The Education of a Cocktail Skeptic

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[Photograph: Clay Williams]

Editor's note: It's been a few months since we last checked in with Arrogant Swine owner Tyson Ho. Today, he returns to talk about the trials and tribulations of building the cocktail menu at his Brooklyn barbecue restaurant.

Back when the Arrogant Swine was still just a kernel of an idea, I envisioned it as more than a great barbecue joint: I wanted to build a bona fide beer hall that would focus on the careful selection of excellent craft brews. When it came time to open, I hunted high and low to design a menu that would charm even the most jaded beer geeks and yet drive the casual drinker to a better appreciation of all things malt and hops. And it paid off—some of the top craft beer experts in the country have praised my list and invited me to speak about the industry.

But then there were the cocktails. As a lifelong beer lover, I'd never developed much of a taste for mixed drinks. And to be honest, I just didn't think there was all that much to them. To me, the only things that distinguished a craft mixologist at a hip downtown bar from the guy slinging Long Island Iced Teas at a suburban chain restaurant were the former's flannel, beard, and ironic tattoos.

Questions of nuance and balance just weren't on my radar—at the time, the average cocktail seemed so basic. You take one and a half ounces of a base spirit, three-quarters of an ounce of a fortified wine, two dashes of some stuff in a little bottle, and boom, mixology. With the right ingredients and the right formula, anyone, including my five-year-old daughter, could make a great drink.

So my bar-stocking strategy was simple: Since there are trendy cocktails that seem to appear on most drink menus—your Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, your Daiquiris and Negronis—we'd just get the ingredients that go into 99% of them. We wouldn't even need a cocktail menu—customers would order a range of generic classics, and my bartenders would make them. Done and done.

What I wasn't counting on was that my list of "essential" cocktails and their ingredients would look drastically different from that of my bartenders. And since I didn't know jack about cocktails, their requests looked like one obnoxiously expensive endeavor. Why did we need Cherry Heering? "For Blood and Sands," one bartender countered. Crème de violette? Aviations! But after weeks of listening to my staff whine about our limited offerings, I finally gave in and let them place a massive order for whatever they thought was missing. I figured that the bartenders would be appeased and I could go back to my happy place, hunting for great beers.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long to come to terms with one glaring problem: A whole lot of that liquor just wasn't selling.

Finding a Method to the Madness

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

And so my road to cocktail geekdom started with a dusty stockpile of excess inventory that I'd been persuaded to order, but that nobody seemed interested in drinking—a collection of esoteric bottles of gin; several cases of "rhum," a kissing cousin of rum that no one, it seemed, had ever heard of; a bunch of pricey small-batch bourbons that even my bartenders agreed tasted like crap. It didn't help sales that we were barely lifting a finger to market them in the first place.

So I ran weekly cocktail specials for $9, just to churn through the extra bourbon. We started with maple Old Fashioneds, which plowed through the inventory like an angry Mack truck. Bartenders got so sick of making maple Old Fashioneds, they couldn't look at pancakes for months afterwards. Maple, by the way, is a great way to sell subpar booze—whether you're working with piss-poor bourbon or moonshine distilled from gym sock sweat, if you toss in some maple syrup, it'll still be the most popular drink of the night.

Then I found a kooky Venezuelan variant on the college favorite rum and Coke, which incorporates lime, Angostura bitters, and a splash of gin. That took care of my rhum problem and made a dent in the gin to boot. Once we started pushing specific drinks, they started selling well. Really well, in fact. Gradually, my financial drive to get rid of that surplus inventory was replaced with a genuine appreciation for the craft of cocktails. I'm a huge history buff, and I was starting to discover a rich history and fascinating origin stories that I could actually apply to my day-to-day business.

I began poring over 19th-century cocktail manuals for inspiration. The "Harry" ghosts of past bartenders—Harry MacElhone, Harry Craddock, Harry Johnson—became objects of my veneration. I devoured books by Jim Meehan, Kazuo Uyeda, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Dave Arnold, and other modern masters of the mixed drink. I spent hours watching videos of Japanese bartenders meticulously preparing beautiful libations. The fact that I didn't have the foggiest idea what they were saying wasn't an issue—I got lost in the sight of them gracefully spinning an almost silent icy vortex with their long, trident-tipped bar spoons. I stayed up all night reading about Italian amari.

What little downtime I had was spent experimenting with new cocktails and new techniques for making them. I literally passed an entire Monday (when we're closed) with 100 pounds of ice and a pint glass, trying to teach myself how to stir a drink with the same elegant grace as those Japanese bartenders. I was determined to replicate their effortless spinning of the ice—no awkward wrist movements, no clunking of cubes. And I made all of my bartenders spend hours doing the same. Sure, we weren't going to be a big-shot New York City cocktail bar like Death & Co anytime soon, but we could sure as hell practice the craft with the dignity it deserved.

