Simple, no-frills cocktails and the bars that serve them are often ignored in favor of more ornate drinks. Beyond the hype, what’s the real difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cocktails? Jack Lauterback looks at the good points of bad cocktails.
The quality cocktail boom is at full saturation and in this writer’s opinion that is a great thing. In the past, to find a really special cocktail, you would have to seek out a great cocktail bar. You might even have to walk into a secret phone booth and use a password just to get into said bar. That option, while undeniably cool, wasn’t for the masses. Things have changed though. 2018 is a time when cool bars and great, albeit generally expensive cocktails, are for everyone. Despite the orange tyrant imposing his will on America, the great democracy of cocktails is in full bloom.
Who Needs a Great Cocktail?
Are these so-called ‘great’ cocktails overrated, though? Should we be paying extra – and waiting longer – just for a freakin’ drink at a bar? Does the addition of walnut bitters or falernum or a charred lemon really make a drink that much better? And what about bad cocktails? Surely the happy hours at a low-end Tex Mex place are just as happy as – not to mention cheaper than – they are at an award-winning speakeasy.
The jury is, and will always be, split here. Your cocktail purists, your foodies, your bar snobs (and I’m a member of that last group myself) would argue, the ingredients, the recipe, the effort – these things all make a huge difference when it comes to enjoying a cocktail.
“There is no substitution for quality ingredients,” says Richmond bartender James Gannon. “It’s like cooking a really good meal. When you want a nice steak, you don’t buy burger meat.” Or behind the bar, subbing sour mix for freshly squeezed limes in a margarita. “Exactly,” Gannon agrees. “People are more sophisticated than in the past.”
Another quality bartender friend tells me that when he’s working, it matters. When he’s drinking, it matters less so. “I go out to unwind and get a nice buzz, so chilled shots of cheap vodka are what I have,” he says. I suspect he would not recommend that to people walking into the bar he works at. “No. I want them to spend money.”
All the Variables of Bad Cocktails
As someone who has had my share of very good cocktails, I would agree that when made with high quality ingredients by a master of the craft, a great cocktail in a great bar is hard to beat. The balance of flavors, the ice, the glassware – it all makes a difference.
But if I really think about it, I’ve also had my share of cocktails that were mixed without care in a semi-dirty highball glass, by someone who would rather not even be there, in a bar that’s never seen the likes of a jigger or a conical strainer. And those were some of the best cocktails of my life. Did that cocktail have a hint of burnt cinnamon? Was the ice sculpted to resemble something? No and hell no. But I was happy.
My friend Dana bartends in a bowling alley near my house. To give you an idea of how old-school her bar is, you can actually still smoke there. I’m not sure that’s even legal here.
“Paying $18 for the luxury of waiting 15 minutes for an over-hyped cocktail is insanity,” she tells me.
“Generally we go to bars to see friends and be around people,” Dana says. “No cocktail tastes good enough to blow that sort of money when really the cocktail is a secondary reason for even going to the bar.” So good company makes up for bad cocktails. That makes sense, to me at least.
Spot the Difference
Lastly, can someone who has never bartended (or written for an international cocktail magazine) even taste the difference between an expensive cocktail in a fancy bar and a regular house cocktail made at the local chain restaurant?
Does making a cocktail with Woodford Reserve bourbon, roasted squash water, demerara and orange bitters, and then charging $12 for said cocktail, make it any better to the average person just looking for a drink? By the way, I pulled that example directly from the menu at the hottest restaurant in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
I would argue that you could go to a place like TGI Fridays and get something, while not the same but pretty similar, for $7 and be just as happy. I’m not sure what they would sub for “roasted squash water” though. What the hell even is that? Can you taste the roasted squash in your drink? Do I even want to taste that?
In the middle of the cocktail boom, this Renaissance of great drinks, it’s possible that we’re all being fleeced by fancy venues that jack up the prices on overrated drinks in wildly expensive glassware. In fact, it’s not only possible – it’s very likely.
Cocktails in Context
That won’t stop most of us from going to these places though. We’re going for more than just the drinks. We’re going for the atmosphere, to be part of a cool place. Hell, a lot of us (myself included) will go to nice cocktail bars just to say we went there. Plus, let’s be honest, sometimes we all like feeling fancy while we sip on our roasted squash water.
Dana’s point that cocktails are less important than the context they’re consumed in cuts both ways. Wearing a slick new suit, surrounded by friends also dressed to the nines, in a fancy bar with full table service – in that moment, that roasted squash water cocktail probably does taste like one of the best you’ve ever had. Sure, you could’ve just downed a Jack & Coke at the local dive and saved your money, but the atmosphere wouldn’t have been the same. Fancy cocktails are part of a fancy night out, and we all need those from time to time.
But like aperitifs and digestifs, there’s a time and a place for every kind of drink, including a humble, no-frills cocktail. Whether it’s a pick-me-up at the end of a shift, or over conversation with an old friend, sometimes bad cocktails really can be all you need.