Cocktail creativity is generally a good thing, especially for the constant drinker, though there are limits to what each individual beverage can achieve. Many cocktails today seem too ambitious, as if the creator has been trying to cram all of drink history into one small chilled glass.
Working with savory ingredients, for instance, requires a mindful hand that doesn’t turn what should simply be appetizing into a full-bore appetizer – I’m thinking of cocktails strewn with meat or seafood in particular, but in general mean to point out that the sharp edges of a 6 pm drink has some purpose beyond quenching your thirst and tickling your liver. Also, there are some things that ought not or no longer need be done.
When good bitters were hard to source, numerous bartenders made their own, to varying degrees of success. Now that a half dozen or more quality brands with multiple flavors are widely distributed, only the most rarified, unique and complex need be house-made. Some other things ought not to be done simply because they can. Which brings me to a drink I spied recently on a menu that made me shake my head. It was, as you might expect, barrel-aged, an experiment I won’t miss when it disappears, not because the concept is poor, but because I prefer to let the Scots, Irish and Kentuckians do the wood work for me and not the bartender.
In this case there was a particularly egregious component to the trend - the main ingredient in the drink was a white whiskey, an American spirit pulled straight from the still and denied the cozy years of warehouse rest, oak education and final mingling with its brothers so that it can emerge as a well-rounded, fully-developed and finely-matured spirit, made by folks who know their spirit and their wood.
Instead, white dog is sent out into the world pale, naked and dumb, and inevitably ends up in the hands of bartenders who have been the primary movers behind the mini-bump in white whiskey sales. I know that some of the cocktail barrelers with the best reputations have been putting white whiskey cocktails into wood, and, knowing them, I’m sure the resulting drinks are interesting, if not destined to be among my favorites. But to me, using the best ingredients for cocktails means starting off with a real, live whiskey, and there’s no single white dog that even the most casual malt lover would put in the top 75 best whiskies. Oh, you say it should be judged compared with other white spirits instead? Hmmm – still loses to any good gin, rum and tequila.
Better than vodka, you say? Well, maybe if you like your spirit to smell of popcorn, socks, nail polish and aldehyde, sure. How about this - if you want a challenge as a bartender, try making a good drink out of blended American whiskey – now there’s a project worth tackling. Oh, you say those spirits aren’t good enough? Well, the day I walk into a malt bar and see glass after glass of white dog being sipped, then I’ll agree that unaged whiskey is more than a cul-de-sac on the spirit map, more than an oddity that the accountants in Kentucky and at small distilleries are happy to offer but whose popularity puzzles the country’s best distillers and blenders. But meanwhile, keep that dog on a tight leash, bartenders.