When I walk into a SoHo gallery, I expect to be snubbed. One look at my shoe-handbag combo and even the intern knows I can’t afford the art. At an alt-rock show in Williamsburg, I am game for shame at the door. I’m not that young anymore, and all my piercings are hidden. Basically, if art is on the line, I’m okay with elitism.
When it’s a question of sin, howeverand no matter how much we dress up drinking or call it by a fancy name, it remains just thatjudgment is absurd. People want their sin the way they want it. This is something every drug dealer and pornographer knows, so why can’t today’s upscale bartenders understand? To the so-called mixologists, I say: Pour up and shut up.
The problems with mixology begin with the word itself, a clumsy cocktail of Latinate root and Greek suffix appropriated by a lunatic fringe within the bartending world. The word offends the ear and only seems acceptable after repetition. In fact, I’m sorry I’ve already used it so much; the healthy contempt you felt when you first read it is probably fading, just as an unpleasant odor will go away if you smell it long enough.
In his 1948 essay “The Vocabulary of the Drinking Chamber,” H. L. Mencken called the word “silly” and cited it as evidence of bartenders’ “meager neologistic powers.” It’s kind of sad to read this Mencken essay now. He obviously expected the word to die the quiet death it deserved, but for once in his life he was too optimistic. Not only did it survive, it bred. Modern drinking chambers resound with pretentious neologisms; if you want to learn some, just pick up an issue of Imbibe magazine. “Edible cocktail” and “solid” are two of my personal favorites, both of which mean “Jell-O shot.”
The insidious thing about words is that the act of decrying them promotes their usage. Mencken did just that: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate gives 1948 as the first written record of the word “mixology.”
If you have never encountered a mixologist in the wild, consider yourself blessed. Maybe you live in a nice college town where people still smile at each other in the streets. You patronize a clean, well-lighted place where someone called a bartender smiles, prepares your favorite beverage, and lets you drink in peace.
Enjoy it while you can. One gray happy hour you will go to your clean, well-lighted place to find the windows boarded up, the address obscured by a skull and crossbones, and the name changed to something like The Pharmacist’s Revenge. The horrible, sinking feeling in your stomach is called “mixology.”
If you are thirsty enough, go inside. (I know it looks closed, but that’s just a trick to scare off customers.) Once your eyes adjust to the crepuscular gloom, you will be menaced by a beautiful hostess. Remain calm; you have every right to be there. Don’t let on how badly you want a drink but instead act listless and bored. This should be easy if you listen to the music being played now that the cool jukebox has been replaced by the mixologist’s iPod.
You may now proceed slowly toward the bar, which is the large object in front of you made of zinc or tin, groaning beneath the weight of all the fruit infusions. Behind it stands the man whose sole purpose in life is to keep you from your drug of choice. He is probably a white male in his late twenties with a handlebar moustache, mutton chops, or pubo-Amish beard. He dresses like a member of a barbershop quartet. A frown hovers over his lips as he surveys his vast collection of bitters.
The worst mistake you could make at this point would be to wave around a twenty. This will offend the mixologist’s dignity. Like a cat, the mixologist must acknowledge you in his own time, if he does so at all. Don’t snap his suspenders; he bites.
That jewel-encrusted, leather-bound volume he is sliding in front of you is not The Complete Works of Shakespeare but the Seasonal Cocktail Menu. You now have two options. You can flip past the prologue about the good old days when men were men and India was a colony, and scan the list in search of something that doesn’t contain truffle foam, tarragon caviar, or housemade miso bitters. Or you can bravely close the menu and say, “This looks amazing, but I think I’ll stick with my usual.” Depending on what the usual is, be prepared for some humiliation.
The last time my dad came to visit, shortly before he died, I took him to Smith and Mills, a tiny bar in Tribeca built of reclaimed industrial fixtures. As a city planner, Dad was sensitive to the beauty of architecture, and I thought he’d like the quality of the space.
In his broad Oklahoman accent, he ordered an Amaretto sour.
I’ll never forget the way the waiter smirked. “We don’t serve those here.”
“Why not?” Dad asked.
“The mixologist doesn’t like Amaretto.”
My father looked hurt and confused. He was probably trying to simultaneously parse the word “mixologist” and understand why it mattered whether he liked Amaretto, since it was my father who was going to drink it.
“Do you maybe want a whiskey sour, Dad?” I asked. “They’re really good here.”
He shook his head stubbornly. “How about a mojito?”
This time the waiter actually laughed. “We don’t have those this time of year.”
