I have added a new page to the website hinting at why professional bar-tenders and industry leaders should attend Elemental Mixology courses.
I often chuckle while witnessing bar-tenders today mimicking advances in drink-making that were revolutionary in 1855 – and thinking them to be new.
One example is as using sugar syrup (instead of dry sugar) in true cocktails and stirring them cold through plenty of ice.
Today, bar-tenders imagine that applying the above methods to the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail improves it. They are right – but the improvement was already done within a few years of 1855. It was then that method for making the Whiskey Cocktail were changed to take advantage of pure water and ice suddenly becoming cheap and plentiful, allowing for simple syrup to be cheap and plenty of ice to be available for stirring with and straining from.
Modern bar-tenders, you’re almost there. All you have to do now to catch up with 1855 is to strain your Whiskey Cocktail just as you would a Manhattan Cocktail – and, for the same reasons.
Of course, if you don’t know the traditional meaning of the word cocktail, you probably are a little lost here. Come take my classes.
Suffice it to say that once the Whiskey Cocktail was made with sugar syrup and stirred with ice and strained into a goblet for a perfectly cold drink that would never get further diluted, the older, inferior way of making the Whiskey Cocktail produced the drink that after 1855 was called the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.
Yes, I am saying the the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail (probably just “Old Fashioned” to some benighted readers) is inferior to the Whiskey Cocktail. Between 1860 and 1900, the Whiskey Cocktail, made the modern way and strained and served without any ice, was one of the most commonly-served drink in American bars. It was served more commonly during those forty years than the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail. What a shame that the inferior of the two is the only one that is easy to obtain in our own time.
Now modern bar-tenders are making the Whiskey Cocktail almost as good as it was in 1855 (if only they would stop serving it on ice) and imagining that this is something new and the product of sensitive consideration. It is laughable.
Likewise devoid of any traditional knowledge is the imagining that there is something new – down to giving it a new typological name – to the so-called Lift.
Truth be told, this type of drink goes at least as far back as 1883. An American bar-tender from then would look at the so-called Bourbon Lift and recognize it to be an especially-fancy reworking of the Bourbon Puff. If had I been the bar-tender that created it, I would have made clear through naming it that I understood American mixological tradition and history enough to call if a Puff – instead of making up a new name that suggests ignorance of tradition. I also would have understood it to be far too fancy to just call it the Bourbon Puff. I might have called it the Special Bourbon Puff or maybe the Bohemian Cowboy Puff. But a plain name for a fancy drink, combined with an obvious ignorance of American drink types (a consequence of the grasping overuse of ‘cocktail’), shrouds the publication of a very good drink in the mists of ignorance.
It only just came to my attention that back in October, L.A. Weekly magazine chose Robin Jackson, an Elemental Mixology alumna (of an early 2014 Standard Mixing Course), as Los Angeles’ best bartender.
Everyone should go into Oldfield’s Liquor Room over in West Los Angeles and have Robin make you something good to drink!
I sometimes get inquiries from bar-tenders as to whether they would actually learn anything from an Elemental Mixology Course.
The answer is always, “Yes.” It would be a resounding ‘yes’ even if the bar-tender asking were Eric Alperin, Matthew Biancaniello, Julian Cox, Aidan Demarest, Vincenzo Marianella, etc.
In fact, I would give any of the bar-tenders I mentioned a money-back guarantee to take either the Standard Mixing Course or the Master Mixing Course. If they could look me in the eye at the end of the course and tell me that they had not leaned plenty, I would be happy to refund them.
Well, we know that won’t happen. But, what about the less-famous bar-tender that isn’t sure whether there is really that much to learn?
I have set up a Traditional American Mixology Quiz. Anyone who scores a perfect 100 percent on the quiz might already be familiar enough with traditional, pre-prohibition, American mixology that they would be wasting their time and money at Elemental Mixology. Everyone else would have their understanding-and-making of mixed drinks revolutionized and impassioned by the course.
Find out if that includes you. Take the twenty-question Elemental Mixology Traditional American Mixology Quiz!
I am routinely asked where one can get drinks like those made in Elemental Mixology Courses.
