About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.
What I'm Drinking: Harpoon IPA (half-pint) and Tapatio Tequila (two cubes)
An old friend stopped by the bar last week and, in the course of catching up, our conversation turned to new bars that were opening in New York and beyond. I work in bars, which means I don't get to actually go to new ones nearly as often as I would like, but my friend—a world traveler and inveterate barfly—is under no such constraints.
After regaling me with stories of new bars he had visited around the planet, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "This 'mixology' thing, Michael. Wouldn't you say it has pretty much run its course?" A shocking question to someone who makes his living shaking cocktails every day.
Is mixology dead? Have we, the suspendered and mustachioed mixologists of the world turned off the imbibing public with our bone luges and barrel-aged Manhattans? Have we become so enamored with our own brilliance that we have alienated the people who ultimately pay our bills?
The response I offered was a qualified no, though I understand the motivation behind my friend's question. While veteran bartenders understand that "mixology" is a fraction of the job that a bartender is expected to perform, the media and our own training have come together to make that aspect seem more important than all of the others.
I am writing this on the verge of Tales of the Cocktail, an annual event where mixologists and bartenders from around the globe gather in New Orleans to reaffirm for each other how great we all are. For those of us in the business, Tales is a great opportunity to network, learn new things, promote ourselves and our bars, and to generally bask in the collective glory of some of the best bartenders on the planet converging on a city famous as the birthplace of the cocktail. For much of the general public, however, events like this are manifestations of the hubris creeping through our industry.
"The original crop of modern speakeasies in New York are generally great joints, but those that copied them often took away the wrong lesson."
For many people, this hubris is what cocktails have become, so "mixology" is indeed dying, at least as it is represented by "speakeasies" staffed by judgmental mixologists who care more about their ice program than the clientele who they are meant to serve. Many of these people learned their trade in copycat bars that followed famous cocktail dens like Angel's Share and Milk & Honey, which were instrumental in bringing cocktails back in to the public imagination. The original crop of modern speakeasies in New York are generally great joints, but those that copied them often took away the wrong lessons, mistaking the original intention (a quest for a quality cocktail experience) with a culture of elitism.
It is that elitism that turns people off, and that aspect of what the drinking public understand to be mixology that should die. I was in a fancy cocktail bar not long ago, and the bartender made a show of pouring Belvedere vodka on to a napkin and cleaning his eyeglasses with it. He quipped to his friend, "This is the only thing vodka is good for." Oh, yeah? If he weren't so impressed by his own punchline, this young bartender might realize that another use of vodka is to fund the fancy cocktail programs that allow most of us to pursue our craft in the first place.
Our industry is tolerating snobbery where it doesn't belong. If your principles against vodka are so unbreachable, stay home and make Negronis for your friends. Snide comments about what people drink spoil the pool for those of us who are more concerned about being bartenders than playing make-believe with Japanese bar tools and bottles of house-made bitters.
Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas, two of the brilliant team behind New York's Employees Only, describe the role of a bartender as part teacher, part showman, and part mixologist, and I have found that to be true throughout my own career. Bartenders make cocktails, and the best of these are served in bars. You can't separate the experience of drinking a cocktail from the environment in which it is enjoyed. In the same sense, you can't split a bartender down the middle to isolate the mixologist within.
This is why I told my friend that mixology is not dead, because bartending is not dead. That said, it pays to remember that, while a good cocktail is an essential part of what makes a good bar, is it only a part.