Mourning the passing of the ‘secret recipe’
By Philip Duff
It’s been a long time coming. Once upon a time, signature drinks, or cocktails, or food dishes, were things you could only get in one restaurant, or perhaps one chain of restaurants, or from one chef. Ramos Gin Fizzes, Brambles, Lamb Cutlets Reform ( a la Soyer), TGI Fridays’ Jack Daniels Grill and Nobu Matsuhisa’s black cod are all examples of signature serves. Everyone can imitate these serves in any bar you like, but even an oxygen thief knows that you should have at least one Penicillin straight from Sam Ross, or a Tommy’s from Julio Bermejo. Done right, signature serves rock.
Originally, secrecy played a role; creators went to great lengths to keep the ingredients, or at least one of them, secret, meaning guests who wanted that drink again had to come back to your place and nowhere else. But in the age of internet, Twitter and other forms of instant messaging, it is literally impossible to keep things secret any more; the decades-long run that the Ramos remained a mystery is remarkable – and, today, unrepeatable. Ditto the tiki tradition of label-less number-coded bottles and cryptically titled cocktail flavourings from mysterious firms named Astral Flavours. Having a secret recipe is now out the window.
Back in the day, a barkeep would cheerfully labour for decades in the same bar, developing a large and loyal following based on part on his unique drinks, but that also has gone the way of Stoughton’s Bitters and ladies in seamed stockings. Any bartender these days that develops a successful cocktail has to immediately hire a team of ex-Navy SEALS to fend off the ravenous hordes of drinks firms who will try to hire him or simply rip off the recipe to use in their communications. And a bartender who puts in five years in the same place is seen as being a lifer.
“In the age of internet, Twitter and other forms of instant messaging, it is literally impossible to keep things secret any more.”
One way or another, a good drink don’t stay under the radar for very long no mo’.
One reason for this is that lines of communication have become much shorter in a world drowning in social media. Pre-Facebook, pre-internet, pre-decent bar shows and pre-decent bar books, if you wanted to learn about drinks or cocktails, you pretty much had only one option; go and work in a bar with a good reputation, and stick to the head bartender like shit to a blanket, hoping to catch the pearls of wisdom that might occasionally fall from his lips. Now, you’ll hear about the drink the day after it was created and all you have to do is Facebook it’s maker and Bob’s your uncle. Everyone is polite and helpful and open and sharing and that is a good thing.
Another reason is that the entire concept of signature cocktails has been appropriated by drinks brands – and largely forgotten by bars. Every brand, every SKU now has to have a signature cocktail, preferably two or three or four. These supposedly ‘signature’ drinks – because, for instance, there’s only so many things you can do with banana liqueur or vodka – are either branded versions of cocktails everyone’s drinking anyway, or drinks – which may be excellent – that will never be made by any bartender anyway. Whoever heard of a drinks brand’s signature cocktail actually becoming popular? The most successful ones I can think of are the Blue Lagoon (created in Hawaii in the 1960s, for the Bols company) and the Red Lion, a Grand Marnier cocktail-contest winner in London in 1933. Two. Not much for a couple of centuries of mixology and cocktail creation, is it?
Bars, for their sins, rarely keep a best-selling signature drink on the menu year-in year-out, preferring to refresh the menu three or four times a year. The aforementioned chef Alexis Soyer’s Lamb Cutlets Reform went on the menu at the eponymous London gentlemen’s club around 1840; it’s still on it. Are there any bars touching that kind of longevity? The Dry Martini at the bar of the same name in Barcelona is one; The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco with Irish Coffees is another; Tommy’s (also in SF), with the Tommy’s Margarita, is well on it’s way to being a third. Which bar owner will dare to be the next to keep a great, top-selling drink on the menu, to serve it year-in and year-out, decade after decade, steering a course to that sunny isle of Profits & Guest Satisfaction ‘twixt the Scylla of innovation and the Charybdis of stagnation? Le Lion in Germany’s Hamburg with the Gin Basil Smash? Dylan Prime in New York with the Lemon Meringue Pie-tini?