Why Blog About Cocktails and Mixing Drinks?
Ever order a drink and then the bartender/server responds with a question that makes you realize that you’re already in way too deep?
“Would you like that up?”
“Do you want that with a twist?”
“Would you like that with a water back?”
Simple questions, but if you don’t know what they mean, you might as well order a glass of milk and ask for directions to the kiddie table. At least this is how I felt more times than I’d like to remember. Without knowing the finer details of finer drinks I found myself playing it safe to avoid the sudden onset stammering of drinkus-idiotus. Instead, I’d just order something I knew I liked, like a beer. A nice, safe, boring beer. (Now, there’s nothing wrong with beer. I love beer! But when a beautifully stocked bar is glimmering at you, beer seems like a wasted opportunity.)
I’ve always loved margaritas and in Southern California they are in abundance. For times when I was feeling frisky I’d order a vodka martini and get it “dirty” so it tasted like something – olives, mostly – and it looked like I knew what I wanted. For a few years I drank cosmopolitans. Cosmos! Oh, the shame. Thankfully, this was before Sex and the City but I still cringe a little when I look back on all those sweet pretty in pink drinks. Then I moved to the Moscow mule, but at the time I only knew one place to get it right (served in a copper cup) but then that place went out of business. Dasvidaniya, baby.
My journey into the land of drinkdom was slow, even non-existent for a while. All along, I felt like I was trudging through the muck, like Bogart in the African Queen, while those who knew a thing or two about drinks were living it up on the Lido Deck of the Love Boat, just out of my view. They had Isaac Washington and I had Rose Sayer.
There’s something mysterious about mixed drinks, or cocktails. Even the word cocktail brings and air of sophistication to getting hammered off your ass but that’s not what they are all about. Cocktails are surrounded by ceremony, tradition, and a certain alchemy that when applied correctly can produce something far greater than the sum of their parts.
I knew this to be true and my inner Godfather was slapping me and shouting “Act like a man!” Something had to be done.
I have one bartending book (which I’ll get to in a later post) but learning to make drinks from a book is hard. They never explain the details. They just give recipes and expect you’ll work everything out. I toyed with the idea of taking a bartending course. I live in Los Angeles so finding one in a city with so many bars isn’t an issue. Time is a definite consideration for me since I have a more-than-full-time job in the animation industry. I had considered taking a vacation to do a week-long course in Burbank but after doing as much research as I could, it seemed very heavy on the day to day skills of working behind a bar – register, up-selling, making six drinks at a time – and the drinks seemed like the cookie-cutter type you my get from a hired bartender at a banquet or other mass public event. They promised to teach 150 drinks in a week. That’s not what I am looking for and I don’t want to work behind a bar. Here’s their promo video, cued up at the salient point.
Forget the singles bars, sign me up for bartending school! Why don’t they let those poor slobs in the background get a word in?
Wanting to understand the basics of what drinks are all about, I started reading a few blogs. The problem with most booze blogs is that they assume you know what the hell they are talking about. As I said before, I don’t know much, so it was slow going as I stopped to do Google searches on terms I didn’t quite get. After a while, I caught on to some things, but it was all so unapproachable for me somehow and I didn’t know where to start, what to buy, what to drink.
Then on The N.A.D.E.R blog, Lindsay Nader mentioned that she took a course with BarSmarts. I looked them up and they were doing a promotion all Summer, offering their online bartending course for free. I checked it out, made sure it wasn’t some elaborate scam and signed up. It was wonderful. It’s a four part course that teaches the background and makeup of all the major spirits, an overview of the history of cocktails and those who made their mark behind a bar, the techniques and tools of a barman, and finally the top 25 drinks every bartender should know. I’m almost most impressed that they saved the drink mixing for the end. Each part of the course must be passed to take the next, so in this order they guarantee you’ll come away with knowing more than how to memorize recipes and count while you pour. The course had to be completed within 60 days but I don’t know if this is how the payed course runs.
They encourage you to download all the course materials which consist of a written “workbook” for each course and quicktime videos of the instructors teaching the live course they offer in New York. The videos only seem to be a small percentage of the time spent in the live class, but they are still very informative and interesting. The teachers are also clearly fanatics when it comes to all aspects of bartending and their enthusiasm shows. When it’s not free, the course is about $80, I think. If you can’t make it to a live class near you, then I’d say it’s definitely worth the time and money. For me it was just what I needed because it began at the beginning (actually in prehistoric times) and built my understanding from there. From my limited experience, what they are teaching is relevant to current trends while staying grounded in classic drink making, which coincidentally is the current trend. And cosmos don’t even make their Top 25 – phew!
One teensy thing that I could gripe about: BarSmarts is owned by Pernod Ricard USA, distributors of Absolut Vodka, Jameson Irish Whiskey and Beefeater Gin, to name a few. All great brands, but be prepared that when a drink recipe calls for gin, they indicate their brand. At first I just thought they really liked Beefeater until I wised up to their game. This isn’t across the board, as they DO mention other labels where appropriate, especially when delving into specific spirit types.
I’ve learned that I am drawn to the classic cocktails that you find on menus of fine wood paneled bars: martini, negroni, Tom Collins, old-fashioned, whiskey sour, Manhattan, sidecar. (I’ve only tried three of these!) These are the classics and they are still going strong. They have histories and reasons for why they are made a certain way and they all, along with others, serve as the foundation of whatever drinks may come our way in the future.
I figured that I can’t be the only person in the world who is so dense they don’t know one end of a muddler from the other, so here I am, sharing what I learn with you. I’ll experiment, make drinks, make mistakes and let you know what I find. In the short time that I’ve been reading up on drinks, I’ve noticed that opinions are just as strong as the drinks. Everyone seems to know what they like and they want to tell you their way, which is the right way. I get that and I’ll appreciate any advice my fellow imbibers want to throw my may. I’ll take it in and pay it forward by letting everyone know how it works out for me.
Let’s belly up to the bar and wet our whistles!