Dr. Dave’s Field Guide to Bad Cocktails
How to spot bad drinks and the warning signs you should be looking out for in bars.
If the idea of sitting in a dark, elegant bar, lapping at a small, icy pool whose waters have a way of smoothing the furrows in your brow and oiling the trunnions of your tongue appeals to you, then as dark as these times may be there is at least one recompense. It is now possible to get a perfect cocktail, or close enough, in every city in America. Ten years ago, it was not. That is a positive good, then, and sometimes a very positive one indeed.
But it doesn’t always go that way, though, does it? You do your part OK—getting to the bar, finding a seat, putting your damn phone away, ordering a drink, looking expectant—and the bartender does a stylish job of picking bottles, measuring and mixing, and pours your drink into a steaming-cold glass with a precise, crisp flourish. Then you take a sip. Oh no. The drinks list billed this “Transitive Nightfall of Diamonds” as “a subtly-accented take on the classic Dry Martini.” What you got instead is potpourri-tasting gin, cilantro-infused vermouth and aggressive splashes of bitter gentian aperitif and crème de violette, with a huge swatch of bergamot peel squeezed over the top. It smells like Victorian hand soap. It tastes like Victorian hand soap. It costs $15, before tip.
The expansion of the Cocktail Renaissance (as its aficionados have come to call it) from a few bars in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and a couple of other places to hundreds—who knows, thousands?—of bars practically everywhere has depended on a concurrent expansion in the amount of bartending and mixological talent and knowledge. But good bartending has expanded not as air does when filling a balloon, where there’s an equal amount of it in every part, but more like how Legos fill a hallway when, on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you kick over the huge tub of them your kid left out. Although it doesn’t happen with every step, every part of the hall holds the danger of putting your foot down on something fun that has turned diabolical.
What I mean to say is, not all tattooed young bartenders are the modern-day Jerry Thomases they think they are, and not every cocktail they make is the nectareous, brow-smoothing trunnion oil you hope for when you order it. Some, alas, are just plain bad.
The badness of many modern cocktails has been discussed widely and often, and by “discussed” I mean “ranted about.” It’s easy to go off on the excesses of eager young mixologists who apparently watch too much Adventure Time and let its deadpan randomness infect the drinks they come up with—“lamb-fat washed rye-corn-barley eau de vie, citrus colloid, Indonesian palm sugar and brick dust, finished with a beet-Malibu foam”; like that. What we need, however, is not more rants, as fun as they might be, but some basic science.
Before we can solve the problem of bad cocktails, we need to know the different ways a cocktail can go bad. We need a botany, a zoology, a classification. Every creeping thing that slideth over the bar must be known by his kind, that thou mayst order him no more. (I think it said that in the Bible somewhere, although I might be getting some of the words mixed up.)
That’s not a simple task. At first glance, it seems like cocktails follow Tolstoy’s happy-family rule; that the good ones are more or less all alike, or at least fall into a handful of common patterns (bitters-sugar-booze; bitters-vermouth-booze; sugar-citrus-booze, etc), and the bad ones are each awful in its own peculiar way.
Upon soberish reflection, though, one can identify two main realms of error, each with its inevitable subdivisions. The Strategic and the Tactical. Here, then, is a subjective, preliminary and open-ended attempt to sketch out the different ways mixed drinks can go bad. In this, I’ve left out the main one, statistically speaking, which is the old Garbage In-Garbage Out: shoddy, artificial ingredients mixed sloppily together will rarely yield anything drinkable. Fortunately, most modern cocktail bars are out of that phase, at least. These, then, are higher-order errors, the kind you can make with booze that costs more than $20 a bottle and mixers that don’t come out of a gun or a #5 can.
But before I get into the details, let me just say that as a mixologist I’ve made drinks that fall into just about every one of the following categories and foisted them on the general public, whether at bars I’ve consulted for, at charity events, at parties, during my occasional bartending shifts, or via the printed or pixelated word. I write, in other words, from inside the House of Bad. It’s partly from making so many wrong drinks that I’ve learned to make the occasional right one. Bearing that in mind, I’m going to give examples here, some of mine, God help me, but many drawn from actual bars, lightly disguised (the purpose of this isn’t to assign individual guilt, of which there is plenty to go around).
Drinks with strategic errors will never be right because they’re wrong from the get-go; not even an Audrey Saunders, a Jim Meehan or an Alex Kratena, some of the top bartenders out there, could make them taste good without major surgery to the recipe. Here are a few of the most common mistakes.
