Don’t blame the bartenders. The snobby, sleeve-gartered mixologist cliché began as a reaction to years of neglect—an attempt to get drinkers to take the abandoned art of bartending seriously again.
The late 19th century was the Golden Age of the cocktail, when icons like Jerry Thomas were inventing dozens of classic recipes and techniques, and dominating bars from New York to San Francisco. Then came Prohibition, which drove those legends out of the country, taking their knowledge with them. By the time Prohibition was repealed, it was too late; everyone had forgotten what a good drink was, and we limped along for a few decades of vermouth-less martinis and cherry-muddled Old Fashioneds, both a far cry from the snappy, well-balanced drinks they’d once been.
The ’70s brought the singles bar scene and a wave of too-sweet, artificially flavored concoctions like the Lemon Drop and the Kamikaze, designed to lure women in and get them drunk. By the ’90s, ambitious bartenders had nowhere to go but backward, and so they looked to the superstars of the Golden Age—outfits and all.
Unfortunately, those revivalists were a little too successful, and the booze pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Suddenly, cocktails were serious business, complete with strict rules and deadly sins you didn’t even know you were committing. At their worst, craft-cocktail devotees are smug mansplainers, ready to well, actually your order at the slightest misstep. Now, over a decade after the craft-cocktail movement took off, some of their most arbitrary rules have become set-in-stone barriers preventing regular drinkers from just enjoying a tasty beverage.
As our expert Derek Brown says, “Let me just officially issue an apology. Some of us may have been a little high on our horses, and it’s time that we climbed off.”
Here, we debunk some of the most pervasive myths that stand between you and a good cocktail, with knowledge darts from two of the country’s best bartenders:
- Ivy Mix, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda; 2015 American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards; and founder of Speed Rack, an annual charity bartending competition
- Derek Brown, co-owner of D.C.’s Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency, and Eat the Rich; Imbibe Magazine’s 2015 Bartender of the Year; cocktail lecturer and writer
The Myth: Expensive ice is critical to a good drink.
The facts: If you’ve ever watched a bartender carve your cubes from a massive, perfectly clear slab of ice, you might have felt a pang of icy inferiority. Many serious cocktail bars use ice made in special machines like the Clinebell or Kold-Draft, or spend big bucks to outsource the job to boutique ice-makers. High-end ice is a luxury item—nice to have but by no means necessary. With a few simple tweaks to your current routine, you can upgrade your ice for better cocktails without the price tag.
Mix says: “I don’t use outsourced ice because it is really expensive. If you make larger ice yourself with water that’s relatively free of impurities—if you boil your water to get it really pure—you’ll get ice that will melt more slowly, meaning your drink will get colder but not dilute, so you can sip on your drink for a long time and rather than your drink becoming watery.”
Brown says: “Some of us may have been a little high on our horses, and it’s time that we climbed off and said, ‘You know what? It’s perfectly fine to use that shitty ice in your fridge.’ If you want it to be perfect, then yes, pay attention to every detail. If you just want it to be something to enjoy at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter as much as maybe we’d said before. We just got a little excited, that’s all.”
The Myth: Martinis belong in martini glasses.
The facts: In the long history of the martini, the oversized, conical glass we know as the martini glass is barely an infant (and abominations like appletinis and espresso martinis don’t even register). It wasn’t until recently that martinis got their own glass at all; they used to be served in the same way as other, similarly spirit-forward drinks—in the coupe, or the narrow wineglass known as the Nick & Nora glass, made popular in a series of movies in the 1930s and ’40s.
Brown says: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a martini glass—there is simply the martini glass that you like. I describe the surface of a martini as taut; it should be this shimmering, taut surface with little drops of lemon oil punctuating the top, and to me that’s best in a small area, not necessarily a large, wide brim. I recommend the Nick & Nora glass, but will it ruin the world if you put it in a coupe? Or even a 12-ounce steakhouse-style martini glass? Not at all. Those big martini glasses just feel like the floppy collars of the disco era. It doesn’t hurt anybody to wear them, it just looks silly.”
