Are bartenders too focused on the past?

Words by Albert Trummer and Adam Freeth

Are bartenders too focused on the past? image 1

Is contemporary bartending too intent on seeking out lost and forgotten drinks, with its nose stuck in a history book, rather than harnessing the products, processes and technologies of today to create a new generation of truly original drinks?

Yes, says Albert Trummer

Although the history and past glories of the bartending world should be studied and celebrated, the bar industry is currently too focused on rediscovering lost and forgotten drinks.

First, we have to ask why is there such a focus on the past? Was it more cool or glamorous than today? Or were the drinks of yesterday spawned out of a need to medicate during the Depression? Did they actually reflect a cultural need, the result of immigrants from all over the world melting together and wanting to celebrate their own countries' spiritual heritage, to perform special rituals and wax nostalgic about their homeland? Did drinks become famous because of their quality or because James Bond drank one in a film?

Let us first address the issue of quality. We hear tales from historians about bootleggers making their own alcohol in New York City or making their own bath-tub gin during the Great Depression. Despite the romance of this, most of their drink recipes and the alcohol of old was of very poor quality. Not only this, many people died as a result of poor distilling processes and concoctions made by home brewers uneducated in the chemistry of making alcohol. There were no minimum quality regulations and no minimum standards that liquor had to legally be held up to. In some cities, juices were mixed in with the toxic concoctions to cover the smell and the poor taste and people were literally drinking poison without knowing it.

A lot of present-day bartenders and mixologists are focusing on bringing back the past, but the past is called the past because it is gone, and today it can only be used as a gimmick or theme. Al Capone is not controlling the streets anymore and bootleggers are not delivering liquor any more to a secret back door in a kitchen.

What happens now? The last movement I saw based on a particular cocktail created for a scene was in New York in the '90s where Dale Degroff tweaked a simple drink with vodka and cranberry juice called the Cosmopolitan, which was then catapulted to fame when Sarah Jessica Parker ordered one on Sex And The City. Either bartenders are living in the past and trying to bring back the history of Prohibition or copying Ferran Adria on molecular cocktails. The biggest movement in the bar industry was when American chefs like David Bouley and Geoffrey Zakarian mentored techniques and brought chefs' influence over the bar space.

In my cocktail school ( I prefer to teach my students first about all the high quality products that we have available now in the present-day and the tremendous lengths the industry goes to in order to supply us with the best products and alcohol and ingredients to create a beautiful cocktail.

My hope for the future is that we have more visionaries like the talented Giuseppe Cipriani and Jerry Thomas - not so we recreate their drinks but reflecting the way they created drinks for current cultural and cosmopolitan needs. Otherwise we have to ask ourselves the question: "What are they are going to write about us in fifty to eighty years?" That there was only Prohibition and then poor copies and parodies of that era? That nothing original was created in our century? I hope not.

NO, says Adam Freeth

The present and our future is most definitely shaped by our history, particularly when it comes to popular culture, and the last 100 or so years is a prime example of this in fashion and lifestyle. Cocktails and bartending are no exception.

Bartenders today are increasingly looking to the past and rediscovering forgotten recipes, ingredients and methods of drinks-making to help them shape 'new' drinks or menus - whether it's recreating homemade bitters recipes taken from an 1888 bartender's manual by Harry Johnson or a sherbet or cordial recipe taken from Jerry Thomas's 1862 book, or even taking trips to the British Library to dig out old bar books to find forgotten recipes.

Some of the best examples of how this has been done successfully is at some of CLASS magazine's Best New Bars for 2011. Here you will find bars with whole menus paying homage to drinks categories that date back as far as the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries' classic drinks.

Legends of bartending from old including Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, Victor Bergeron, Ada Coleman, and their modern counterparts such as Peter Dorelli, Charles Schumann and Salvatore Calabrese have become famous for their abilities to produce and/or educate fellow bartenders about classic drinks. At their respective times, each of these bartenders were setting the foundations of what we know about bartending and cocktails. They made the rules.

However, could we be going through a new era of bartending whereby our much-lauded bartenders of today could be setting some new rules? I very much doubt this.

Over the last decade I have seen many bartenders behind the stick or judged them in competitions and concluded they are completely mis-guided by their urge to run before they can walk. Too often, they seek to over-complicate or impress with trickery what is most probably a simple reworking of a classic drink.

When asking one such 'modern mixologist' in the final of a national competition where the foundations of their drink came from, they talked about how they got their inspiration from a well-known chef. The drink had an equally random name with no reference to its true heritage. In fact, it was a variation of a well-known classic drink, with some quite obscure ingredients and an esoteric garnish to boot.

I would argue that every 'modern', molecular, cutting-edge concoction - or whatever the creative bartender of today whips up for their customer, bar menu or in order to secure their chance to fly to some exotic destination by a brand company - has its roots in a very small selection of classic drinks that were devised over the last 150 years or so. Everything else is a variation on these classics.

Bringing obscure ingredients, techniques and creativity into producing twists on a classic drink is what modern bartending seems to be all about. However, there is still a real need for bartenders to learn the very basics of bartending and mix well-balanced classic drinks before they try to blag their way to being the next Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal of the bartending fraternity.

To this end, I must say that I have a huge appreciation for the creativity, technique and execution shown by some bartenders I have trained, worked with or been served by, and there is most definitely a place in the world for these bartenders' talents and bars in today's market, but will they or their drinks be around in another 10 years?

Now, don't get me wrong, the general public love a homemade this or that, and we have a couple of these types of drinks on our list at Shaker&Company. But, and I stress this, they each have a foundation based on a classic drink.

The fact remains though that the 10 most-popular cocktails in the world will always consist of classic drinks such as the Mojito, Margarita and Martini and there is no getting away from that.

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