Story by Max Allison, bartender and professional loudmouth. He is a founding partner of the bar Good Measure (opening Carlton, VIC 2021) where he will be listing original and classic cocktails. Follow him on insta @themaction
You may have seen a recent article written by Speakeasy’s Sven Almenning detailing why they don’t list classic cocktails at the various Speakeasy Group venues. As I read it, I felt compelled to offer an opposing opinion to the points raised, as in my experience classic cocktails can be just the thing to tip the scale of my expectations for a venue.
Sven, if you’re reading this (and I’m sure you will) you know I respect you and I had many great years working with the Speakeasy Group at Boilermaker House. Understand that what I’m about to say doesn’t come from a place of malice or pettiness but is simply the opinion of a fellow hospitality professional who, well… thinks you’re wrong about classic cocktails.
‘Classics don’t “exceed expectations” …or do they?’
There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, it assumes that all guests think, feel and act the same, secondly, it posits that all classic cocktails are created equal.
Each guest that comes to your bar can and will have their own set of criteria for what does or does not “exceed expectations”. While the offering and general vibe of a bar will likely draw in a reasonably like-minded crowd week after week, this doesn’t mean that there will be no deviation in thought and opinion between individuals.
I’ll use Eau De Vie as an example, as you have in the past. It’s a longstanding cocktail bar with a reputation for theatrical service, over-the-top glassware and garnishes. Knowing this, we can expect that many guests will enjoy this type of experience and will actually expect it. So, if they go to Eau de Vie and get an Espresso Zabione, just like they wanted, served theatrically with liquid nitrogen and a flourish just as they hoped- have their expectations been exceeded or simply met?
But these guests are not the entirety of the clientele of EDV, I would wager that for every guest that is wowed and shocked by the Espresso Zab, there would be many that would enjoy a perfectly made and presented Old-Fashioned just as enthusiastically. My point is that guests run the gamut of tastes and wants, and each individual has their own ideas for what meets or exceeds their expectations.
As for the drinks themselves, there are many ways a well-made classic cocktail can rise above and exceed expectations, leading to that delightful moment when you take a sip, your eyebrows raise and you mutter ‘Damn, this is good’.
‘I’m a firm believer in that if you try to please everybody, you’ll end up pleasing nobody. If you roll into a country pub or classic dive bar and order a Vieux Carre, they’re not a bad venue because it doesn’t come out on block ice with a perfectly manicured twist – they’re just a venue that doesn’t excel in that sort of experience.’
An exceptional cocktail can be broken down to four key components– glassware, ice, ingredients, service. With each done right, a simple classic can excel.
At the bare minimum, glassware must be clean and chip-free. Further, it should be kept at freezer temperature (with some exceptions) but not be frosty or iced up; this is achieved by drying the glass before you stack it in the freezer. Beyond that, it’s a matter of personal taste in the shape, look and feel of the glassware.
Ice should be clear, with clean edges and should fit the glassware and wash-line of the drink, so it does not clink around in the glass as soon as you pick it up. An ice stamp logo is optional, but many guests do love this extra touch.
When it comes to ingredients for perishables, fresh is best. Juice, fruit and garnishes should be picked or juiced to order where possible and at the very least prepared that day. For the alcoholic components, using quality ingredients can instantly up your cocktail game. Particular care should be taken with house pours that often form the backbone of a venue’s cocktails.
Put simply, service should be fast, friendly, warm and attentive.
Now I know many reading this may be rolling their eyes saying “I know all that and do those steps every day” but honestly, the bars that have all four consistently are few and far between.
One last word on the drinks themselves – let’s use a Negroni as an example. Is an equal-measure, Gordon’s Negroni served in a room-temperature glass over poor-quality cubed ice with a lazily pre-cut, dried out orange peel served to you with a grunt and a nod going to impress? Of course not.
Alternatively, let’s say you get a custom spec Tanqueray 10 Negroni, served in a razor thin, ice-cold glass with a fat, crystal-clear cube (or even an orange-infused ice sphere?) and a beautiful, slender orange wedge perched on top served to you promptly with a wink and a smile. Wouldn’t you say that exceeded your expectations of just how good a classic cocktail can be?
‘Classics are often inconsistent’
This is an uncharitable point, as many venues put time and effort into ensuring that their basic classics are made the same by all their staff whether through programming the specs on the till or batching commonly-ordered drinks like Negronis or Margaritas. While an e-learning program like Ananas can be a useful tool for training staff, it is certainly not the only solution.
‘Classics are an expected minimum’
Much like how guests can vary wildly in their tastes and opinions, I will agree that bars can also vary wildly in professionalism, quality and yes, consistency. But not all bars are equal in every single aspect. I’m a firm believer in that if you try to please everybody, you’ll end up pleasing nobody. If you roll into a country pub or classic dive bar and order a Vieux Carre, they’re not a bad venue because it doesn’t come out on block ice with a perfectly manicured twist – they’re just a venue that doesn’t excel in that sort of experience.
The reverse is also true, if I go to a bar that specializes in cocktails (classics or otherwise), I’m not going to be reaching for the wine list. This isn’t to say that a cocktail bar can’t have a good beer or wine list but if you’re upset because that it doesn’t have the latest BA triple-fruited DDH Oat Cream Black IPA, you shouldn’t be, because the venue doesn’t excel in that sort of experience.
Those items exist to meet the minimum expectations of the guests who are not there for the primary offering of the venue – and that’s totally fine!
Classics are a fundamental part of our shared history as bartenders and certainly aren’t going anywhere. So, my friends, list them or don’t – but try and make them fucking tasty.