Why is it that combining ingredients and flavors in the kitchen are easily thought of as "culinary", while doing the same thing with liquid ingredients behind the bar isn't? Personally, I think it's about time for a change.
For years I have been evangelizing all who will listen with the culinary concepts embodied by the cocktail. Just as a chef will artfully combine the various flavorful products brought into their kitchens, the culinary bartender will use a similar care and dedication in working out the flavor pairing potentials with the bottled products that they either stock, or with increasing frequency make themselves.
We’ve all of course been inundated with the role that wine can play in your meal. Many restaurants take this feature so seriously that they specifically hire what is referred to as a “sommelier”. It is the sommelier’s role in the restaurant to carefully work with the customers and their menu choices to recommend what will hopefully be the perfect wines for their evening. Without meaning to diminish the role that wine can/should play in a meal, I personally view this pairing as being secondary in nature, and not providing a true reflection of the culinary foundations of the restaurant or its ownership. Wine, when received by the restaurant is a finished product. While it definitely age and mature, the restaurant itself will not specifically participate in the culinary quality of the product beyond storage and pairing recommendations. A particular Châteauneuf-du-Pape should essentially be the same if it is served at a three star European restaurant or a two-bit truck stop (ok, perhaps that comparison is a tad extreme, but hopefully the point I’m trying to communicate is understood).
The cocktail on the other hand reflects almost exactly the same level of culinary artistry as the chef should be demonstrating in the kitchen. Three different chefs given the exact same ingredients, and told to make the exact same dish, will all product dishes which differ slightly from one another, each reflecting their individual craftsmanship. Likewise, three different bartenders, starting with the exact same ingredients for making a particular cocktail, will bring their own personal touch and artistry in how the drink turns out. To complete the picture, imagine three different sommeliers told to each serve the same wine. The difference? Hopefully none.
The problem however, is that very few restaurants these days are even attempting to carry their culinary mindset into the bar. Far too often they treat it simply as a waiting room for the restaurant, and a way to perhaps cycle a few more dollars out of the pockets of their guests before seating them at the table. I have often seen highly rated restaurants, which feel justified because of their stature to serve expensive drinks at their bar, but mix those drinks with both cheap commercial mixes as well as being mixed up by woefully untrained (and likely underpaid) bar staff.
About a year ago, I was at a very popular and well-respected restaurant, one which was well known for its top notch kitchen staff and the products they produced. Their bar however was not only pushing out Cosmopolitans like there was no tomorrow, but they were also using Rose’s Lime Juice to mix them with. When I questioned the bartender about this he explained that they didn’t have any fresh juices behind the bar. How wrong is that? This experience so bothered me that I made a few phone calls, and I am pleased to say that (perhaps by my efforts, perhaps by coincidence) within six months, this restaurant had a totally new bar program. They now featured fresh juices in all cocktails that should have them, as well as a strong array of classically prepared drinks which were far more fitting to this restaurants menu and clientele.
More restaurants need to think carefully about what their cocktail program says about them. They need to view the bartending staff as a culinary extension of their kitchen, and realize that the quality of the drinks served at the bar is often the first glimpse that many customers will have of what to expect in the dining room.