like some specialist bars in London, we too are also subjected to the odd visit from industry folk on a Sunday, which is great to see, especially as five of their seven days are spent in bars talking and serving people.
Hosting industry folk on a Sunday has something I’ve always found fun. All kinds of subjects are brought up, from football to films, though the subject of booze talk is always inevitable, and it’s great to share views, opinions and information with like minded people whilst knocking up a few drinks.
This particular evening I convinced one of the guys to try a new drink I’d been working on, and one that may be in contention for the new menu that we’re looking to put out at The American Bar over the next few months (the recipe follows this article). Even though I was only making one drink, I had the attention of both gentlemen, describing the thought process behind the drink and what led me to mix what it was I was mixing.
As it turns out, the chap whom I made the drink for said it was one of the best drinks he had ever tried. I was taken back a little at his forthcoming flattery, though I showed my gratitude nonetheless and thanked him.
However, what followed next left me a little confused.
“Can you tell me the recipe, or are you keeping it a secret?”
Without thinking, I chuckled (or laughed, or humored the situation, or whatever) and told him I would be delighted to give him the recipe, in the hope that he could make the drink for someone else in the future if the opportunity was right.
Sticking to the subject of drinks and new cocktail lists, the gentlemen informed me they themselves were involved in putting together a new drinks list for their venue. However, when I asked outright about the drinks, they said they were keeping it under wraps, and that they weren’t at liberty to divulge any recipes, or give any indication as to what kind of influence of direction the menu would be taking.
The problem with this attitude was not so much the arrogance of the bartenders thinking that their product was better, wanting to keep it for themselves so they can maximize its potential and the effect that such exclusivity might have with regards to their respective audience.
Where the problem lay, however, was that it was an example of what reinforces the social barriers that exist within modern cocktail drinking, the ones associated with those who put the cocktail on a pedestal and therefore put it out of reach of themselves because of its mistaken identity that only those with money and taste consume drinks in such a manner.
When the speakeasies took over the old saloons and hotel bars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 18th amendment that brought in Prohibition did one of the greatest things within the history of drink; it brought women right into bar alongside the men. Set against a back drop of illegal alcoholic consumption, the speakeasy became a melting pot for the working and upper classes, and everything in between; no-one was above or below anyone, everyone’s opinions counted for something, including the women, who before the 1920s, rarely, if ever, set foot into the male dominated saloon.
The Tiki movement that followed the years of prohibition and into the 1970s supplied the world with creative and tropical-themed escapism drinks, a trend that lasted more than 40 years, which in modern day drinking circles translates as several lifespans in an environment which see trends come and go fleetingly.
But the secrecy behind some of the drink-making aspects of the the tiki movement inspired the effect of curiosity amongst the general public, which in turn helped circulate the cult and craze that surrounded the Tiki movement in general. At the heart of the Tiki restaurant and Tiki bar were the drinks they spawned, conducted in such a way that top level secrecy was needed in the form of unmarked bottles and coded recipes. Tiki restaurants tried to outdo each other in terms of exotically-themed drink making, and employed the most secretive tactics to make sure their drinks weren’t leaked to rivals or competitors.
Some of the most famous bars and bartenders in the world have made their methods and recipes known to all and sundry. A perfect example arose in 2004 when Vincenzo Errico, a bartender at Milk & Honey in New York, created the Red Hook, a 21st Century version of the Brooklyn. Both the drink and the style of the drink became so popular, that it not only spawned another five spin-offs, all of which originated from Vincenzo’s drink, but also prompted Jim Meehan to produce another a twist on the drink, recognizing the popularity that was friendly plagiarism.
Milk & Honey in New York have recently released a new cocktail app with around 400 recipes, some of which have become famous over the last few years because their ability to be recreated and the willingness of the bartenders to share their recipes (and that’s even before you talk about the rife plagarism and recipe lifting that existed during the cocktail books of the 1880s and the 1940s).
The cocktail scene has come a long way in the last 25 years, though for the bartender who see the ‘exclusive’ cocktail as a way to empower their position behind the bar, and thus increase their control over what the customer drinks, seem to miss the point of serving alcohol in an a hospitality-based industry.
The UK isn’t blessed with the talent and infrastructure that is found within literary circles in the US. Sure, the UK can boast talents such as Tony Conigliaro, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Erik Lorincz to match the best of what the US has to offer in terms of drink making and innovation. But when it comes to food and drink writing, bloggers such as Camper English, Darcy O’Neil and Jeffery Morgenthaler have been writing about drink subjects for a number of years in a country that has embraced the concept of quality over quantity, to a point where the online content blossomed due to the dedication of quality research and interesting blog posts.
And even though the cocktail blog boom of the mid to late 2000 era has died off, there’s still very little to suggest that the higher end of print and online media in the UK will even come close to talking about the next twist on The Last Word or how bartenders are working Italian amari into their drinks to give customers new flavor combinations in a contemporary drink setting.
With this in mind, bartenders need to be mindful about what they create and how their drinks interact with the general public’s perception of how the cocktail scene is viewed and judged, especially those who are exposed to cocktails within mainstream popular culture (Mad Men et al).
Secrecy and exclusivity isn’t a trend that is either fashionable or sustainable, especially in a financially soft atmosphere that has been effected by double-dip recessions. The power and satisfaction gained by a bartender that serves a product seen as mythical and en-vogue serves only to restrict the bright future the cocktail scene has, instead of strengthening the already solid foundations that transparency and information sharing has given the modern day drink environment.