If the idea of sitting in a dark, elegant bar, lapping at a small, icy pool whose waters have a way of smoothing the furrows in your brow and oiling the trunnions of your tongue appeals to you, then as dark as these times may be there is at least one recompense. It is now possible to get a perfect cocktail, or close enough, in every city in America. Ten years ago, it was not. That is a positive good, then, and sometimes a very positive one indeed.
But it doesn’t always go that way, though, does it? You do your part OK—getting to the bar, finding a seat, putting your damn phone away, ordering a drink, looking expectant—and the bartender does a stylish job of picking bottles, measuring and mixing, and pours your drink into a steaming-cold glass with a precise, crisp flourish. Then you take a sip. Oh no. The drinks list billed this “Transitive Nightfall of Diamonds” as “a subtly-accented take on the classic Dry Martini.” What you got instead is potpourri-tasting gin, cilantro-infused vermouth and aggressive splashes of bitter gentian aperitif and crème de violette, with a huge swatch of bergamot peel squeezed over the top. It smells like Victorian hand soap. It tastes like Victorian hand soap. It costs $15, before tip.
The expansion of the Cocktail Renaissance (as its aficionados have come to call it) from a few bars in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and a couple of other places to hundreds—who knows, thousands?—of bars practically everywhere has depended on a concurrent expansion in the amount of bartending and mixological talent and knowledge. But good bartending has expanded not as air does when filling a balloon, where there’s an equal amount of it in every part, but more like how Legos fill a hallway when, on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you kick over the huge tub of them your kid left out. Although it doesn’t happen with every step, every part of the hall holds the danger of putting your foot down on something fun that has turned diabolical.
What I mean to say is, not all tattooed young bartenders are the modern-day Jerry Thomases they think they are, and not every cocktail they make is the nectareous, brow-smoothing trunnion oil you hope for when you order it. Some, alas, are just plain bad.
The badness of many modern cocktails has been discussed widely and often, and by “discussed” I mean “ranted about.” It’s easy to go off on the excesses of eager young mixologists who apparently watch too much Adventure Time and let its deadpan randomness infect the drinks they come up with—“lamb-fat washed rye-corn-barley eau de vie, citrus colloid, Indonesian palm sugar and brick dust, finished with a beet-Malibu foam”; like that. What we need, however, is not more rants, as fun as they might be, but some basic science.
Before we can solve the problem of bad cocktails, we need to know the different ways a cocktail can go bad. We need a botany, a zoology, a classification. Every creeping thing that slideth over the bar must be known by his kind, that thou mayst order him no more. (I think it said that in the Bible somewhere, although I might be getting some of the words mixed up.)
That’s not a simple task. At first glance, it seems like cocktails follow Tolstoy’s happy-family rule; that the good ones are more or less all alike, or at least fall into a handful of common patterns (bitters-sugar-booze; bitters-vermouth-booze; sugar-citrus-booze, etc), and the bad ones are each awful in its own peculiar way.