This is the first post from Gabriel Szaszko, a mixological obsessive in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He publishes Cocktail Nerd.
I have a problem in my bar at home. The worst part? I didn’t know I had a problem. And, I need to fix it right away so I can improve my fidelity in the art of making fine and faithful drinks, and make good by my guests and cocktailians everywhere.
This is my experience with every book on cocktails I read, every smallscreennetwork or Great Cocktails episode I view, and every new spirit to which I’m exposed. What, me? Neurotic? You jest at your peril gentle reader…And now, I can add talking to Robert Hess about the Bartending Techniques 101 & Barware session at TotC to that list. Robert’s website drinkboy.com was a primary resource for me in my initial interest in quality drinking and is a site I still return to for comparing drink recipes and getting basic background on vintage cocktails. In other words, I was a bit star struck at the opportunity to chat with him via email in preparation for this post. I was inartful where he was cogent and clunky where he was charm. He was very gracious and generous with his time. I did, however, forget to ask him where he has his shirts monogrammed or what the next development in .NET architecture and cross-platform compatibility will be. I apologize for both oversights. Here is my amateur, if faithful, attempt at interviewing the esteemed ‘Drinkboy’. My ad hoc comments are in parentheses:
Cocktailnerd (CN): What will be the primary focus and goal of the ‘Bartending Techniques 101 and Barware’ session, and why? (see, I don’t trust marketing copy-sure I could’ve just checked the course description)
Drinkboy (DB): The focus of this session will be on providing an overview of a variety of bar tools, their history, and their proper use by both home and professional bartenders. David Wondrich and myself have a keen interest in the historical aspects of cocktails and bartending, we plan on using history as the foundation for this presentation. We plan on showing a variety of historical barware, and discuss the evolution as well as the usage of these items as they have changed over the years. We will of course provide some details on the proper techniques for using various tools.
CN: What are the most common mistakes of technique and preparation you feel most at-home drink mixers make and how do you feel they’ll be approached in this session?
DB: There are of course a wide variety of ways both home and professional bartenders either use their tools improperly, use the wrong tool, or just don’t know the right tool to use in some cases. From the improper use of a muddler, shaking a drink that should be stirred, and understanding the value of a good juicer.
Personally, my biggest pet peeve when seeing people (professional or amateur) make drinks, is to shake a drink that should be stirred instead. The vast majority of drinks these days tend to be shaken, so much so that many bars don’t even have a bar spoon that they could use to stir a drink if they wanted to. Drinks such as a Manhattan should always be stirred, otherwise you end up with both a cloudy drink, and an ugly foam “scum” on the top of it. In a dive bar I don’t have a problem with it, but in a fine cocktail lounge it just sends the wrong message to pay so little attention to the “presentation” of the drinks they send out to customers.
Another pet peeve is seeing bartenders improperly using a muddler to “ice-muddle” lemon/lime slices in a mixing glass in order to get juice out of them. Besides being an improper use of a muddler, it is also fairly ineffective and takes far more energy than simply dry-muddling the citrus slices, or using a proper juicer. (I’ve never even understood how ice muddling was supposed to be effective anyways)
CN: What do you feel are the most important considerations in selecting barware and what do you feel is missing from most bars and home bars that really reduce the bartender’s ability to prepare quality drinks? (where I find out I’m doing myself, and my fellow imbibers wrong)
DB: One issue is simply selecting/owning the right tools. This involves both having the “right” tool, as well as tools of proper quality. Case in point is the barspoon. As previously mentioned, few bartenders even have barspoons available to them, the same of course can be said for home bartenders. In such cases I often recommend simply finding something that can work as a suitable replacement. I’ve been known to use a chopstick as a barspoon when necessary. (That’s dedication)
The flip side of this, is that here in the US the typical barspoon that is available is a cheap piece of junk. It’s made from metal which is far too soft, has a bowl which is too large, and has a cheap plastic knob on the end which always falls off and reveals a sharp point, which more than one bartender I know has ended up shoving almost clear through their hand. (Damn, now I have to get my ass to eBay…stupid bar spoon)
CN: What’s your shameful “bad habit” in bartending technique or barware usage?
DB: I have no shameful bad habits… (touché)
Ok, maybe just one or two.
One is that I have a habit of being just a little too cavalier with champagne bottles. Besides never having had a cork shoot off on me, I also don’t typically deal with champagne bottles in front of customers, so it hasn’t yet been ingrained into my methodology to always keep the cork tightly covered with a towel/napkin in order to keep it well contained incase of a premature escape. (Why, hello Mr. Heugel, you have something to add here?)
Another is that I don’t keep a necessarily well-organized bar at home. With all of the various tools and such I have, and which I am always switching between, my workspace often looks like a cyclone has gone through it. I usually know exactly where everything I need is at, but this is indeed a bad habit to get into. A proper bar should be neat, tidy, and well organized at all times. (misé en place is a real challenge for me as well)
CN: Does it really make a damned bit of difference if the bottle is held by the neck when pouring besides it looking unprofessional? If so, why? (This is a bit tongue-in-cheek but I’m genuinely curious to have it expanded on)
DB: Where “how you hold the bottle” is going to make a big difference when pouring is when you are either using a “speed pour” on your bottles, or “free pouring” without any sort of flow control device.
The problem here is that I personally recommend that folks always measure their recipes. While I’ll agree that there are “some” bartenders good enough to nail their drinks with just their eyes to measure with, I think it is indeed a rare thing. Getting just 1/4 ounce (or less!) off in your measure of a citrus juice will destroy a cocktail. So I always recommend the use of a jigger AND to regularly taste the drinks you are preparing to make sure they are consistent. (I regularly taste lots of drinks, for the record)
I’ve recently completed reading Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash… by David Wondrich and must confess that between his writing such an erudite and well-researched book and Robert’s down-to-earth and attentive approach to drink (plus, dear god, the man is willing to order a Manhattan in a dive bar…) this is a session that I believe anyone, neophyte and sage alike, will take away valuable lessons from. It’s the last day of TotC and I can’t think of a better send-off than to have two premier cocktail historians share their experiences and revelations in researching bartending and barware history. I’ll be the one in the back, clutching my new bar spoon with great affection, and I hope to see you there.