Mastering the classics in any art form is an essential part in understanding when, where and perhaps why things associated with said art form began. That may sound rather rudimentary to many of you, but it still amazes me how few bartenders these days have a handle on classic cocktail recipes. When I started in this game more than two decades ago, we didn’t really have any other choice as there wasn’t the myriad of new modern classics that we know today and there wasn’t the level of creativity that we’ve seen transpire in the last 10 years.
In many respects, it’s creativity that’s driving the modern bartender and industry as a whole. But at what expense? I spend most of the year on the road nowadays, and as a result, I get to try, with varying degrees of deliciousness, a lot of cocktails. But very few cocktail menus I see are focused on solely classic cocktails, unless you’re in, say, an old five-star hotel. And I get it. Everyone is trying to stand out from the pack, and often the way to accomplish that is through a unique and dynamic cocktail menu littered with esoteric ingredients and avant garde techniques.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that too many young bartenders might be extremely proud to show me their newfangled Negroni that’s served inside a glass dome filled with cinnamon-infused smoke, and yet all I want, and all I actually asked for in the first place, was a regular, classic Negroni. There’s comfort in the familiar, especially after a long flight and in a land that’s far from home. There are certain drinks that I should expect every decent bartender anywhere in the world to know, and yet too many are concerned with unnecessarily impressing others with their own unique twists on old favorites.
More often than not, I’m not happy with the results, and an awkward situation ensues that could easily have been avoided if my initial request had been appeased. Do I choke down a drink that I don’t like so as not to embarrass or upset the bartender, or do I leave the drink and just ask them to make me a classic version? I can’t stress enough the importance of classic cocktail recipes for creating a solid foundation on which to then build. I’m a classicist at heart, but as I mentioned earlier, that is essentially more a matter of necessity than just curiosity.
With so many resources now available to everyone, there’s really no reason not to hone in on this part of our own base learning. Sure, there are myriad recipes for classic cocktails that are always different, which can indeed confuse any young bartender. You might ask, Which one is the right one? This is especially so since some of the oldest cocktail books have strange-sounding measurements and ingredients that are either obsolete or lost to the annals of history.
Get on the internet, join chat rooms, buy some old books (many of which are now reprinted at reasonable prices). Early on, Salvatore Calabrese’s Classic Cocktails (Sterling, $19) and Charles Schumann’s American Bar (Abbeville Press, $4.05) were inspirations for me. Talk with your peers, target a specific classic each week that you and your staff will learn (its recipe, history, anecdotes, first mentions, variations, etc.), and make each one with various spirits. Log the results, take an interest, get inspired, and don’t lose sight of what came before you. Only then will your ability to create new twists on these classics make sense and hopefully taste delicious. Now, what was that cinnamon-smoked Negroni recipe again?