This might not answer that question exactly, but I have posted a list of bars (or restaurants with bars) where Elemental Mixology alumni or friends make drinks or manage.
If you are an alumni or friend of Elemental Mixology and I have neglected to include you in the list, send me an e-mail message making your case to: email@example.com
Until the Volstead act, and for some time after, the standard serving of liquor per order was the jigger, or two fluid-ounces. If the liquor were to be made into a mixed drink, it was still made of a jigger of liquor. If there were more than one liquor in the drink, the total would still be a jigger. That meant that the cocktail goblet below would hold both the Brandy Cocktail and the Dundorado Cocktail (or Manhattan, Martini, etc.) to virtually the same fill point — the volume of which it was designed for.
Other types of drinks require other types of glassware, but can be found in standardized volume per type of drink. Maintaining the jigger as total lets any individual drink within the same type fit the appropriate vessel.
The jigger is why American bar-tenders of yore never bothered with trying to remember sets of willy-nilly amounts for liquor in drinks. They spent more mental energy on everything else going on in a drink. This is why they were more aware of what to do with two fluid-ounces of liquor to get the desired character for any particular type of drink.
If splitting the jigger into two equal parts (of one fluid-ounce each) did not satisfy the taste of the customer, other splits of the jigger could be used.
Anyone who can’t find a satisfying multiple-liquor proportion within two fluid-ounces [60 ml.] is just being dull-witted.
Why not teach bar-tenders the tradition that a drink shall contain two fluid-ounces of total liquor, and that they should proportion multiple liquors according to the type of drink and the presence of other types of ingredients, rather than hand them a couple of dozen recipes and ask them to memorize them? The total amount of whiskey and vermouth wine in a Manhattan Cocktail should be two-fluid-ounces , and where within the jigger one draws that line is like done-ness in steak — a matter of preference.
Why not encourage bar-tenders to become intimate with actual mixology? The traditional approach of a jigger of total liquor per drink makes that a lot easier to focus on different types of drinks rather than memorizing their recipes.
Why give me a large Manhattan Cocktail for $17 with so much liquor in it that it strains the work of the bitters? Why give me a large Manhattan Cocktail for $17 that will get warm before I can finish it? Why not give me a traditionally-sized Manhattan Cocktail for $10 that will stay cold long enough for me to finish it — and leave me willing and able to try more drinks per visit?
Is everyone so hidebound to post-prohibition practices that they cannot see the good business sense in this?
Come on — get the right glassware, make drinks the traditional way, let your bar-tenders learn the old drink intimacy, and make more money by selling more drinks per customer visit.
P.S. Below are all the measures anyone would ever need to split the jigger all the way down to twelfths, or more. In addition to the exact-tool splits below, many others can be achieved. For example, to get a 7:1 split, measure 1/4 pony of a modifying liquor using the 3:1 split pony and pour it from that into the full-sized jigger, and then fill the rest of the jigger with a base liquor. The possibilities are almost endless.
In his passage above, Boothby is referring to the fact that the bitters in a cocktail will mitigate the sensation of the fumatic harshness of alcohol, and that the desired nature of a true cocktail is that it should strike the palate as little more than a tamed version of the alcoholic product(s) it is made from. This is actual mixology in a way that memorizing a few dozen recipes for so-called ‘classic cocktails’ never will be. The true cocktail was just one type of the many types of mixed drinks intimately understood by American bar-tenders and drinkers of yore.
Boothby probably had no inkling that people would ever mis-read cocktail for mixed drink in his passage, but, the word has gathered a lot of cultural baggage since then.
We can see that, like the TWA menu he encountered, even Fussell was prone to forget himself. He suggests that the impulse toward fake elegance would cause the middle class to say, “Let’s discuss it over drinks.” He seems to have failed to think fully in the fake-elegant way of the middle-class and has forgotten to abandon drink in favor of cocktail – even though that is exactly the conversion he suggests in the first passage. The more completely fake-elegant saying would be: “Let’s discuss it over cocktails.”
Think of this when, after pointing out that a drink is not a cocktail according to traditional mixology, you are told by some bar creature: “Cocktails have changed.”
