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Betty Crocker, Joseph Kennedy and a Red-Hot Cocktail

September 19, 2011 By: Jack Robertiello

Maybe the story is apocryphal, but it is said that Joseph Kennedy, father of some very famous politicians and a pretty well-known rich man of his day, pulled all his money out of the stock market in 1929 after a shoeshine boy gave him some tips on hot offerings. If people who weren’t experts or especially well-versed in a field were offering advice, he figured, it was time to get out.

I thought of this story last week when two bits of drink-related news appeared in my email. One was some cocktail suggestions to mark the end of this season’s “True Blood” series, provided by that well-known drink expert, Betty Crocker. The other was the announcement that Avroko, a widely respected design firm that has put its mark recently on the W Bangkok and boasts SF’s RN74 and New York’s Stanton Social, Quality Meats and the Hurricane Club among its many award-winning restaurant and hospitality designs, was launching a rye whiskey called Parole. Our old friend Betty’s drinks were good enough, though not my cup of, uh, Sangria. And Parole may turn out to be a smashing success and a perfectly fine whiskey when it finally makes it to market.

But I wondered what Joe Kennedy would have said: Although tales of his involvement in bootlegging have long been whispered, he WAS a founder of a liquor company (Somerset Importers) that eventually evolved to become the American predecessor to Moet-Hennessy LVMH. So I wonder: What sort of advice would he have offered a bartender or owner on hearing these two bits of news? Would he think they were signs of an overheated and saturated cocktail market? Would he suggest that more emphasis on beer and wine might be the way for new operations to hedge their bets against the current fascination with the many and varied ways of the cocktail? If you’re one of the older readers who remember the days when very few people drank what today would be considered a proper cocktail, you know what’s coming: Nothing lasts forever.

While it’s great to know that every major city has at least a handful of great cocktail destinations, it’s important as a beverage professional to be aware that the constant churn of trends and fashion can leave you with nothing to do but interminably wipe down the bar when the crowd moves on. Just ask the owner of the last-standing vodka bar in your town, or the guy who still offers 75 types of so-called Martinis on his menu. Bartending above all is about servicing your customers — what they want and how they want it.

Perhaps 2% of us can do things exactly the way we want and thrive; the rest of us must frequently tack to the wind if we wish to stay afloat. Ask anyone who has made Cosmos or Salty Dogs or served wine coolers for a living, and they’ll tell you the drinks always change, but what customers want never does. Perhaps the best way to prepare for the inevitable cocktail crash (may it be far, far away) is for today’s career bartenders to pay as much attention to service, attitude and pleasing the customer as they do to housemade grenadine or getting that allocated rye whiskey. When the wheel turns again, it couldn’t hurt.


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