The first seminar I attended at this year's Manhattan Cocktail Classic was a lively one about a timely topic—when does excessive historicism and general cocktail geekdom get in the way of a customer's simply enjoying his cocktail. Historian David Wondrich asked this question of panelists Chad Solomon, Philip Duff and St. John Frizell, and the audience, which, in this case, had a lot to say on the matter.
One question that was asked by Wondrich, but not adequately answered by the panel or audience, was why is tracking a drink's history so much more an obsession and practice in the cocktail world than it is in the food world. I have a theory about this. Culinary tradition in cooking is, I believe, more of a continuum. Chefs aren't ignoring history. They've just absorbed the work of their antecedents and express those influences in their food and techniques, without drawing particular notice to it. Restaurants never suffered anything like Prohibition, which closed down regular bars, and interrupted drinking traditions for more than a decade. When it was repealed, the historical timeline was lost, as were various products, practitioners and books. The industry had to piece everything together again. That is why I think cocktail people are so interested in their work's history—it was taken away from them. The excessive notations of today's cocktail menus are a way of making sure that never happens again.
Here's my write-up for the Times:
Do You Have to Think When You Drink?
By Robert Simonson
Pick up a drink menu these days and it’s not unusual to find a citation for each cocktail detailing its inventor, its place of origin and year of creation. There might even be a few lines of colorful back story. This can charm and inform, or in the wrong hands, it can be very annoying.
So on Saturday four cocktail historians and mixologists gathered at Astor Center to discuss whether this historicism has gone too far.
David Wondrich, author of a recent historical study of punch, presided over the event, titled “History: What Is It Good For?” part of this year’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic convention.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, said the writer, cocktail consultant and bar owner Philip Duff. The road of half-baked “research,’’ he said, “leads to the palace of arrogance.”
But St. John Frizell, a writer and owner of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn, said there was a value to knowing about a cocktail’s provenance.
“Knowing where the cocktail comes from makes it taste better,” Mr. Frizell contended. “You never drink in a vacuum.” He suggested that sketching in the historical framework of a classic drink can help to “provide an extra level of enjoyment.”
Chad Solomon, a founder of the consultancy and catering group Cuffs and Buttons, added that, at this point in the cocktail revolution, bartenders have little choice but to stow a little history up their gartered sleeve. “People want context,” he said. “People expect it.”
The challenge, it seems, is to deliver that context so that it’s received as a pleasurable accompaniment to drinking, and not, as Mr. Wondrich put it, “a club we beat people with.” One audience member wondered how most bartenders would answer the question, “Am I doing this for my guest, or for myself?”
Mr. Duff suggested the problem of preachiness may rest largely with the more ego-centric male members of the profession. “You know that drink recipe you’ve never heard of in the book that’s out of print?” he said, imitating a certain grandstanding type of bartender., Mr. Duff, however, believed a bar’s advertisement of historical fealty to old drinks telegraphed a useful message to the consumer: “These drinks are taken care of.”
Misty Kalkofen, a mixologist at Drink , in Boston, who was in the audience, said that knowing the story behind an old drink is a great hospitality tool. “If a story connects us with the guest, that’s great,” she said.
Still, Mr. Solomon said he thought it was perhaps time to move on from history-happy cocktail bars. “I think we’ve plateaued with the use of history,” he said. “The history is stifling the recreational aspect of the bar.”