True cocktails still exist in the original mixological sense. They include the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, the Sazerac (or Zazarack) Cocktail, and, since there is sugar in vermouth wine, the Camparinete (a.k.a. Negroni) Cocktail or the Manhattan Cocktail.
It’s not that cocktails have changed so much as that fake elegance has taken up the word cocktail – and has made it almost meaningless.
If julep had been the drink-word taken up by middle-class fake elegance, we would today have julep napkins, julep dresses, julep waitresses, julep specialists, julep books, julep parties, Tales of the Julep, craft juleps, julep bars, julep culture, the julep renaissance and the Museum of the American Julep. Yes, that is how ridiculous all of those phrases sound to me with the word cocktail in them instead.
Several years ago, in an online forum, someone indicated to me that, while he understood the original mixological meaning of the word cocktail, he saw no problem with using it to mean mixed drink. He then added, “But, Martini is a whole nuther thing [sic].” To that, my good friend and bar-tender Greg Bryson exclaimed, “It’s exactly the same thing!”
The bar creature on the forum probably didn’t realize that he was only making a distinction in the lexicon of fake elegance rather than in mixology. In some circles, it seems that the word cocktail can be used with empty, fake elegance, but not the word Martini.
It really can’t be denied that a bar-tender who knows better but still clings to the willy-nilly use of the word cocktail for drinks such as the Whiskey Sour, the Sidecar and endless others (as well as everything related to mixed drinks) is doing nothing more than maintaining fake elegance — and the vocabulary thereof.
I am invariably asked by someone in each of my drinks courses which bars I am satisfied with drinking at. I sometimes infer that the person asking fears that they will not be able to enjoy their regular bars anymore after having taken the course.
I am a culinary school graduate. I know a little something about cooking fine food. But, the restaurant I most often go to is Pann’s restaurant, a family-run diner. I take my toddler son there. They bring him a coloring sheet and crayons. He has scrambled eggs and a sausage patty. I have an omelette. We have the sort of good time that makes life more pleasurable. It would be lamentable if all diners became haute cuisine restaurants. Of course, such a thing is not possible — and I am glad of it.
Imagine the social crime it would be if every neighborhood dive bar were transformed into a so-called ‘speakeasy’ or ‘mixology’ bar — proud of their hand-cut ice and in-house whiskey from their own, unique barrel. I don’t mean to imply that such places should not exist. They should. But there are many different models of business and culture for bars. There are also many different ways of enjoying being at a bar. Someone finding themselves to be the only person not having a good time in a crowded bar should consider that something related to themselves is probably the cause. It could simply be a bad day. It might be their own preciousness or pretense.
So, my answer to the question that I started this article with is that I try to find a way to have a good time in any bar that I find myself in. At least one thing is as true of financially-advantaged, young sophisticates as it is of grizzled, old ‘winos’ — they usually go into a bar in hope of having a better time than if they drank alone. Perhaps the bar I find myself in uses ‘sour mix’ and soft-drinks from ‘the gun’ in all their mixed drinks. That’s alright — I look for some liquor that I will be happy to drink ‘neat.’ If I can’t even find that, I will resort to beer. I look around. I try to get into the spirit of the place — or maybe just determine to enjoy the spectacle of it. I might take this as far as to ask the bar-tender for a bottle of their best-selling (not-necessarily their best) bottled beer.
All of the above is true and I will not take back a word of it. But, when it comes time to teach my courses or write about the art of mixing drinks, my feeling is very different. I believe that if someone wants to do anything with excellence, and there is (or was) a well-developed tradition around doing that thing, it will be advantageous for that person to acquaint themselves with that tradition. Why repeat all of the trial and error of the generations that wove the tradition? Save your trials and errors for accomplishing new things! Once the tradition and its principles are understood, one may decide either to follow, or not, any part of the tradition with reason (hopefully) rather than ignorance. That is why I teach mixology according to the American tradition that developed for at least two centuries before prohibition in 1920. When my mixological teaching varies in even the slightest way (that I am aware of) from that tradition, I always try to point out what that point of the variance is, and why I vary from tradition in it.