Designing a Cocktail Program

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The Jungle Bird [Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

The better we got at making cocktails, the more we started experimenting. Designing a cocktail program for a restaurant is rewarding in every single way that designing a food menu is not. If a bartender makes a drink you don't like, it only takes a minute to swap it for something else or make some adjustments to taste. If, on the other hand, a customer is served a rack of ribs he doesn't like, he'll rush to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot to whine about it on Yelp.

With cocktails, we have the freedom to experiment with infusions, syrups, and obscure spirits, without the threat of a mainstream publication taking us to task for trying something new. Aside from New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells comparing Guy Fieri's watermelon margarita to nuclear waste and radiator fluid, I have yet to encounter a reviewer who cares if your glowing orange-papaya Cosmo bombs—so long as the food is up to snuff.

Early on, I tried to add a bit of theatrics to our cocktail service. I bought decanters in which we swirled Sazeracs with pillows of hickory smoke, until it looked like a genie was about to pop out. I put the absinthe into an atomizer so that we could shoot flames of anise-scented mist over our whiskey sours. We floated a cloud of hopped grapefruit foam on a Scotch-based honey Old Fashioned.

The problem? No one cared.

The mistake I made was this: We're a barbecue joint, and a loud, dark, and busy one at that. Our customers want a whole lot of smoked meat, and something great to drink with it. So, while fancy mixology is loads of fun, we found that nobody was paying attention to the bartenders—our customers were ordering their cocktails with about as much fanfare as they would a glass of diet Coke, or a pitcher of the cheapest lager on draft. My bartenders may have wanted a more upscale cocktail program, but I doubt they'd expected me to run with it quite so far. Now they were exhausted by the sheer effort of it all, and it didn't take long for the disillusionment to set in. Much to their delight, I scrapped the grand showmanship and started looking for a better fit.

Enter the tiki cocktail.

The Tiki Gods

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[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

Tiki cocktails allow me to present my barbecue alongside its historical companion: rum. Rum and whole hog were partners long before people started associating barbecue with moonshine and whiskey. (The proximity of North Carolina to the Caribbean also explains why the favorite dessert in the state is banana pudding.) I've fallen in love with a cocktail known as the Jungle Bird, which was originally created at the Aviary Bar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It's a rich, bittersweet combination of Black Strap Molasses rum, lime, Campari, and pineapple juice, and I think it's the single coolest rum drink ever concocted. The molasses is a natural partner for barbecue, and the cocktail is currently our best seller. Plus, it lets me pay homage to my late grandmother, who lived in Malaysia.

But really, any time I throw a little-known tiki cocktail onto the menu, it'll consistently outsell every other drink. The Suffering Bastard, for instance, is a questionable hangover remedy of gin, bourbon, Angostura bitters, and ginger beer that dates back to the late 1940s. To make it a bit more interesting, I use Hendrick's gin—it has a pronounced cucumber flavor that we beef up by muddling slices of fresh cucumber into the tin before shaking. I think it's a marked improvement on the classic, so I put it on the menu as the "Insufferable Douchebag," promising that it would be the most refreshing douchebag you'd meet all day. It was our number one cocktail last summer. We couldn't get over how many people were requesting round after round of douchebags.

Old Pal

Over the last six months or so, I've come to see my newfound passion for cocktails as both a love affair and an intellectual pursuit. I admire the level of technique required to make them, and the engrossing origin stories that go along with them. And, like any other art form, cocktails can serve as a mode of expression and communication. To paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, tell me about yourself, and I'll have the perfect cocktail just for you.

Last spring, my cat developed a tumor in his tail. A visit to the vet revealed that it would need to be amputated. We set a date for surgery, but a few days later, he went missing. It wasn't unusual for him to disappear sometimes, but that week, he didn't return. We canvassed the neighborhood, and he was nowhere to be found. Growing up, I was told that a cat won't die at home; he'll run away and do it alone. After a week, it became clear that that was exactly what he'd done.

Losing him got the best of me. I berated a vendor for a minor error. I chewed out a cook for some issue I can't even recall. I felt horrible and acted accordingly. That cat was one of my oldest friends. Those rare moments when I found time to sit down and write or do paperwork at home, I'd cradle him in the crook of my elbow, his head resting on my shoulder, for hours.

"Cover for me," one of my bartenders said, as I was stewing over my loss.

Just then, a woman sat down at the bar. "Do you have a cocktail menu?" she asked. We didn't yet, so I asked her what she had in mind. "Bartender's choice!" she smiled. I gazed at the bottles behind me and settled on a spicy rye. I poured it into a mixing glass with dry vermouth and Campari, swirling the alcohol and ice into a vortex until the sides of the glass began to frost over. I strained it into a chilled coupe and served it with a twist of lemon.

"It's delicious," she said. "What is it?"

"It's called an Old Pal," I told her.

"What made you choose this one?" she asked.

"A dear friend of mine had to leave town early, and I wanted to grab one last drink with him. This is for him."

"I'm sure he would have loved it," she said.