Part One: Rules
There are basic rules to follow when embarking on craft cocktailing. The Golden Rule: “Approach this job as you would any other profession.” Take it seriously and you will be rewarded for your dedication. Craft cocktailing harkens back to the days of Jerry Thomas, when a bartender was as well respected as a Sheriff or Doctor on the frontier, and more respected than the Politician in “The Big City”. Rather than being a layover for your future vocation, Craft Cocktailing requires discipline, effort and years of honing your skills. If you are not willing to dedicate yourself to learning the skills associated with craft cocktailing, then there are always other bartending opportunities available which require much less effort. If you do not take your job seriously, but instead mimic the ideology of craft cocktailing without giving it its due effort, you do every other serious bartender a great disservice.
Here are additional rules that I recommend you endeavor to acquire if interested in following the aforementioned Golden Rule:
6) Use the best product available.
8) Attention to detail.
In more detail:
1. Know the basics! The path to becoming a great bartender is to know the “foundation” drinks, and to know them intimately. Only by learning the first generation cocktails and then studying their evolution into the modern classics we recognize today, can the student achieve a process for creating new cocktails. Too often I see up-and-coming bartenders attempt to make designer drinks that are simply unbalanced and lack any tolerable flavor. This is due to an absence of understanding the basic principles of flavor ratios that can be attained if that bartender had spent more time considering the cocktails that preceded todays. The last section of this chapter provides a guide that the learners can use to better acquaint themselves with how to properly build an appealing libation.
2. Understand your history. Study the history of each drink, recipe and spirit. An exceptional bartender does not only craft a guest's drinks, they are also teachers. The internet is a fount of information when it comes to topics ranging from Absinthe regulation to the monastic order of monks who distill Chartreuse to the rise of Tiki culture. It’s all fascinating history that your guests will appreciate you sharing with them. Nowadays, there are also plenty of books to read (see Appendix) and more getting published every year. Be prepared to fiercely debate the merits of using (or not using) Rose’s Lime Juice in your Gimlet… who created the Tom & Jerry… what is the best method for shaking an egg in a cocktail…
3. Know your spirits. Not just the difference between gin and whiskey, but the differences between every gin/genever and every whiskey/whisky. Your judgment will come through tasting, note taking, online referencing, brand sponsored industry events and personal preferences. Tasting is the most important aspect of learning these spirits. After all, it will be your memories of the spirits that you will be recollecting with the guests. It will be your words used to describe the different flavor profiles. The more comfortable you are describing the individual ingredients, the more comfortable the guest will be with your ability to navigate their evening.
4. Always use fresh ingredients. Always. No exceptions. No bottled orange juice, sours mixes, grenadine syrups, Roses Lime Juice (except, maybe in that Gimlet?). My own personal preference which I’ll expand upon later, is: fresh squeeze lime to order, pre-squeeze lemons daily, oranges and grapefruits should be juiced every 4 days depending on freshness decided by daily tasting. Sours mixes, Grenadine, Falernum, Orgeat are all significantly better when the bartender has had a hand in its preparation.
5. There are certain techniques that one needs to master in the art of cocktailing. Knowing whether a cocktail should be stirred or shaken should eventually become second nature to the accomplished bartender. The techniques themselves will, through continued practice, become easier to perfect. Nobody took a bar spoon and produced a perfect stir on their first foray behind the bar. These techniques take practice. Eventually, with proper guidance and continued training you will find a style that suits you, until your movements are seamless and your actions are performed without thinking. Stirring, shaking, straining, building, juicing, peeling, cutting, measuring… all of these techniques, will eventually look like a beautiful ballet to the customer, with continued practice.
6. Whenever possible use the best spirits available. Obviously as a bartender this is not always possible. There are pricing versus cost percentages to consider. Also not always an option for the home enthusiast where there are limitations on inventory. Better quality spirits will make better drinks. Also important to consider is that the spirit you’re using for the cocktail is a compatible match. Some whiskey’s are simply too light for a Manhattan while some gins are too strong for a Corpse Reviver #2. Keep in mind that “more expensive” does not always equate to “better suited” to each cocktail. As mentioned earlier, the more familiar you are with the spirits behind your bar, the better you will be at how to match each with specific cocktails.
7. Always measure your ingredients following recipes. When discussing this topic with new bartenders, I equate this rule to how a baker works. A baker follows a specific recipe, with accurate measurements, to acquire the proper result for his breads and pastries. So too should a bartender follow predetermined recipes and be vigilant in measuring exact amounts to insure proper ratios for each cocktail.
8. Attention to detail! Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to pay attention to every detail. Not only will it provide a better drink for each guest, but it will also give us a better understanding of each step in the process. This is where boundaries are broken and new frontiers are explored. How far do you hold a lemon peel from a glass when expressing the oils over it. How many stirs to reach the proper cooling temperature for a cocktail. To garnish or not to garnish. We should think about how every aspect of what we do affects the cocktail. Many of us have been shown a way to do a certain technique and never questioned the reasoning behind it. We stick to that approach out of habit until somebody else comes along and says we should do it another way. All the while we should be questioning and testing our theories on why we do as we do. Time and attention to detail are the keys to creating perfect cocktails every time.
These are my rules… the rules that I have chosen to abide by. The greatest joy you will achieve in this trade is when you have studied another person’s instructions and eventually, after years of following your predecessors’ guidelines, you create your own rules based on your experiences in the craft. This is how we all came to this agreement of knowledge, and it is how future generations will take craft cocktailing to the next level. Disagree with me! Please! Take anything I’ve said throughout this chapter… throughout this blog and say to yourself “This guy is full of shit! My preparation of this ingredient is better than the way he recommends making it.” The fundamental idea behind this blog is to share information with bartending brethren. Pittsburgh has a close-knit community where the sharing of ideas and techniques is essential to the growth in this market. I have always shared my knowledge with the team I worked alongside. I hope that you will also share your knowledge with the community wherever you see it as being advantageous. Discuss, debate, argue techniques, but also, always listen. Share them with your compatriots. Learn from them as well. Your fellow bartenders have much to teach you. Build this trade, which has only yet begun to make a name for itself.