The biggest difficulty in learning the old tradition of American mixology is that it completely died out. Prohibition and the speakeasy (and the new type of customer that found bars appealing only after they were illegal) decimated the old American tradition of mixology. It was then completely erased by the masses of people not-trained in the old tradition that were hired almost all at once as bar-tenders for post-repeal service. There was no living succession of bar-tenders following that old tradition into our time. All living people who have ever tended bar professionally, including myself, first learned about making drinks from people who learned it from people who learned it from people, and so-on, back to those masses of post-repeal bar-tenders. As for the old mixology, all that we have is the written tip of the iceberg of that once-living tradition. We have their books.
In some circles, it has become fashionable, or otherwise desirable, to seek out that old tradition. But because the seekers can have only post-repeal mixology as their formative experience, always understanding what is to be read in a pre-1910 drink book can be difficult in ways not even apparent to them. I could point out an endless parade of the contemporary results of this phenomenon (such as one notable program’s silly drink names “Old-fashioned Old-fashioned” and “New-fashioned Old-fashioned” — more traditionally named the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail and the Barney Cocktail). But the examples are so many, and so ubiquitous, that I wouldn’t really know where to begin. I will begin with an earlier example, the translation of a text from the older, American mixological tradition into a couple of books by an author in the 1930’s who clearly mis-understood and mis-read his source material at many points.
At some time during prohibition, Albert Stevens Crockett came to be in possession of a book of mixed drinks compiled by Joseph Taylor while working as a bar-tender at the Waldorf Hotel bar. Taylor worked there from 1894 until prohibition went into effect in 1920. Crockett seems to have mostly intended to write about life in the Waldorf Hotel bar before prohibition. It was probably as part of his research that he came to hold Taylor’s book. He decided to include the recipes in his own book, Old Waldorf Bar Days, published in 1931, while prohibition was still in effect.
It certainly didn’t help Crockett that the recipes were in Taylor’s hand-writing, and undoubtedly in a brevity intended to be understood by himself and his fellow Waldorf bar-tenders. Crockett would have yet been able to understand the original intent of Taylor’s instructions if he had been familiar with the mixology of Taylor’s time. But, he wasn’t. Crockett probably had his first experience of mixed drinks in speakeasies during prohibition. That explains his seeming amazement at the large number of types of mixed drinks that the recipes were presented in. He states that he asked a number of his friends, “how many kinds of mixed drinks would you say there are?” He indicates that no one he asked got anywhere near the right answer. Even Crockett was apparently overwhelmed. He acknowledges that in his representation of Taylor’s recipes, “they have been decoded, rearranged and more or less classified.” It is important to understand that he did all of his decoding, rearranging and classifying according to his own, 1930’s, understanding of mixed drinks — most of which he, of course, considered ‘cocktails’ in a very loose sense.
Joseph Taylor (a.k.a. Dan the Barboy) began learning his profession in the 1890’s. He was intimately familiar with the cocktail simply as one specific type of mixed drink. He had no reason when he wrote his recipes for true cocktails to suspect that a wider audience not familiar at all with the traditional cocktail would be ever be reading the recipes. He surely wrote in some sort of shorthand that would make sense to anyone else with a similar education of, and experience in, mixed drinks. In that circle, in that time, a simple cocktail was understood to be a jigger (2 fl-oz.) of liquor with some bitters and gum syrup, stirred through ice to chill and dilute, and then strained into a goblet and probably garnished with a twisted strip of lemon zest. If the old-fashioned method of making the cocktail were preferred, a lump of dry sugar would be started with, from which cocktail water would be compounded by dissolving it with the bitters and a little water before the ice and liquor would be added. For the former, strained version, I am very confident that Taylor did not write out “gum syrup.” I am nearly certain the he just wrote the word “gum.” Here is why:
This is the entry in the over-crammed section of recipes that Crockett calls ‘cocktails’ in his 1931 book, Old Waldorf Bar Days. This drink is supposed to be the Brandy Cocktail — a true cocktail in this case. But, to traditional, American mixology, the above recipe makes no sense. That is until one sees the recipe in many books actually published for wider audience before prohibition. Here are some examples from contemporaries of Joseph Taylor:
They all have the bitters and the brandy, but instead of a dash of gin, they have dashes of gum syrup or ‘plain’ syrup. It is clearly evident that Taylor wrote by hand, “One dash gum” never imagining that ‘gum’ would ever be confused by bar-men with anything other than ‘gum syrup.’ Note that though Taylor uses only half the amount of gum syrup in his Brandy Cocktail when compared to the others, the balance between the bitters and gum syrup remains the same in all of the above recipes — one dash gum syrup per dash of bitters.
