If you only had one opportunity to pass on three pieces of advice to a rookie bartender about making cocktails, what would they be? In other words, based on your experience, what are the three most important things an up-and-coming bartender must know about the fine art of crafting cocktails?
Those are the questions I posed to the country’s leading beverage experts. The roster includes noted authors, trade writers, national operators, general managers, consultants and master mixologists. Each of the interviewees has at one point in their lives relied on bartending as their livelihood and is now an impassioned advocate of the profession.
The most appropriate, all-encompassing piece of advice was offered by Dale DeGroff, the author of "The Craft of the Cocktail" and the man most often credited with the resurgence of the cocktail. “My advice is not to waste your time with second-rate bartending. By that I mean taking shortcuts, all of which are telling in the finished drinks. Great cocktails are made with the freshest and best ingredients, employing the right techniques and according to prescribed recipes, whatever they may be. That’s the big picture, that’s the goal.”
Our experts best pieces of advice on attaining mixology excellence are contained herein. What advice do the pros have on the art of making cocktails? Be prepared rookies, many of their answers may well surprise you.
• Study the classics. A working familiarity of the classic cocktail recipes constitutes the beginning of a bartender’s transformation into a mixologist. These timeless formulations represent the finest taste combinations of the last century or so.
“A pro behind the bar must know the classics, not just Margaritas, but Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, Sidecars, Negronis and other venerable cocktails that we loosely refer to as the classics,” says veteran beverage authority Jack Robertiello. “You may not be asked to prepare them often, but the value is in the knowing and in understanding the basics on which nearly all other cocktails are based.”
Adam Seger, general manager of Chicago’s Nacional 27, adds that mixologists need to appreciate why these classic cocktails work. “It’s this level of understanding that leads to creative excellence. Mixologists need to think in terms of flavor profile and balance. There are creative lines and patterns that need to be understood. For instance, the Margarita essentially works for the same reasons the Sidecar does.”
• Never serve an inferior drink. One of the pieces of advice most frequently proffered dealt with the concept of quality above all else. “Guest satisfaction is attained one drink at a time,” says Julie Mulisano, general manager of The Refectory Restaurant & Bistro in Columbus, Ohio. “Therefore, how can you risk serving anything that’s not of the highest quality? Guests naturally presume that if you’re cutting corners in the front of the house, you are doing so in the back as well.”
Gary Regan, the acknowledged guru of enhanced drink making and author of the seminal work "Joy of Mixology," is an outspoken advocate for making drinks using only the freshest, highest-quality ingredients. “Maintaining uncompromising standards is how great cocktails are made. It was the cache of professionalism a hundred years ago, and it remains that way today.”
Succeeding with a “quality-above-all-else” strategy is born out by the numbers, says Mike Ginley, a leading on-premise marketing consultant. “Research shows that 80% of consumers believe that premium spirits make better drinks. What’s more, consumers expect to pay more for better drinks made with premium brands. So think of the guest and mix with the best.”
Ginley points out to bartenders that offering guests suggestions on premium brands for their cocktails is the height of conscientious service. The guests’ drinks are guaranteed to taste better and the house makes out better financially.
• Follow recipes with precision. Seasoned bartender Tim Kirkland, manager of beverage development for the Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery chain, contends that strict adherence to recipes is one of the immutable tenets of mixology. “Devising a delicious, precisely balanced cocktail from scratch is challenging. By the time a drink recipe becomes part of the lexicon of the business, bartenders can presume that it has withstood its trial by fire. Do your guests a favor, don’t deviate from the recipe.”
Janos Wilder, chef/owner of Janos restaurant and the J Bar in Tucson, Ariz., firmly agrees. “There’s a certain sanctity in cocktail recipes. They represent a singular balancing of ingredients and should be followed exactly until they are completely ingrained in your muscle memory. Accuracy is more important than speed or show.”
• Taste everything. “Bartenders are far too accepting of marketing nonsense in place of education. It’s just like wine; if you want to understand it, taste it,” advises Doug Frost, master sommelier, author and educator. “Here’s one example: There are many people in this industry opposed to using freshly squeezed juices behind the bar, that is until they taste a drink made from fresh juice against one made with a mix. Anybody can smell and taste the difference. You have to taste your drinks if you expect them to taste great. Then it becomes obvious that great drinks require fresh, quality ingredients.”
Writer Anistatia Miller also urges bartenders to learn how drinks taste. “Don’t just follow a recipe out of a book — learn why a particular cocktail works. Analyze the balance of flavors. Learn to appreciate the difference between a 2:1 Martini and 3:1 Martini. That’s how you begin to gain mastery of the process.”
DeGroff takes it one step further. “I think bartenders should taste everything behind the bar — spirits, wines, beers, sake, sochu, cocktail recipes. If they come across five recipes for the same cocktail, taste them all. This is a profession that deals in potable beverages and slowly over time a good beverage professional should become the master of them all.”
• Know your products. “If you aren’t familiar and knowledgeable with the ingredients behind the bar, you can’t hope to be able to make good drinks,” Regan states.
Robertiello adds, “Not only do bartenders need to know the ingredients, they should expect the learning process to continue, and they should be ready to teach themselves and refine their knowledge as much as possible as they go along. That means finding out enough about each spirit category so that if a customer asks, they don’t end up giving an insouciant shrug and walking away.”
• Adopt the profession. Professionalism means you’re constantly learning, DeGroff says. “Don’t be embarrassed to admit that you don’t know a recipe, or a spirit. Listen to the guests. Ask lots of questions and hunt down the information you need about recipes, techniques, etc. You’re not going to get it all in six months — maybe in six years! Do the research and get it right, and when you finally do get it right, stand by it. There are lots of ‘experienced’ bartenders out there who don’t know what they are doing!”
Cindy Busi, global beverage director for Hard Rock Cafes, has learned to admire how people approach bartending in Europe. “They consider the position a profession, and you can see its impact in so many ways. For instance, if certain mixes or infusions need to be prepared in advance of a shift, bartenders will voluntarily come in early to make sure the items are prepped and fully stocked. That degree of professionalism is reflected in everything from the cleanliness of their bars to their enthusiasm for continuing education and training.”
• Maintain your work environment. “Veteran bartenders know from experience that keeping your drink station clean and organized makes you a better bartender,” says Dan Barringer of Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab chain. “About the last thing you want is to have six guests walk up to the bar, call for six different Martinis, only to discover that all the shakers are dirty. In this business, a lot can happen all at once. I ask you, how well do you think those Martinis will turn out?”
According to Regan, organization is key to great service. “Every bottle and every tool must always be in the same place all the time. When you’ve used it, put it back where it belongs. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”
• Service trumps all. Longtime bartender Scott Young is one of North America’s leading trainers of flair and extreme bartending. It’s been his experience that most rookie bartenders contend their primary job is to make drinks and collect the money. Well, it’s not. “Once you disabuse them of the notion that they are not mere drink-slingers, it’s time to sit them down and open their eyes to a few other realities of the business, the most important of which is that great service trumps great drinks.”
Busi puts it another way. “Let’s face it, even the finest and most skillfully crafted cocktail will leave a bitter aftertaste if served by a surly and unpleasant bartender.”