The greatest lessons I learnt as a bartender came from just five cocktails. These drinks have shaped my career, and are the reason I’m so comfortable creating and experimenting today. They’ve taught me most of what I know – from how to balance and shake a drink to how to curate a cocktail list. Master these drinks and you’ll be (mostly) there.
Recently, I hit 16 years of working in the hospitality industry, and for 14 of those years I flew the the cocktail flag proudly. Those little glasses of luxury and decadence are something I’ve spent my life focusing on – as, I imagine, have many of the people reading this.
While not every drink has inspired me, there are a handful of cocktails that have made me want to be a better bartender – and I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re the key to unlocking the gates of cocktail mastery.
Early on in my career, I always admired the bartenders I watched on the big and small screen: Doug Coughlin from ‘Cocktail’, Isaac Washington from ‘Love Boat’ and, of course, Moe Szyslak from ‘The Simpsons’, but there was really only one who made me want to be a better bartender: Bart Simpson.
‘Simpsons’ purists will remember the episode when Bart becomes the official bartender for Fat Tony’s Legitimate Businessman’s Social Club. Bart is a natural, and his Manhattan is the best the mob boss has ever tasted. I guess you could say that particular episode piqued my interest in the Manhattan. After learning the intricacies of this three-ingredient drink, I realised the importance of water and bitters in a cocktail, and fell in love with the variety and complexity Vermouth could bring to any drink – not just a Manhattan. Today, I like to think my Manhattan is as good as Bart’s.
I moved to London in 2008, and during the two years I spent there I had the chance to meet and serve bartending legend Dick Bradsell on a couple of occasions. He was an intriguing character, and the legend he commanded was unlike any other in our industry. He was the mentor and man who had brought our craft back from the dead, and he was an extrovert – never shy outside the bar, but always humble about the fuss his work created behind it.
Dick Bradsell created drinks that became the basis of everything that is good and great about bartending now.
Although he didn’t invent it, Bradsell was particularly fond of the Tom Collins, and he would advise younger bartenders that if they were to master the craft, they would first have to master this cocktail. He believed that a Tom Collins should essentially be a homemade lemonade with gin, and, if you could craft it with a balance of sweet, sour, strong and weak, you were in good shape as a professional.
Photo by Rob Lawson
Another drink that definitely represents my bartending journey – and one I’m still constantly adapting today – is the Bloody Mary. I’ve learnt through experimentation, that the key to this iconic cocktail is, in fact, Tom Yum soup. Over my many years as a professional, I’ve come to realise that the balance of sweet, sour, salty, spice and strong needs to be vigorously adhered to. Each of those elements have to be in perfect balance. The seasoning of the tomato juice and spirit should be fierce and heavy handed, but controlled. Too much of anything will spoil this boozy dish, and too little will mean you will end up with something you’d expect to be served on an aeroplane. Simply put: a poor Bloody Mary is the pits, and a good one can’t be beat.
At this point it would be remiss of me to not mention the Negroni: the darling of the cocktail world and most bartender’s desert island drink. There’s no doubt that it’s a great cocktail, but the Negroni has taught me little about my craft – except that bitter is an acquired taste and that acquisition is only achieved with rigorous practice.
Our penultimate cocktail is a blend of something sweet, bitter and strong, and quite closely related to the Negroni: The Pharmaceutical Stimulant – more widely known as the Espresso Martini or Vodka Espresso – and one of Bradsell’s creations.
Hear me out when it comes to linking the Negroni to The Pharmaceutical Stimulant – both cocktails use a white spirit to neutralise stronger flavours, both drinks are ‘trios’ (three-ingredient cocktails) and both balance sweet, bitter, and strong perfectly.
Photo by Rob Lawson
The latter, though, has taught me that beautiful cocktails don't have to be complicated. A simple structure, combined with the right technique, is enough to create something incredible. This cocktail taught me how to shake properly – no other cocktail really needs this violent procedure to be acceptable to drink.
The last couple of years has offered me the opportunity to travel more and see how most of the best bars in the world work. The more I see, the more I realise that it’s about a lot more than just the drinks they serve – they are generally places people want to spend a lot of time in because they’re cool, they have great service and they listen to what the season possesses and what the customer requests. Finally – and most importantly – they don’t take themselves too seriously and they understand that, sometimes, the best drinks are the simplest.
Our fifth drink, The Mango Daiquiri, epitomises all of the above. Not the type formed in a blender, or the sugar-filled offering you see on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, but a real Mango Daiquiri and all its seasonal-riffs. They really are something to behold. Take a cheek of a fresh mango, 20ml of lime juice, a tablespoon of sugar and a healthy pour of rum. Add ice and shake until your hand is too cold to hold the shaker. That’s it: balance, complexity, and fun. This kind of drink is what most customers want night after night. Classics are classics for a reason, and taking note of what each has taught you and why your customers are ordering them will help you develop continuously.
The first and most important lesson is that bartending is about listening to your customers, but equally, that the advancement of personal creativity needn’t be burdened by this. At the end of the day, there’s no point having the world’s most creative cocktail menu if no one’s ordering from it.
Five cocktails have taught me more about bartending than the other thousands. My 16 years behind the bar have taught me plenty about life, another 16 will teach me more still, and life itself has taught me to look at the glass and always find it half-full. Mango Daiquiri or otherwise.