Don't Order Cocktails

TIM PHILIPS-JOHANSSON

Who the hell orders a salad at McDonalds? Those who do are probably the same people who order the fish in a steakhouse, or the mixed grill at that new falafel joint. Such stupor in restaurants is generally met with allies ribbing the orderer to suffer embarrassment, as well as a dissatisfied appetite. Rookie error, right? Well, you would be surprised how often the equivalent of this happens in our drink world. 

After telling new friends that I write, travel, and make cocktails for a living, one of the first things I get asked is; “what do you drink when you’re out?”. The answer generally disappoints them, as the unvarnished truth is that I generally order something as straightforward as a Tanqueray & Tonic, or a Whisky Highball. Then I’m asked; “But what about cocktails?”.  
 
When I hang out with old friends from school in local pubs, they make the same rookie error time and time again; when around me, they order cocktails because they think they should. None of them are in hospitality, and none of them are particularly interested in the world of cocktails. Yet, they side up to the bar at our local, order a round of whichever cocktail they have recently discovered – say, Whisky Sours - whilst I drink a Cuba Libre, and are nearly always shocked at how sweet or bad their drinks are.  I feel sorry for the bartender that has just read, heard of and learned what a Whisky Sour is.

My truth, my experience, and my opinion is the compulsory thought that all bars should serve cocktails, but having bars badly equipped to making cocktails yet still serving them, does more harm than good to our industry. As a professional who has forged making mixed drinks his whole career, I’m continually frustrated at the disdain to our profession shown by bars that can’t make cocktails –  or worse – they still make them, but the cocktails are not appropriate to the venue. It’s the equivalent of a hot dog van offering sushi. It’s there, it’s on a menu, but still, you just shouldn’t order it.  


 
Pubs, nightclubs, and even some fine dining restaurants, generally feel the need to offer their patrons a range of signature mixed drinks. Truth to be told, these are more often than not just plain awful.  
 
Your average Joe or Joanne who’s only experience of drinking cocktails is in local bars that serve frozen daiquiris the size of their heads, or free mimosas on ladies’ night’s, will inherit the opinion that cocktails are cheap, highly sweet, and high in alcohol.  
 
Why would this customer ever desire to walk into a genuine cocktail bar and pay a premium price for an experience, post the traumatic cocktail-encounter they have had in the past? It’s a huge leap of faith. One that requires disregarding all those previous poor drinking experiences. 
 
Are cocktails sacrilege? No, I’m not saying that. Neither do I want to come across as a ‘Mixology-Grinch’, telling people they can’t have their cake-flavoured vodka and drink it too. However, maybe it’s time for bars that aren’t cocktail specialists to set some rules? 
 
Pubs should not be allowed cocktail shakers – There, I said it. First of all, your ice is bad. Yeah, I know I haven’t seen it but I’m probably right. Therefore, you can’t dilute and chill a drink properly when you shake it. Stick to built drinks; everyone loves a Moscow Mule anyway.  
 
Two-Fruit-Rule – This speaks for itself and it includes juices, purees, jams, compotes, and all that malarkey. Two fruits maximum. That’s it. Any more than this and you’re masking the flavour of the good oil; the booze.  
 
Five ingredients or less – I don’t go to clubs anymore. In fact, the only club I like these days is a Club Sandwich. Receding hairline, marriage, and a newfound allergy to high decibels all factor in as to why my night-clubbing days are over. That coupled with the fact it takes too damn long to get a drink! Nightclubs need to keep their lists, and their methodology of their cocktails, concise. 
 
Short and Sharp – Long cocktails lists are for cocktail bars. If you can’t fit all of your offerings on one page, it’s too long. Leave the drink tomes to the bars dedicated to seated cocktail service.  
 
Restaurants should only serve stirred drinks – Uh oh, now I’ve upset some people and I can hear you already. The point is; unless you are truly set up for making cocktails – to which most restaurants are not –  I’d suggest keeping to the ‘Big-Four’ and riffs thereof; Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned, and Negroni. These are much more forgiving cocktails, are food appropriate, and my passionfruit daiquiri isn’t sitting at the pass for three minutes disintegrating at a rapid rate.  


Exceptions to the rule apply with all of these protocols, and I’m going to hand-on-heart say I’ve had some great drinks where I didn’t think I would. That time a bartender in a nightclub in Paris made me a stunning Sazerac, or the time at my old local in Melbourne when the new bartender ‘fluked’ a Mojito he had just Googled the recipe for, or as a matter of fact anytime I’ve been to a regional specific restaurant, and had a regional drink (think Pisco Sours in Peruvian joints or Margaritas at their Mexican counterparts).  
 
As well as this, there are tonnes of great restaurants with incredible signature cocktail lists, and some up-and-coming swarms of passionate talent tending bar behind your local pubs; they all have the ability to surprise, and make great cocktails where you probably wouldn’t expect one. Still, the fact of the matter is these are exceptions to the rule.  
 
Maybe this piece is a letter to the bar owner. I understand completely that one of the hardest, if not the hardest part of owning any bar, is managing human resources. Staff come and go, many of whom do not and will never see hospitality as a career. They don’t want to know how to shake a Gin Fizz, neither do they care to remember the seven ingredients in all of the twenty-three cocktails on your list. Unless you have the time, access to the Diageo Bar Academy, and interest from your staff - keep it easy for yourself. You will soon find consistency with your products to the betterment of your establishment.  
 
But maybe this piece is a letter to the consumer. There’s a lot of great options in every city when it comes to fine-drinking. Consumers have been wising-up to putting better things in their mouths to eat, and perhaps this piece can be aimed as a ‘wake up’ call for you to do the same when you’re drinking spirits. Read the signs and look around when you walk into a bar. Is the bartender reactive to your requests of a Ketel One vodka Martini, perhaps walking out to the back of house, to search the recipe of their phone? If so, your Martini will most likely be bad.  
 
Maybe, just maybe, this article is for everybody? Anyone that drinks, thinks of ordering, or who sells cocktails. Certain cocktails aren’t for certain bars, and reading opposing cues will help you not make the liquid-equivalent mistake of ordering the salad at McDonalds.