It's a tricky path between refined and plebeian, really. Purchase a steel frame chair with a cheap canvas seat from Wal-Mart, and you're just some slob from The Colony. Call the same piece a Bauhaus and find it at an auction, and you become a patron. Vodka by the shot is a fighting drink. But plop in an olive or two, and it becomes a classic worthy of The Mansion.
You see, often we proudly display something simple and base masquerading as a thing of elegance. We prefer trendy or diluted cocktails decried by purists but favored by the masses. The original martini contained gin, not vodka, and enough dry vermouth to pucker the nasal cavity of a camel. The variant vodka martini outsells gin by a ratio of more than 3-to-1, and most gin martinis contain only a whisper of vermouth. Indiscriminate use of the word "cocktail," too, arouses the indignation of true sophisticates. Cocktails bring several flavors into a potent but intriguing balance, never intending to disguise the alcohol. A classic cocktail requires bartenders with finesse and a modicum of expertise. Mixed drinks and faux cocktails simply drench the alcohol with fruit juice or Coke or some other ingredient, overwhelming its taste.
"The older drinks take a little more time and thought," says Brandon Rook, bartender at The Mansion, "whereas your drinks now are just like waking up in the morning."
Why, then, would drinks of incomparable balance, skilled preparation and moderate assertion of gray matter succumb to simple concoctions like the cosmopolitan? "Some of those cocktails just don't taste good," explains Shawn Sloan, bartender at the Mustang Café in Las Colinas. "The Harvey Wallbanger has Galliano on top, and that stuff tastes like cough syrup." Of course, when certain members of the Burning Question crew were in grad school, we...um, they resorted to drinking cough syrup for their alcohol fix, so a pint or two of Galliano would be nothing. The Harvey Wallbanger is a fairly recent creation, anyway. Some cocktails--old-fashioneds, Manhattans, brandy Alexanders--have been around for a hundred years or more.
Yet nowadays, few people order the classics. "In two years I've made six old-fashioneds," Sloan says. The Old Warsaw served only two sidecars so far this year. Owner Al Heidari estimates that martinis and single-malt scotches make up 80 percent of his bar sales. "Maybe one person in 5,000 orders a classic cocktail," adds Matthew, the surnameless bartender at the Samba Room. "But I probably served 80 cosmopolitans last night."
This week's Burning Question, then, eschews the trendy and the fashionable and plunges into the murky waters of cocktails past: Why doesn't anybody drink old-fashioneds (or sidecars, Singapore slings, negronis, French 75s, etc.) anymore?
Well, according to Dallas-area bartenders, the answer rests amid the rubble of instant gratification, marketing and the generation gap. "The sidecar, the stinger, younger people don't drink those things," says Danny Versfelt, bar manager at Al's Prime Steak and Seafood. "Younger people learned the sweeter cocktails, the guzzling shots." Advertising and product placement often drive demand. Indeed, the cosmopolitan's popularity surged after characters on HBO's Sex and the City began sipping the dressed-up vodka and cranberry juice drink. "Most of the drinks that have lost popularity are men's drinks from the days when it wasn't socially acceptable for women to drink," claims Ben Caudle of Martini Ranch.
The world's distilleries produce a greater range of premium liquors today, as well--from aged tequilas to specialty bourbons. "There are all these new flavored vodkas coming out," Mike McClure of Nick & Sam's points out, "and they're all selling."
But instant gratification, bred into the baby boom generation and nurtured by fast-paced consumption, may be the key reason for the demise of traditional cocktails. Many of these drinks require patience. One version of the gin fizz, for example, calls for a mixture of gin, lemon juice, lime juice, cream, seltzer water, sugar, orange flower water and a fresh egg white (as if there were another choice). And after all of that, the bartender must shake the mixture for at least a full minute. To create an old-fashioned, bartenders muddle--not stir--an orange slice, sugar and bitters in a glass before adding whiskey. "A lot of the old drinks require precision," Caudle explains. "It will call for either granulated sugar or a sugar cube, and if you exchange one for the other, some old guy is going to say it's ruined." That's just too much work--and too much waiting--for a Saturday night.
"There's a difference between gentlemen enjoying mint juleps on the veranda and people in a crowded bar trying to get action," Matthew says.
The Burning Question crew sampled a number of classics, including the old-fashioned (drinkable) and the Singapore sling, a mix of gin, cherry brandy, sloe gin, crème de cassis and several other mildly cathartic ingredients (barely drinkable). Somewhere in the middle of our fifth cocktail, the Burning Question crew managed to pool our scattered and thoroughly soused gray matter and piece together a few notes regarding these drinks. We remember these thoughts as significant, although our notes from the evening resemble a road map of Thailand. Be assured, however, that we did indeed have something more to say.
A few stalwarts still order the classic cocktails, of course. And several bartenders miss the days when patrons ordered with a high level of expectation. "When Ford bought out Jaguar, something is lost," says Matthew. "When every restaurant has the same martini menu, something is lost."
All we seem to recall, however, is that female crewmembers loved the sidecar, a potent blend of brandy, cointreau, lemon juice and who knows what.
Hmmm. It's strong; women like it. We're thinkin' "action."