Monday, July 28, 2008

The Problem of Snobbery

During the Juniperlooza seminar at "Tales of the Cocktail" I sat next to nice young man from southern California. Over the course of the event I learned he was a bartender at a high end place that subscribes to the all the recent movements and advances in the cocktail world.

He assured me his bar served only good stuff, and then added, "I won't serve any Cosmopolitans." I asked him what he would do if someone came into his bar and ordered a Cosmopolitan. He said he'd politely refuse and offer to make them something very like a Cosmo but more classic, such as Daisy using similar ingredients (though presumedly not Vodka).

I stress that this fellow seemed a very nice person in all respects. But his remark regarding Cosmopolitans was as fatuous as they come, and typified one of the more disagreeable aspects of the modern drink world. When I took the Beverage Alcohol Resource class in Manhattan (run by Dale DeGroff, Paul Pacult, David Wondrich, Steve Olsen and Doug Frost), the instructors stressed that bartenders, bar owners and the like are employed in a service industry. They noted a bar "not far from here" where customers asking for a beer will be instructed to take their business elsewhere, and made clear that they thought this sort of behavior the enemy of their cause.

What point could there be to refusing to make a Cosmo? I know the cocktail has become a bit of a punch line at this point, owing to it's use on "Sex and the City," but it's a perfectly legit drink, and one of the few modern classics of the past 20 years. I'd argue that it has, in fact, done a good deal to propel interest in the cocktail movement in recent times. I don't order them much anymore, but I admit freely that I still remember the first time I had a Cosmo, and it is a good memory.

I could see remonstrating a bit over a request for a Frozen Daiquiri or an Appletini, but preparing a Cosmopolitan should hardly ruin your day or your bar's good name. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer, and welcome to his or her tastes whenever they enter a public house. I, for instance, have never like Bloody Marys, no matter how well they are prepared. Am I right in my tastes? Arguably. Am I within my rights in my tastes? Undoubtedly.

For this young bartender, I quote a good rule of thumb of Kingsley Amis from the recent collection "Everyday Drinking": "Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naive—or worse."


Neyah White said...

I need to call bull on this post.

While quite few of the folk we must hold as 'old guard' defend the well-made cosmopolitan as a righteous cocktail, I and many of my contemporary bretheren say 'NO.'

Here is my reason. Cranberry Juice. True juice from the cranberry is both gross and thankfully, unavailable. The common Ocean-Spray varieties are nothing more than fruit punch. The more natural alternatives are apple and grape juices tinged with cranberry and just plain boring. Basicly, there is NOTHING classic or fresh or natural (all words I use quite seriously when selecting product for my program)about 'cranberry juice.'

Is it snobery when a French restaurant does not offer ketchup with steak frittes? Maybe a little. However, it is ABSOLUTELY that restaurant's right (and I say duty) to serve their product the way they deem most appropriate.

To be completley honest, my current program does serve cranberry juice and I do make cosmos. However, I vehemently defend any program the right to not make any product they do not feel fits what they want to do.

While I do respect 'old guard' very much and truely admire the literary feats of many of the other cocktail pundits (I mean this, I love these guys), they have absolutley no business preaching on this subject. Hell, most of them have never actually done the basic job of tending a bar let alone craft a serious program from the ground up.

I must respectfully, but firmly, say to all cocktail punditry, don't overstep yourselves by telling the footsoldiers of the craft how to run their shows. You are great with history and theory and trivia, but leave the serious decisions to those that have to live by them.

Robert Simonson said...

If you were running a restaurant, I would say you're within your rights. Of course, you can offer what you wish on the menu. A bar is a bit different. If it's well-stocked, the bartender should be able to make anything that's ordered. That's part of the whole aesthetic of the bar, isn't it. They're there to serve your wishes; you set the menu of the night.

There is a cocktail menu at many places these days, but it's meant as a suggestion, a starting point (or it should be). An old-fashioned may not be on that menu (it never is), but if I ask for one, it should be made for me, wherever it is I go.

