If you cover the drinking world, you can't help but take note of the ludicrious notions and habits people pick up in regard to how they order, drink and think about liquor. As much as mixologists like to think of the modern bar as a classroom, few barflies learn their lessons. Instead they cling to myth, superstition, marketing notions, and stuff they learned back in college or on television. Recently, I collected a number of the misguided, but stubborn beliefs stubbornly held by the American drinker into an article for the New York Times, drawing on the experiences and viewpoints of a couple dozen notes bartenders and distillers (of which I managed to cite an even dozen in the piece). As expected, the feature got a strongly positive response from the bartending community. What the public thought of it, I do not know. But if I've caused just one person to stop asking about the worm in mezcal or order their whiskey based on the age statement, I've done my work.
The Myths of the Bar, Debunked
By ROBERT SIMONSON
EDUCATING the average drinker on the qualities of firewater, and how to best enjoy it, has been one of the central credos of the new generation of mixologists. “Knowledge!” they cry, as they throw back shots of Fernet-Branca.
But some booze-addled misconceptions continue to cling like vines to the lizard brain of the American tippler. An army of bartenders can protest that a wetter martini is both more delectable and historically accurate, but certain committed fanciers of the cocktail, channeling their inner Gray Flannel Suit, will still maintain the drink attains perfection only at its driest, when vermouth is banished from the barroom.
Such antiquated contentions are like “nails on a chalkboard,” said Eric Alperin, an owner of the Varnish in Los Angeles. “I think the reason people stand by those myths is because it is a sound bite they’ve acquired, and a bar is a place to feel confident with yourself and exude a little know-how.”
Many reinforce a drinker’s virility, particularly with regard to the most manly of spirits — whiskey.
Some of those idées fixes:
OLDER IS BETTER “It’s absolute nonsense,” said Ronnie Cox, director of theGlenrothes, a Speyside Scotch. “It’s not about oldness, it’s about maturity. Age doesn’t mean anything other than that whiskey’s been in that cask for that amount of time.” Making whiskey requires finding the right balance among myriad elements. A few whiskeys prosper with advanced age, but many fall off a cliff into sensory disharmony at a certain point. Rittenhouse Rye 100, from Kentucky, takes only four years to reach the chewy, spicy sweet spot bartenders swear by. But the Old Pulteney 21-year-old Scotch probably needed to attain drinking age to hit its briny perfection.
Tonia Guffey, a bartender at Dram in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offered an anthropomorphic analogy. “Not every human hits their peak of beauty at the same age,” she said, “and neither does every spirit.”
WATER IS AN ABOMINATION John McCarthy, head bartender at the Lower East Side bar Mary Queen of Scots, thinks the aversion to diluting whiskey is a matter of machismo. “We’re American men,” Mr. McCarthy said, “and if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not good!” But softening the blow, said Franky Marshall, a bartender at the Monkey Bar, is far from a bad thing. “Adding a little water to whiskey serves to ‘open up’ the spirit, releasing an array of subtler flavors. It can truly show you a completely different profile of a whiskey.” It’s also what most Scots do, and they ought to know. Alla Lapushchik, owner ofPost Office, a Williamsburg bar with a vast whiskey list, offers water even when customers don’t ask for it. “You don’t put water in beer or wine, so it doesn’t occur to people to do it with whiskey,” Ms. Lapushchik said. “I’ve had people order Booker’s 127 proof neat.”
SWEET IS SILLY Another fallacy that hurts the pride of many a modern mixologist is the widely held belief that sweet cocktails are inherently insipid. “I think expectations are still informed by the cocktails of the pre-craft era, when people added sour mix and cranberry cocktail,” said Tom Chadwick, owner of Dram, who insists that all his cocktails, even the sweet ones — like the bar’s current Loose Noose, a mix of bourbon, sweet vermouth, amontillado sherry, and touches of cinnamon syrup and allspice dram — are balanced, with the spirit, citrus, sweetener and other elements cohabiting in the glass. “It’s a way of communicating that you’re sophisticated — ‘I don’t want a Mudslide. I want something complicated.’ ”
GIVE THEM THEIR PROPS The reputation and quality of tequilas and mezcals has risen recently. But drinkers fall back on frat-boy practices, like asking for a lime and salt, a ritual that dates to the days of lousy tequilas. “I say, ‘Whatever spirit I serve you is good, ” said Ivy Mix, a bartender at the Clover Club in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, “and you don’t need to cover it up.’ ” Then there’s the worm in the mezcal bottle. “It was created by Gusano Rojo in the 1950s,” said Steve Olson, an owner of the Lower East Side tequila and mezcal bar Viktor & Spoils, of the widely sold mezcal brand, “when the tequila market had boomed and left mezcal far behind, as an enterprising marketing attempt to get mezcal away from its image as moonshine.”
MISCELLANEOUS MYTHS Despite the avalanche of articles after absinthe’s reintroduction to the United States a few years ago, some ideas about it remain rooted in the 1890s. Customers “really hope they’ll hallucinate,” said Maxwell Britten, beverage director at Maison Premiere, a Williamsburg bar well stocked with absinthe. “I tell them, ‘If you drink enough alcohol of any category, I guarantee you will hallucinate.’ ” Karin Stanley, a bartender at Dutch Kills, in Long Island City, Queens, rattled off her litany of ripostes: “ ‘No, you aren’t going to see anything’; ‘no, you aren’t going to cut your ear off’; and ‘yes, it is supposed to taste like that.’ ”
Other delusions as tough as jerky: that vodka has no calories and is better for you, Ms. Stanley said; that “Jägermeister is made with deer’s blood,” offered St. John Frizell, owner of Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn; and that Irish whiskey brands are Catholic or Protestant, depending on where they’re made. “If you look into the ownership, it’s all international corporations,” Mr. Frizell said. “I don’t think the Irish even care.”
Odds are, many misconceptions will survive. The bar has ever been a greenhouse of hyperbole, folklore and rumor. “I’d say a good 30 percent of what’s said over the mahogany is generally baloney,” said Derek Brown, owner of the Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington. “Why wouldn’t that apply to myths about alcohol, too?”