Earlier this year at the Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, I led a panel on carbonating cocktails - and by led, I mean I got to ask some folks very experienced in carbonating cocktails about the hows and whys and whats. The audience, a full room of bartenders and bar and nightclub operators, had lots of questions, but the most important one didn’t get asked. That one is: “Why should I do this?”
Chez Papa's Adam Chapman using his Perlini carbonated cocktail shaker. Photo: The Chronicle
It’s the most important question, and it’s one any operator needs to apply when thinking about every trend and fad that passes by. I was reminded of that last week when I attended the Chivas Regal Masters international bartender competition finals, in which 13 bartenders from around the world were put through the wringer over a tough two days of shaking and stirring. The competition included coming up with milk-based drinks and pairing cocktails with food, but the most challenging stage seemed to be the carbonation round. Carbonating any drink alters the flavor, aroma and potency mix in ways most bartenders aren’t used to managing, and when you throw in the tannin inherent in any blended Scotch whisky, you’ve got a whole mess of concerns to balance. That’s of course why the round was made so important, since the folks at Chivas wanted to set the bar very high for their ultimate winner, New York City bartender Masahiro Urushido.
But as I sampled the competitors’ various attempts to create an outstanding carbonated Scotch cocktail (some after having their first exposure to pressuring drinks in this manner), I thought: “Why should anyone do this?” I mean outside of a competition, of course, because upgrading one’s skill set and learning what each trend and innovation offers is valuable, if just for the experience. I was thinking about how these drinks, a few of them quite good, were mostly novelties and not anything that would have broad appeal for most consumers or operators, if for no other reason than they were a whole lot of work.
Other complicated trends have shown longevity and value, making even the corner tavern owner awaken to the fact that good shaking technique and very cold ice, to take two basics, are essential to quality cocktail making and serving. Other trends have a narrower appeal, but offer tweaks that any bar can adapt - not many operators want to add a dozen punch bowls to their array of equipment, but the lessons of pre-batching drinks for bulk service are important for any bartender working today.
So learn all you can, about carbonating cocktails or tap programs, making oleo-saccharum or herb and fruit syrups, or any other technique currently discussed more than actually practiced. But if the answer to the question, “Why should I do this?” when you’re thinking about adding something novel to your bar program, is: “Because I like it and it’s cool,” then maybe you ought to ask some more practical questions as well. Like “How can this make me more profitable?” and “How will my guests like this?” and “How can I attract more customers with this?” Great bars fail all the time, sometimes because their owners and operators didn’t ask - or answer - the right questions, no matter how good their drinks were. Being cool is good; staying in business is better.