I just can't really see how a bar can blanketly refuse to make a Cosmopolitan (using the example I've put up) and not set themselves up as ridiculous and pompous. I am in favor of fresh ingredients and authenticity as much as anyone. If anything, I'm probably too much of a classicist. But it's a slippery slope. Where do you stop telling the customer he's wrong in his or her preferences? Do you question their gin-to-vermouth ratio in a Martini, if they ask for it? If they request a certain kind of gin, and you have it behind your bar, do you say no since you don't consider it a good gin in that particular drink? Pretty soon you won't have a working bar; you'll have a museum dedicated to the correct cocktail.

As for that French restaurant, I'd say yes, they are snobs for not bringing ketchup. But most French restaurants found a way around this problem a long time ago by having on hand their own homemade ketchup, which they serve in a silver bowl or something. So they feel good about their standards, and the customer gets what he wants. I'm sure there's a similar solution in the cocktail realm. Don't like Cosmos because of the commercial cranberry juice? Fine. Point taken. So experiment. Created a cranberry juice you can live with. Jesus, bartenders are making their own everything these days. Why not cranberry juice? Then you can serve a respectable Cosmo and sleep easy.

And I never said a Cosmo was a righteous cocktail. It's a good one. Historically, an important one. But not righteous.

Bruce Tomlinson said...

One must remember that we are in the service industry. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the customer if he/she would care to try something new. But to insult a person who is going to spend their hard earned money at your place of employment, just because you do not like the drink. That is not pride. That is illogical foolishness. I pride myself on my drink recipe knowledge and the history behind the recipes, but I never forget that customer service in #1. Always has been and always will be.

Cheers Everyone
Bruce Tomlinson

Neyah White said...

Rebuttles Point by point to the last two posts:

1) To R's, "the bartender should be able to make anything that's ordered"

Oh please. The idea that a bar needs to be all things to all people to be considered good is just plain silly. How about blenders, tomato juice, diet tonic, red bull, Bud Light? All must haves in order to be 'well-stocked'? I sincerely hope not.

2)To R's, "An old-fashioned may not be on that menu (it never is), but if I ask for one, it should be made for me, wherever it is I go."

This is the same mentality that allowed McDonald's to open in Paris. I just can't get behind that.

3)To R's, "Where do you stop telling the customer he's wrong."

Since when does not offering a product equate to telling a guest that they are wrong." Lighten up.

4)To R's, "Create a cranberry juice you can live with"

Let me get right on that. Being a guy that creates quite bit of my own product, I can tell you that we do it because we are passionate about it. Not because we need to fill holes in the back bar.

5) To R's, "If they request a certain kind of gin, and you have it behind your bar, do you say no since you don't consider it a good gin in that particular drink"

Well, I don't exactly use the word 'no', but I ABSOLUTELY talk the guest out of it if I don't believe in it. That's called service, looking out for the guest's best interests. The gracious guest notices this and is thankful.

6) To B's, "I never forget that customer service in #1. Always has been and always will be."

Serving your guest (the fact you both use the word 'customer' rather than 'guest' boggles me considering how rabid you are about bowing down to the merest of whims)infereor product like Cranberry Juice drink is not really serving them at all in my opinion. Just read the ingredients and then tell me how that differs from bottled sour mix. Using Ocean-Spray type product is EXACTLY the same as using Jose Cuervo Margarita mix and that is just plain mean.

I did not enter this discussion with the idea of flaming anyone. It's just that I rather resent the idea that a program is pompous for not serving something it doesn't believe in. I read some pretty tough words the previous posts about the service and attitude from the programs in question. Have either of you actually witnessed the way cosmo question was dealt with on the shift? Having worked in a cosmo-free program, it was pretty easy for us to just say that we don't have cranberry juice and to move on with talking about dirnks of a similar profile. Not that it ever happened, but if anyone had walked out because they couldn't get a cosmo, well, I am not sure that there is anything I can do to a make a person like that happy.

Robert Simonson said...

Wait a minute. An Old-Fashioned is equal to McDonald's opening in Paris? I'm curious about your opinion of this ancient drink. Some people consider it a drink the equal of the Martini and the Manhattan, when made well. I certainly do.

Also, I'm curious. What's the name of your bar and where is it located?

Neyah White said...

The Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail is great in the right time and place. It's history and beatuty do not however,mean that you must be able to get one 'where ever it is you should go.'

I work the bar in a restaruant called Nopa in San Francisco, a quick google search will tell you what we are all about.

Robert Simonson said...

Looks interesting Neyah. I will have to stop by my next time in San Francisco.