The Balancing Act

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Cocktails – The Balancing Act
To me the first thing to recognize in making great cocktails is that balance is everything. Balance equals harmony. Or as defined by The Encarta World English Dictionary: “a state in which various elements form a satisfying and harmonious whole and nothing is out of proportion or unduly emphasized at the expense of the rest.” Great cocktails are the epitome of teamwork between the spirits, mixers and sweeteners.

When creating truly memorable cocktails, I believe that balance should be viewed as the proportion of acid to sweetness to alcoholic strength all integrated with appropriate dilution from the melted ice. When I teach my bar staffs how to create spectacular libations, I purposely make one that is low in acid and therefore taste “flabby,” or one that is too high in alcohol and therefore taste “hot” or medicinal, and one that is too high in sugar without enough acid or alcohol and therefore cloying and lastly one that is simply over or under diluted. Using the simple and classic Cosmopolitan as an example, too much vodka will cause the drink to taste hot and perhaps bitter, too much lime juice and it will taste overly acidic, too much triple sec and it will taste much too sweet. My personal martini is The Cartini a mixture of 2 oz Grey Goose Original, ½ oz Lillet Blanc, ¼ oz amontillado sherry and 4 dashes of Regan’s orange bitters. When stirred until the outside of the shaker is frosted and beaded with sweat (at least 50 turns of the spoon!) it is a sublime libation; stirred too little and it is simply a horrifically bitter pill to swallow. The appropriate stirring dilutes the drink to between 20% and 30% the perfect amount of water to integrate into the cocktail and allows it to be balanced as opposed to bitter.

When determining the balance of your drinks, it is also important to understand the style of liquors, cordials and mixers used. For example I am a particular fan of Nellie and Joe’s Organic Key Lime Juice. It is a wonderful juice but very, very acidic & with extremely concentrated lime flavor. When using it I need to use a bit less than either fresh squeezed or other bottled lime juices. To me some vodkas that are made with the addition fruits in their base spirit, tend to be a bit sweeter and obviously more fruity than those of 100% rye, potato or wheat and to my palate do not stand up well to the assertive & herbaceous flavors of vermouth in a classic martini yet they pair perfectly well in fruited or tart-sweet cocktails. Similar distinctions hold true for all categories of liquors and cordials.

I often find that cocktails I like the best are those where no one ingredient stands out above the rest but all are in equal harmony with each other. Those cocktails that I least enjoy are those where there is excessive alcohol or excessive bitterness. In future posts I will continue to discuss balance and focus on the other ingredients in the cocktail.

Next Post: Better Not Bitter

Drink Slinger or Mixologist

In Uncategorized on November 23, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I was originally going to talk about my love affair with bitters and the joy I get in all the new and interesting ones on the market.  I will save that for another post.

 I thought long and hard before writing this piece.  You see, I am not a person who generally likes to make waves.  I am not a person who likes to bicker, argue or spend an inordinate amount of my time debating in no win situations. In short, I do not generally like to fight.  Ask my wife…she is always trying to pick one with me!  However, in business, I am someone who staunchly believes in calm leadership, ardent professionalism, passing on to the next generation and most importantly…Hospitality!  That is why I am now ready to pick a fight.  I am tired of the lack of hospitality in many of the modern mixologists or speakeasy bars or lounges or what have you.  I am tired of the writers praising mixologists who only know how to mix a drink but not take care of the guest.  I am tired of the mixologist who does not know how to run their own bar.  I am bone tired of the mixologist who inflict their opinions regarding brands without having studied the product, having correct information or in essence are following the pack instead of leading it. 


What has gotten my dander up?  Recent experiences at several bars with absolutely & truly boring, inhospitable mixologists who do not know how take care of the guest and frown when doing so are what’s made me angry.  These same mixologists espouse their love of Jerry Thomas and emulate the classic recipes of his, Harry Macelhorn and the dozens of pre-prohibition barmen like them.  These founding fathers of mixology are turning over in their graves.  Why it was generous hospitality that MADE Jerry Thomas famous!  It is unfortunate that many of today’s mixologists never got to sit at the bar when Dale Degroff ran The Greatest Bar on Earth at Windows on The World, The Rainbow Room or other spots he tended.  Want to hear a joke, talk jazz, debate politics and, most importantly, get a drink made the way YOU want it with a smile.  Dale is truly the king and deservedly earns his leadership post in the spirit industry.  And frankly, there are many like him coming up in the ranks today.  I unfortunately feel some of the influencers are these inhospitable types.


I will not name names or review these establishments…I am not a reviewer and not here to hurt someone’s livelihood, but I am a professional and always on a mission keep the hospitality as strong as the cocktails.  To back up a moment my professional hospitality career spans 30+ years and to date, as an owner, operator or consultant, I have physically worked on the openings of 40 or so businesses from small bars to large hotels and everything in between.  From my first business American Pie in 1982 to today; the one overriding and common thread is hospitality.  This came to head in 1995 when I worked with Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio on the Gramercy Tavern in NY.  Today after 15 years Gramercy is still the number one rated restaurant in NY and boasts incomparable hospitality and service.  Our Tavern would serve several thousand drinks a week; each one served with a smile, a joke, a wink, a story, etc.  No airs, no attitude just creative or classic, yummy drinks made to your liking.


Attached is a cocktail menu from a place in Seattle.  Again I will not name names. Please note that on the bottom it clearly states that “substitutions are politely declined”.  I hope I am not the only person who finds that offensive.  My wife and I spent a wonderful long weekend in Seattle and enjoyed great food, great drink and in many places great hospitality.  This particular place was an experience that I have unfortunately experienced over and over in recent years.  Let me elaborate. 


We arrived to this bar/restaurant at 8:00PM on a Saturday night.  The bar was empty while the tables in the dining area were 2/3 full.  We sat down and had to ask the bartender for their cocktail list.  He never smiled or even addressed us.  Having had a cocktail before arriving and wanting some food my wife wanted a glass of wine instead.  When she asked the bartender the difference between two of the Rieslings listed his curt response was “I don’t know.  I am a cocktail guy not a wine guy!”  Hiding our shock I chose a glass for my wife.  How do you work a bar with a wonderful selection of wines by the glass and not know the product you are selling.  My drink choice was their unique version of a Manhattan.  When I informed the bartender that I preferred mine with 2 parts bourbon and 1 part sweet vermouth (a little sweeter than usual) he simply smirked with no response.  When asked to use Makers Mark for the whiskey instead of the over-proof Rye they were using + a goodly extra dash of bitters, again no response.  What was I served?…a drink that was highly alcoholic, dryer than I wanted and frankly unbalanced.  In short he made the Manhattan his way ignoring my preferences.  Despite this we decide to order some food.  Again the lack of knowledge and inability to recommend dishes clearly showed an almost totally inhospitable attitude.  Did I mention that the 12 stool bar was empty when we arrived?  After leaving at 9 it was still empty.  We proceeded on with our weekend but this experience soured my night.


The unfortunate thing is that this scene is played out over and over every day in many, many bars, clubs and lounges across the USA.  I have heard of the demise of several formerly highly regarded cocktail bars.  The usual excuses have been proffered, lease issues, tough economy, etc.  I am sorry but my belief is clear.  The lack of hospitality, choice and true-full-comprehensive-knowledge of product is what has done in these establishments.  Hospitality and competent service are the keys to success. In summation too many bartenders today think they are the rock stars of the food service industry and simply forget that the guest is.  They forget that the difference between a drink slinger and a true mixologist is hospitality.


I promise that a future post from me will highlight some of those establishments that I revere for both their hospitality and cocktails.