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I had my first "custom cocktail" about four years ago. I was at new bar in D.C. called The Passenger, where, along with doing untold things to hot dogs, they served drinks few others in the city were making at the time. A man named Tom Brown was behind the bar, and a friend beside me mentioned I could order a customized cocktail -- something whipped up just for me, based on my tastes.
I remember Brown's hulking figure turning toward a wall of spirits, one hand wrapped around a stainless steel shaker and the other near his face, finger tapping his lip in deep introspection. He'd just asked what kind of base spirit I liked and a few other questions about sweetness and flavor preferences, and was presumably was using the information to create something that had never been created before.
My drink came soon enough. It was stiff, medicinal and exactly what I'd asked for. It was also nameless; I would never have the drink again.
Here in Dallas I've experienced a few different variations on the theme as custom mixology has evolved into a trend. I've had a drink dreamed up by barman Charlie Papeceno at the Windmill, but I always got the sense that he was taking an existing recipe and putting a little spin on it to make it his own, rather than conjuring perfection from the seemingly random.
I had similarly positive experiences that were a bit more innovative at Smyth when they first opened and Omar Yeefoon was behind the bar. The cocktails were balanced and drank like an adventure. (They also packed serious punch.)
But I've had plenty of lackluster experiences with custom mixology, most recently at the Bowen House, where I felt my bartender was flexing creative muscles that had not quite fully developed. After our back and forth became a little clunky and uncomfortable, I opted for a beer instead.
Bartenders that work with a tight, well orchestrated drink menu, on the other hand, have a distinct advantage in a collection of drinks they can become familiar with. Not only can they get to know a drink by making it again and again, but they also can spend more time honing recipes through collaboration and by making subtle tweaks and perfecting recipes over time. I had a great riff on a Greyhound back at Bowen Room for instance, after spotting the drink on a small chalkboard menu.
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It's also nice for customers to decide what they want based on the detailed descriptions printed on a menu instead of playing cocktail-shaker roulette. And when they fall in love with a drink -- when everything comes together and resonates with their own personal preferences perfectly -- a customer can come back and order that drink again. It's nice to have a reliable friend.
Which I guess means I don't have a problem with custom mixology as much as I do with bartenders who do it poorly. Pulling a cocktail out of thin air on the fly requires a certain level of expertise and artistry. It also requires an exceptional palate -- one that can sample, analyze and adjust a drink to bring the flavors into focus.
And a certain social dexterity is required of a bartender to make the back-and-forth about a customized cocktail an enjoyable part of the process for the customer. Asking for flavor notes in robotic repetition before the liquor bottles are inverted can result in one-dimensional mixology. Drinks arrive noisy and hot with alcohol. They lack a certain finesse and, for better or worse, they're not repeatable.
I think some of the best bartenders around town can pull off capable riffs on classic cocktails on the fly. But when you walk into a bar and the entire staff is wielding customized alchemy, it's likely a sign your evening has just lost some potential. Either way, most of the time I'd just like a Sazerac, or something heavy with whiskey from a well considered menu. Not all bartenders are master wizards, and The Bartender's Guide was created for a reason.