The main complaint about cocktails these days is that they're pretentious. This image is only perpetuated when they're served by a bunch of seemingly elitist bearded bartenders (people are always compelled to point out the beards) who obsess over antiquated drinks that cost the price of an entree and ultimately suck all the fun out of going to a bar in the first place. Or something along those lines.
People wonder, what's so damn important about these archaic cocktails? Who cares?
Despite being in this profession, I have to admit it's a fair question. Why indeed take something that is frivolous at heart seriously?
The source of my answer lies in the past. Historical context, in addition to greater understanding, makes everything more interesting. Even cocktails.
To me, the significance of cocktails isn't about the cocktails themselves, but the social ritual that used to accompany them. I'm always reminded of this when I serve someone a classic like a simple old fashioned and they say, "Wow, this is like something my grandfather would have made." Key word: made. That's because when our elders used to drink cocktails, they didn't drink them in a fancy cocktail bar.
This inevitably makes me think of my Grandfather, a dedicated lifelong cocktail drinker and fixer. At the end of his life (he lived to be 90) he was on multiple medications -- a cocktail of an entirely different and less enjoyable kind -- that made the consumption of alcohol dubious. His doctor regulated him to half an ounce a day (wow, thanks doc), rendering him incapable of participating in "social hour," the (in my opinion, more appropriate) pseudonym that he and my Grandmother used for cocktail hour; which was held promptly at 6 p.m. and was something he had always relished. As disappointing as this was, it was most difficult in the summer when his legion of extended family would visit. During these times social hour, in addition to its evening regimen, also enjoyed a Saturday matinee at noon known as "noonsies." Naturally, a weekend highlight.
Ever the rebel, my grandfather defiantly concocted a compromise. Instead of taking his meager daily ration of spirits, he'd forgo it entirely during the week, in effect storing it away and allowing it to accumulate so that by noonsies he could have a gloriously full-sized manhattan with his family. Old Crow Bourbon, perfect, straight up with an olive. (When I inquired curiously about the olive, he matched my curiosity by wondering why I would even ask that question!)
I have no idea whether this bargain was medically advisable, (well, I have an idea, but I'm not a doctor so why speculate?) but seeing how much he looked forward to his accumulated manhattan all week long and the amount of pleasure it gave him, I think it's perfectly justified. And when I think about all the accumulated pleasures a lifetime of social hours had given him, that's when I know cocktails, for some at least, are in fact important.
Today cocktail hour seems to have been dropped from most routines, which is a shame. I love the notion of setting aside an hour everyday to relax, reflect, and bask in a moment of leisure. Of course such an hour doesn't necessarily have to be done with a cocktail in hand, but I can't imagine how supplementing it with a deftly made Manhattan doesn't enhance the experience.
So sure, some cocktail bartenders today take themselves a little too seriously. For most of us, it's not that we're overly serious, it's that we genuinely care.
For me, I've always seen my role as a bartender as a chance to inspire people to pursue the easily attainable and a highly rewarding craft of cocktails at home, frivolous as it may be. My ultimate hope is that more people take a cue from their grandparents and rectify cocktail hour for a new generation. I think we can all agree an extra hour of pleasure is something we could stand to add to our daily routine. And to those who think we're all just a bunch of lushes, let me assure you, it is not nor has it ever been about getting drunk. It's that when made properly, the virtues of a handmade cocktail take an extra moment -- or hour -- to appropriately savor.
Grandpa Bud's Manhattan
2 ounces Old Crow Bourbon
.5 ounce Sweet Vermouth
.5 ounce Dry Vermouth
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with an olive