It is evident that Taylor’s assumption of ‘gum’ for ‘gum syrup’ went right over Crockett’s head — aided perhaps by poor penmanship and old, worn, stained pages. Crockett believed that the word on the page was ‘gin’ and forever preserved it with that mis-reading.
There is one happy conclusion here. We do not have Taylor’s original book. Perhaps Crockett’s descendants may still possess it, neglected and falling apart, far from access by others, but it probably is long gone. Since Taylor’s original text is not available, it has been considered possible that Crockett composed the recipes himself for his 1931 book. I consider Crockett’s mistakes of translation and transcription throughout the book to be conclusive evidence that he actually had the book that he said he had. It is hard to imagine him understanding the old mixology enough to get things almost right, but then make intentional and glaring errors that would suggest nothing more than his own ignorance.
Another example of this sort of thing is the drink that Crockett calls the “Columbia Skill.” The same drink is found in many pre-prohibition drink books under the name “Columbia Skin.” I believe that Crockett just didn’t see that the two upright strokes in the letter ‘n’ were connected in Taylor’s handwriting and mistook it for a double-letter-l. Unfortunately, Crockett seems to have dragged Johnny Solon, also a former bar-man at the Waldorf, into the morass of his confusion. Crockett states that he asked Solon for explanations of some of the drink names he found in Taylor’s book. He gives an explanation related to the skill of the Columbia rowing team that he says he got from Solon. I can only imagine that the aging Solon, probably happy and proud to be consulted, gave what he thought to be the most sensible answer in this case when presented with Crockett’s mistaken drink name. How many bar-tenders like admitting that there is something they do not know — especially in connection with a famous bar they worked at? The fact is that the supposed ‘Columbia Skill’ is the same as the widely-published Columbia Skin, and that Crockett’s ‘Columbia Skill’ name for it never appeared anywhere before his own book.
I assume that some old bar-tenders who had been taught before 1910 were still alive in 1931. I do not know why none of them ever corrected Crockett for his mistakes that would have been obvious to them. Perhaps most of them had moved on in life and weren’t really interested in reading all the latest books on drink. Perhaps most people fail to read with a truly critical eye. Perhaps few people are interested in going about correcting strangers’ books.
I want to plainly state that I believe Crockett intended nothing more than to faithfully transmit Taylor’s book into terms that lay-people of his own time would understand. He only seems to have distorted that text where he thought he already understood what it was saying to him. Conversely, there are instances where he preserves bits of information that he surely had no context for understanding. Such is the case where he leaves Taylor’s instruction of “no bitters” in some of the recipes. Though he did remove the “no bitters” instruction from all but one of the recipes for his 1935 book, The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, he seems to have left them all in in his earlier, 1931 book. To Crockett, in the 1930’s, a recipe stating “no bitters’ would have meant the same thing as a recipe that did not mention bitters at all. That is because the word ‘cocktail’ had a lot less specific meaning to him. But, as I have stated, to Taylor, a cocktail was a specific type of drink that followed a common form. One of the aspects of that form was the inclusion of bitters. Taylor apparently had recipes for drinks in the cocktails section of his book that were exactly like true cocktails, except that they were meant to contain no bitters. It would make sense that Taylor would want to ward off the inclusion of bitters in drinks that were cocktails in every other way. Here are those drinks from the 1931 book:
All but the Thanksgiving would have the “no bitters” instruction removed from them for Crockett’s 1935 book. Luckily, I have a copy of his 1931 book.