I forget what Dad ended up drinking. Whatever it was, the mood had been ruined. He felt like a hick, and I felt like a jerk for exposing him to such unkindness. This was an ongoing theme in our relationship. You can never make up for a childhood spent apart, and Dad and I were always out of step in each other’s world. We were always thirsty for something that wasn’t on the menu. A bar should be the kind of place that lubricates such tensions, rather than aggravating them.
Maybe your “usual” is something more chic than my father’s, though, something irreproachable like a Manhattan. I assure you, a top mixologist will still find a way to put you in your place.
The frown will deepen above the Amish beard as he shaves ice off an enormous block and piles it into a cocktail shaker. He will fire off a rapid series of questions, ostensibly to tailor the drink to your taste. Don’t be fooled; every question has a very clear right and wrong answer.
“Rocks or up?”
“Perfect or sweet?”
“Um…perfect, I guess.”
“Shaken or stirred?”
“Stirred?” Good answer! It’s considered terribly un-Mixologically Correct to shake a Manhattan.
“Angostura bitters or housemade miso bitters?”
“Cherry or twist?”
“Twist?” Correct again! This particular mixologist has authored a series of scathing blog posts denouncing the cherry garnish.
“Rye or bourbon?”
It’s not your fault. You are tired and thirsty and from up close that beard is really scary. You say something disastrously un-MC.
“I’ll take Maker’s Mark.”
A wave of relaxation spreads over the mixologist’s face. He strokes his ascot with a little smile. “We don’t carry industrial liquor here.”
“Any brand that has a production of over a thousand cases a year.”
“In addition, most educated drinkers agree rye whiskey gives more complexity to the finished cocktail than bourbon. Since you’re obviously a little new to all this, let’s start you off with a Kentucky rye that’s been aged in Madeira cask and contains thirty percent corn…”
Try to stay perfectly still and say nothing, like an animal playing dead. Hopefully his lecture won’t last longer than twenty minutes, and you’ll get your drink at the end. It won’t be as good as your usual, because it will have way too much bitters and will cost twice as much. But you’d consume paint thinner at this point just to shut him up.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favor of the well-made cocktail, and I love serious bartenders who take pride in their craft. The gin martini is the official alcoholic beverage of my marriage, and the world would be a better place if every bartender knew how to make one. My husband, a touring jazz musician, drinks them wherever he goes, “very dry, stirred, with a twist.” He texts me when he is served a particularly heinous rendition, which generally happens in Minnesota. Here are the last three texts:
Plastic cup of ice, half-vermouth, half-gin, lemon wedge
(Bartender consults recipe card!) Plastic cup of ice, half-vermouth, half-gin, lemon wedge
Real martini glass! Filled to brim with room temperature gin and vermouth. Olives.
The Midwest could use a little cocktail education. Still, the nice thing about sin is that it generally delivers. At the end of a hard Minnesotan day, even a cup of watery vermouth does the job.
There’s a story in the Hindu Puranas about how the god Krishna’s skillful drinking saved his life. When he was just a baby, an evil demoness named Putana was sent to kill him with poisoned breastmilk. Putana assumed the form of a beautiful woman and charmed Krishna’s mother into letting her suckle the infant god. Krishna drank from Putana’s breasts, but he sucked out only the sweet milk, leaving the venom behind. She perished of her own poison.
Discrimination is one of the qualities of the divine. Bartenders should drink the milk of the mixologists’ techniques and fine attention to detail. They should leave behind the venom of judgment and privilege.
The granddaddy of the New York mixology scene is Milk and Honey, which has an unlisted number famously given only to friends, family, and the famous. Newer speakeasies create the illusion of exclusivity by means of (well-publicized) hidden entrances through phone booths or dark alleyways. Anyone can get in, but the customers still feel the satisfaction of sort of belonging to the kind of club that wouldn’t accept them as a member. The “secret” door only opens for the right kind of people. I have no thirst for that. I came to New York to meet all kinds of people, not just the right ones.
In Culinary Artistry, chef Michael Romano says, “I think there’s a danger of getting too much into the idea that ‘I am an artist’… A restaurant is about nurturing, about saying, ‘Welcome to my home.’ It’s an interactive process in which you provide your guests with something they’re going to ingest, going to put in their bodies. It’s a very intimate thing, and they should have a say in it. Chefs should be flexible.”
So should we all. Drinkers should try new things, even if they aren’t “the usual.” Bartenders should honor the spirit of the public house, a place with wide-open doors.
Sarah Deming is the author of the children's novel Iris, Messenger. She is also a Golden Gloves boxing champion.