Continuing Nomenclature Debate

More comments on the Nomenclature/Aviation/Sensation Debate.

From Gaz Regan:

Hi Guys:  re the ratios in my Aviation.  I always hold that recipes are mere guidelines, they aren’t meant to be taken literally.  and everyone should make drinks either they way they like or best, or the way their customers like it best.  Do you think that Lobster Newburgh is cooked using exactly the same recipe by all chefs worth their salt, for instance?  And do you think that that recipe is the same one used at Delmonico’s when the dish was created in the (1800s?).

Thanks to whoever wrote I try very hard never to take things personally, and whenever I’m proved wrong about something, I try to see that as a learning experience.

From Michael Lazar:

Perhaps it’s not just drink size that’s at play. Reading old recipes you see, time and time again, that ingredients like liqueurs and juices are used in quantities so small that they can be no more than accents against which to experience the character of a primary spirit. (The various “improved” cocktails come to mind here.) In more modern cocktails these same ingredients are regularly used in quantities that bring them squarely into the foreground. Perhaps this represents a difference in peoples’ palates one hundred (or more) years ago and/or a simply a practical consideration in a time when such things may have been rarer and more expensive.

As I mention in the comments of one of the posts, I have to admit one of my pet peeves is Martinis and Manhattans whose vermouth is neglected or reduced to the point of irrelevance.

Why even call it a Martini or a Manhattan if it doesn’t have vermouth?

It’s just cold booze.

Not the same as the Aviation issue, as the reverse is true. More booze, more liqueur, less citrus.  But I maintain that ratios are sometimes as important in a cocktail as actual ingredients.

In some cases, we have gotten to the point where some drinks have gotten so far from their origins, that we nearly need to make up new drink names to be able to serve them as they were originally formulated. Happened to me recently, when someone asked me for a Casino Cocktail. Originally an actual cocktail (sugar, bitters, spirit, liqueur) with a dash of lemon, sort of a Crusta without the Sugar Crust, in modern practice, it has morphed into a bittered Gin Sour.  A bartender asked me for it, so I figured it would at least be academically interesting for him to have it made in the early 20th Century manner.  In fact, it just freaked him out, and sadly, I had to throw out the delicious drink and make him a boring old bittered gin sour.

I’ll admit to tweaking recipes myself. Some recipes are, in fact, so horrible as to be undrinkable in any world I live in. Check the Savoy version of the Mule’s Hind Leg or Applejack Rabbit, for example. There might be the idea of a good drink there, but the literal recipes are literally awful.

Living in the 21st Century, we are in a very lucky spot, indeed, not only to be able to stand on the shoulders of the research and life experience of true giants like Gaz Regan, Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Ted Haigh, Robert Hess, and others, but also to have relatively easy access to much of the source material for what has come to be the “canon” of modern drinks. We have Greg Boehm and Cocktail Kingdom to thank for that.

Along those lines, I work in a bar whose recipes are based on those of Charles Baker, Jr.  The fact of the matter is, I work in a bar where we make drinks designed by Erik Adkins, with some of the same ingredients as those that were included in Charles Baker, Jr’s drinks of the same name.  This is really for the best, as Erik Adkins designs much tastier drinks than Charles Baker, Jr ever did.  Well, almost ever.

To a certain extent I look at my responsibilities at the Underhill-Lounge, as similar to my responsibilities to Mr. Adkins.  When I am working in his bar, I make his drinks with his recipes.  If someone asks me for a Clover Club at Heaven’s Dog, I don’t make them a Savoy Cocktail Book Clover Club, I make them an Erik Adkins Clover Club.  Similarly, if I am going to make an Aviation Cocktail on the Underhill-Lounge, I’m not going to make the recipe from Heaven’s Dog, I’m going to research and make what I think the drink’s creator might have intended.  I’m going to make Hugo Ensslin’s Aviation.

I think it is important, with the resources we have available today, to examine the drinks we are making, and question why we are making them the way we are.

If I didn’t do that, I’d still be making Old-Fashioneds with muddled fruit and 7-Up, instead of understanding the history behind the drink and what it means for an Old-Fashioned to be an actual “Cocktail”.

When I am looking at a new recipe in the Savoy Cocktail Book I have several steps I go through before making it.

First I check to see if the recipe is wrong.  In many cases, ingredients, especially garnishes, got left out of the Savoy Cocktail Book.  There also appear to be plenty of typos.  To assess this, I check the book I suspect was Craddock’s source for the recipe.  In the case of the Aviation, I check Hugo Ensslin and discover that there is an ingredient missing.

Second I ask myself if the ingredients included in the recipe have changed in some significant manner, since 1930.  The answer to this is almost always, “yes”, but some, like Lillet, more than others, say Dry Gin.

Third, I ask, has popular taste changed, to the extent this recipe is no longer a commonly made class of drinks.  In the Savoy Cocktail Book, there are plenty of examples of whole classes of drinks that have gone more or less extinct between 1930 and 2010.  Unsweetened sours, for example.  Or cocktails made up of 2/3 Gin, 1/3 Dry Vermouth, and a dash of this or that.  Or Dry Aromatic drinks made with Brown Spirits, like the Brooklyn.

Fourth, I ask if the recipe is just bad.  Pretty much any drink whose source is Judge Jr’s tome “Here’s How” falls into this category.  Earthquake, Hurricane, Mule’s Hind Leg, Corn Popper, etc.  “Here’s How” is just a bad, bad cocktail book full of bad, bad cocktails, underscoring just where cocktail making was at during Prohibition in America.

Last, I ask myself, even though I initially don’t like it, is there some way to appreciate the drink for what it is.  Again, the Aviation is a fine example.  The lightly, or slightly, sweetened sour is a category of drink which has, more or less, gone extinct since the beginning of the 20th Century.  Why?  Is there still something there to appreciate?  With the Aviation, I think the answer is yes.  It is an aperitif cocktail, designed to stimulate the appetite, if you add too much sweetener, you lose that.  You may draw a different conclusion.  That’s fine, but if I don’t appreciate your heavily Maraschino-ed version of the Aviation when I stop by your bar or house, now you know why.

And to get back to some of Gaz’ initial points, bartenders are not exactly chefs.  We are first, and foremost, hosts.  We talk to our guests, asking and assessing what they want to drink, hoping to gain their trust.  A chef does not have this luxury, nor does he have as much freedom to improvise or change his menu.  If the guest wants a Lemon Drop, the guest is going to get the best damn Lemon Drop I can make, made with fresh squeezed lemon and organic simple syrup.  If the guest enjoys that Lemon Drop, maybe next time they will trust me enough to try something more exotic.  Or maybe not.  Maybe they just like Lemon Drops.  It’s their choice, they’re paying, and, as a host and bartender, I am serving them, not my own ego.