Warning signs: “David Embury’s recipe”
Bad drinks, like disease, have always been with us. Some of them have interesting backstories. That does not mean they should be revived. Some of the most respected mixologists from the past, including Charles H. Baker, Jr., author of the legendary, and damned amusing, Gentleman’s Companions, and particularly David Embury, the great theorist of mixing drinks, did not know how to balance a cocktail. Even the great 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book has far more wretched drinks in it than brilliant ones. Some whole periods—the shockingly booze-forward 1950s; the sweet and sticky ‘70s—are largely devoid of good drinks (the ‘70s ones, for instance, tend to require major surgery to make them drinkable, such as Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s addition of 125-proof Booker’s Bourbon to the Amaretto Sour). You fish in these waters at your peril.
I learned this lesson back in 2005, when I was asked to provide an opening cocktail for a dinner featuring a few of New York’s top French chefs, including Jacques Pépin and André Soltner, two of my culinary idols. I chose the Henri Soulé’s Special, a drink recorded in Ted Saucier’s 1951 drinks compendium Bottom’s Up. Soulé was the formidable presence behind Le Pavillon, New York’s leading French restaurant in the 1940s and 1950s, and since Pépin had gotten his start in the city there I thought it would be an appropriate tribute.
Here, however, was the drink: 2.5 ounces Cognac, 1 teaspoon sugar, half a teaspoon lemon juice and two pieces of orange peel, shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. OK, perhaps a trifle strong, I thought, but that was how they liked ‘em then. That may have been true, but it was not how they liked ‘em now: Pépin took one sip and left his on a convenient shrubbery-pot, and few people got through more than a few sips. They were right: the drink tasted like California jug wine fortified with rubbing alcohol. A good story does not fix a bad drink.
Also, see below under tactical errors.
Warning signs: garnishes fashioned to resemble known objects
A very fertile source of bad drinks is the idea that the drink’s name should determine its ingredients. This can make for perfectly lovely drinks—take the Rob Roy, a Manhattan where Scotch whisky has been substituted for American rye—but it is risky, as it can lead to the choice of ingredients for reasons other than flavor and texture. A prime example is the drink I came across recently called the Indian Itch, where a few slices of the little, blisteringly-hot green Jwala pepper so common in Indian food were muddled in Indian rum, shaken with pineapple juice and a hearty pinch of curry powder (that’s right, curry powder), strained into an ice-filled glass and topped with ginger ale. Yes, it conveyed the idea “India.” No, it did not also convey the idea “drinkable.”
A great deal of modern mixology flirts with this error: many modern drinks are thematic, and use unorthodox ingredients, from distilled dirt (seriously) to pig’s eyeballs (again, seriously), to reinforce their themes. Are such drinks always bad? No. Should you be wary? Again, pig’s eyeballs.
Warning signs: bartender is either unenthusiastic or too enthusiastic at your order
By “volume” here I mean not the amount of liquid in the drink, but the amount of flavor. Some drinks have too little, but given the choice between, say, light, blended Irish whiskey shaken with lemon juice, simple syrup and a dash of elderflower liqueur, and “Navy-strength” gin, green Chartreuse, Fernet-Branca, Pimiento Bitters and rich, concentrated and sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry, I’ll take the dull one. Two or three strong-flavored ingredients played against each other can work well, but with each additional one you risk the whole thing falling apart.
Unclubbable Ingredient Errors
Warning signs: herb garden behind the bar
The unclubbable ingredient is the one thing you add that refuses to get along with others, either by being loud and bullying and entirely blotting them out or by being passive-aggressive and persistent and speaking through all the silences. Smoky Scotch, Chinese baijiu, some mescals, absinthe, Fernet, and some pot-still rums all are dangerous in this way. But so are herbs, such as tarragon, chervil, and the like. They don’t drown out the other flavors like the big spirits do, but they have a persistence that makes them linger when all the other flavors are gone. That’s not to say they can’t be used well, just that they very often are not.
Brown Drink Errors
Warning signs: over 5 ingredients
Just as all colors, when blended, create brown, there’s a flavor profile drinks tend to take on when they’ve got too many ingredients. Sorta sweet, sorta bitter, sorta herbal, a little bit fruity, maybe sourish, too. Inexperienced mixologists, faced with a drink that doesn’t quite work, have a tendency to keep adding ingredients until the thing tastes OK. Eventually, almost any drink, as long as it doesn’t have an unclubbable ingredient, can be made to taste OK if you add enough stuff. But just mediocre isn’t worth $15. For that, you want a drink that is focused; that doesn’t taste like a little of this and a little of that, but rather has a point of view and a harmonious identity. The only way to get there is to strip away ingredients and start over with different ones; ones that get along well together. Knowing what those are takes experience. The older the mixologist, the fewer ingredients he or she tends to use. As the great jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge once told Dale DeGroff, dean of American bartenders, “when I was younger I used to play all the notes; now, I just play the right ones.”