The Myth: The more expensive the booze, the better the cocktail.
The facts: While it may seem like simple logic—you’d rather drink 20-year-old Pappy straight than Wild Turkey, so why not swap out the Turkey for the good stuff in your mint julep?—cocktails are a case where more isn’t necessarily more. As Mix points out, “The general rule of thumb is: Don’t mix with the expensive stuff, because what’s the point?” In most cocktails, you’re layering a number of other flavors on top of your base spirit, so the nuances of a high-end choice can get lost. That said, if you’ve got the cash to burn, a top-quality booze won’t NOT work in a cocktail—as long as it’s a simple recipe that gives the star ingredient room to shine (think: Old Fashioneds, martinis).
Brown says: “I would say that’s really a question between you and your god—or your wallet—not between you and humanity. Can you afford it? If you can, then you’re welcome to do it. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t make a good cocktail. All of us bartenders who started trying to make cocktails a little bit better, we were a little irreverent, and that was for the better for everyone. There’s no reason people shouldn’t be a little irreverent.”
The Myth: Real bartenders do it DIY.
The facts: You know the place: the bar is lined with dozens of unlabeled apothecary bottles, and each drink uses four different housemade bitters, two herbal tinctures, and a gomme syrup. Suddenly, you’re wondering: Should all cocktails use gomme syrup? Are commercially made bitters pure garbage? What the hell is a tincture, anyway? Stop stressing. Some bartenders love making bitters, because they can engineer a precise blend of flavors to their taste. But many bartenders go on to sell their perfect creations at retail, so there’s no shame in skipping the mad-scientist routine and just buying what you need. Accept the things you don’t know, and let someone else do the hard work.
Mix says: “Whoever thinks they can make a better aromatic bitter than Angostura, I’d like to see them try. If you’re going to make classic cocktails, that is THE aromatic bitter. I make our syrups, because I can go and buy some fresh raspberries and some sugar and make a raspberry syrup on my own and it’s probably going to taste better than one I bought online, because it doesn’t have preservatives in it. But I buy my orgeat, because I don’t think I can make as good an orgeat as the one that I can buy. I’ve tried, but I can’t do it as well as this guy can.”
The Myth: Anyone can bartend.
The facts: Like waiters, bartenders still suffer from the common belief that their chosen career is just a placeholder, a quick paycheck while they wait for their mixtape or one-man-show to make them famous. But today, when a top-level bartender can travel the world, winning international prizes and consulting on new projects from Chicago to Chiang Mai, bartending is as glamorous a job as there is. And it’s tough, too. Good bartenders need physical stamina and a good palate for concocting well-balanced drinks, and they need to be good with people on top of it all, willing to listen to drunk sadboys dissect their latest failed Tinder date.
Mix says: “People tend to think that because someone’s a bartender, they’ve failed at something else in their life and that’s why they ended up bartending—that’s not true. People are like, ‘What else do you do? Are you a singer-songwriter? Are you an actress?’ What the hell? You would never say that to a banker. ‘Oh, you’re banking! What did you do before that?’ This is a career that people are dying to get into.”
The Myth: The classics are untouchable.
The facts: Ask a room full of cocktail writers or bartenders for the best way to make a Manhattan or a martini, and you’ll get at least a dozen different answers—and a fistfight or two. While each bartender believes the recipe she uses is the one true God, the classics themselves were never that well-defined. Then there’s the issue of taste: Depending on how sweet, dry, or spicy you like your drinks, tweaking the amount of flavor modifiers like vermouth or bitters will get you the perfect, personalized drink. Don’t be bullied out of enjoying your next cocktail because of what some dead white man once wrote—another dead white man probably contradicted him.
Brown says: “The more you spread out the books from [cocktail OGs like] Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, William Schmidt, or O.H. Byron, the more confusing it can be. If so many people changed a drink over time, that really does open the possibility for somebody, within reasonable constraints, to make a classic cocktail differently from the general consensus. There are no sacred cows. The only thing I encourage people to do is at least try the original and then build off of that.”