Looking at this with understanding, one might even suspect that there were recipes in the cocktails section of Taylor’s book that indicated no specific bitters, but that would have a choice of bitters added by the bar-tender, anyway. For that reason, I have often added bitters (with a disclaimer, of course) to otherwise-cocktail-like recipes in my own book that I have taken from the Taylor/Crockett material (according to the 1931 book) where there is no instruction of “no bitters.”
Other glaring errors that Crockett makes include confusing dashes of gum for dashes of gin in other recipes and mistakenly creating a “Bishop Poker” cocktail out of the Bishop Potter Cocktail, and so on.
I will stop picking on Crockett here. I am sure that his intentions were honest — but he did clearly distort the original text in many places.
I will finish this with one of my favorite examples of how the modern eye can easily mis-read the old tradition. In his 1908 book, The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, William Boothby bothered to describe, a little, the nature and desired characteristics of the true cocktail. Most pre-prohibition drink sources fail to do such — probably because they considered it very basic information. If the traditions dies, such assumed-but-unwritten data often becomes the submerged mass of the iceberg that later generations never see. Here is one sentence from Boothby’s description:
How easy it is for modern readers to mis-understand that sentence. Believing that the word ‘cocktail’ means only ‘mixed drink,’ they assume that the meaning is nothing more than that by mixing liquor with other things, the liquor will seem less harsh. But that is not what Boothby meant at all. Then nature of a true cocktail is supposed to be very close to that of the liquor itself, having only been slightly diluted and sweetened, and with the inclusion of bitters, the aroma of which blocks the olfactory system from noticing the harshness of the ethanol. Before the word ‘cocktail’ referred to this type of drink, it was used to describe horses that, while being of mixed breeding, performed almost as well as thoroughbred or purebred horses. The true cocktail is similar, and may have been named such, in that it performs and seems to be mostly like the thoroughbred or purebred liquor it is made of — only a bit sweeter and without the burn of the alcohol. That is what Boothby was writing about, as is made clear by the rest of the passage.
His books contain many punches and other sorts of drinks that are not cocktails that contain exactly the sort of ingredients that he frowns upon in true cocktails. In the above passage, know that he isn’t talking about all those other kinds of drinks — even though they be called cocktails today.
The ease with which moderns can look at texts from the period of classic, American mixology and mis-read (or ignore) important truths is probably a contributing factor to the reality that makes me answer, “Almost none,” when a student asks me which bars today can be relied upon to faithfully follow the old tradition. A very few bars have captured worthwhile facets of the old tradition, and can employ them without pretense. I enjoy them. Many more hock their hooch under the bold suggestion that they serve drinks according to some ‘correct,’ ‘old’ way. Some are sincerely trying — but without beginning to understand their ignorance.
This brings me to the one type of bar that I have trouble having a good time in. Any bar that promises me old tradition, but leaves me wondering whether pretense or ignorance (or both) is the cause of the shortfall, is nothing but a frustration to me. I don’t patronize “bar creatures” unless I am professionally bound to. I would rather go have a bottle of beer at a dive bar.
Happy Repeal Day, everyone — I suppose. It’s nice to be trusted to make one’s own decisions about at least one or two drugs. It must be acknowledged that the repeal of prohibition was the final nail in the coffin of pre-prohibitioin mixology. No bartenders had been trained in the old, apprenticeship-style for the better part of 15 years when prohibition was repealed. Countless restaurants, hotels and saloons wanted bartenders immediately to capitalize on the spectre of alcohol-fueled profit. Tens of thousands of unexperienced, tradition-lacking bartenders (maybe more than 100,000) being hired from one day to the next in December of 1933 was the moment that the old American mixology died. It was replaced that day with the call-them-all-cocktails-and-list-them-alphabetically phenomenon to be memorized by amateurs, many of whom undoubtedly thought they were only tending bar until the better thing they were hoping for came to fruition. Welcome to modern American bar-tending. I don’t celebrate this day, really. The day that the plug is finally pulled on a brain-dead loved-one, allowing life to get back to ‘normal’ for everyone else is not really a time to celebrate.