So much for strategic errors.
Drinks with tactical errors are fundamentally sound, but something has gone wrong in their execution. Here, I’m not going to bother with simple incompetence—reaching for the wrong ingredient, under-stirring, pouring fruit-fly infested liquor or spoiled lime juice, serving a drink in a warm glass, things like that. That’s just bad bartending, not bad mixology.
Warning signs: Imbibe, by one David Wondrich, and a collection of other history books behind the bar
Some drinks are bad because their makers have gotten hold of a piece of knowledge from the wrong end and are letting it mess them up. For example, a common error I encounter occurs with the New York Sour, a whiskey sour with a float of red wine and one of my favorite drinks. Sometimes when I order one the bartender will add egg white to the drink. Historically, some sours used egg white, but never this one. The egg white produces a layer of froth on top of the drink, which clashes with the layer of red wine also being added to it, and you end up with a drink topped with an unattractive, pinkish muck, rather than a visually-striking, thin red line. Here, history has trumped common sense.
Another historical error involving egg whites occurs when the bartender, following an old recipe, adds a whole egg white to a drink, not realizing that eggs were much smaller in 1918 than the supersized jumbo ones we get in 2018. A little egg white adds a nice texture; a lot, and you’re tasting egg white. Nobody wants to taste egg white.
Arts & Crafts and Food Tech Errors
Warning signs: more than two house-made ingredients on the cocktail list, or bar uses purchased simple syrup
It’s fine to make your ingredients if you can do them masterfully and there’s no other way to get them. Alas, too many bars make theirs just to say that they did. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had an overly sour Jack Rose (apple brandy, lime juice and grenadine) because the bar makes its own grenadine from pomegranates and sugar rather than using the commercial stuff. Admittedly, the ingredients of the supermarket brands are fairly appalling, but at least they’re really sweet and brightly colored, which is why grenadine was called for in the first place. Nobody ever talked about the stuff’s flavor. A good house-made grenadine will duplicate the heavy sweetness and intense red color of the commercial stuff, leaving out the high-fructose corn syrup, the artificial flavors and the dyes (okay, sometimes a little food coloring helps). A bad one, as one encounters more often than not, will be sour and brownish and will neither adequately sweeten nor color the drink. Then there are the clumpy orgeats, the gritty tonic waters, the weird-tasting bitters, the infused vermouths that no longer taste like vermouth. Homemade ingredients can be great, but they have to be great, so to speak. Nothing so-so should go in a drink, no matter who makes it.
Which brings us to the other side of the equation; the crappy commercial products that are mucking up a perfectly good drink. Otherwise-crafty bars that purchase things like simple syrup (sugar and water, mixed), lemon and lime juice and Bloody Mary mix should be avoided. They’ll charge you three times what the corner tap will for the same quality of drink, or worse.
Helping a Brother Out and Helping a Sponsor Out Errors
Warning signs: More than 10 bottles you’ve never heard of; no bottles you’ve never heard of
These are the booze versions of the Arts & Crafts/Food Tech errors. We live in an amazing time where literally hundreds of new, small distilleries are making every kind of spirit imaginable. Some of them are even good at it. Many of them, though, are not quite there yet. When I see a local gin I haven’t heard of being used in my Martini, I start to get very worried. The Martini is a pitiless drink, and it demands a tight, focused gin. All too many of the new brands, in an understandable move to differentiate themselves from what’s already out there, employ wide ranges of non-traditional botanicals. These can make for a weird Martini. A Martini should not be weird.
The same goes for whiskey. Too many of the new brands are under-aged, which mean that Old-Fashioned will be hot and fumey and redolent of the wet-dog aroma of new-make grain spirit. That’s not what you want. On the other hand, if the bar carries only big national brands, or has the whole line of Large Producer X’s flavored vodkas or rums on display behind the bar, it might not be the place for a fine cocktail.
Warning signs: All the drinks look like a giant, translucent version of a kid’s cup-and-ball game
Many new cocktail bars, having expensive and elaborate ice programs, like to show off by putting as many drinks as possible in bucket glasses (basically, large whiskey glasses), each holding one huge ball or cube of ice. That’s fine for an Old-Fashioned. It’s not fine, or even acceptable, for a vast range of other drinks that want to be straight up in a stemmed glass. If I have one more Last Word served to me on the rocks I swear I shall go to a mountain cave and speak no more.
We could go on with all this, and perhaps in the future we shall. In the meanwhile, be warned and drink well.