Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Cocktail Elite and the Mysterious Allure of Shots

Last year, just before the New Orleans "Tales of the Cocktail" convention was about to get underway, I was trolling the blogs of various well-known mixologists and liquor journalists to see what they were up to. I happened upon a post by a bartender respected as a talented craftsman in cocktail circles. He joyfully reported that he was doing Jägermeister shots with a highly regarded cocktail journalist in a French Quarter bar.

The French Quarter offers a myriad of fine drinking choices (among a lot of bad ones, of course), and they went for the kind of alcohol injection you can get in any dive on the planet. I scratched my head.

Last year, I was hanging out at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic's official bar at the Astor Center, watching some of the best mixologists in New York go to work assembling magic combinations of liquors for waiting customers. Suddenly, in the middle of the rush, a call came from the kitchen. The bartenders stopped what they were doing and hustled into the kitchen like football players going into a huddle. There, a circle of shots waited for them. They threw them back simultaneously and then hurried back to their stations.

Shots. What is it about them that even the most self-serious and artisanal bartenders find so alluring? The unofficial "bartender's handshake" used to be a shot of Fernet Branca. Now, it's been overtaken by the Pickleback, which is a shot of Jameson followed by a shot of pickle brine. At the recent opening of Painkiller on the Lower East Side, one of the owners christened the place by passing out shots of rum. It's a scene I've witnessed countless times before.

Shots don't interest me. They never have. I associate them with bad drinking habits and idiotic drinking games, with high school and college frat parties where alcohol was a tool for quick inebriation and had no other value. Now, a fine whiskey or rum or tequila sipped neat—that has an appeal. It's all about careful consideration of the elixir. Shots are about getting booze to your brain as quickly as possible. It matters little what's in the glass.

I would find none of this curious if I were dealing with Kelly down at Dugan's pub. Of course a regular bartender—the kind that's never heard the terms "mixologist" or "bar chef"—would go for a shot at the end of the night. Shots and beers are mainly what he's been serving. But I'm not dealing with Kelly. I'm dealing with young men in sleeve garters and handlebar moustaches who thumb through 19th-century cocktail manuals and turn their nose up Rose's Lime Juice and Blue Curacao. They have taste. They have standards. And I admire them for it.

I've asked modern mixologists about this. They typically say that, after a long day of manufacturing fancy drinks, they want to ratchet down the tension and ceremony a bit and keep things simple. A beer. A shot. I can sort of understand that. But a gin and tonic is simple. Scotch on the rocks is simple. Wine. Going from cocktails to shots is like a pastry chef going from making souffles to sticking the nozzle of a can of Cool Whip down his throat.

I know that to a certain extent shots about having a lark, a bit a fun, letting go. There's also an tendency among today's elite bartenders to show that, though you make cocktails sporting pretty garnishes and lovely hues, you're as manly as the next guy, and shots are a speedy route to proving that. But primarily why the ritual mystifies my wondering journalist mind is that the cocktail renaissance has been all about preaching consumer appreciation. Cocktail creation is an art, or at least a craft, we're told, as complex as any meal. The proper selection of ingredients—not to mention the shaking, the stirring, the presentation—takes skill. One is taught to contemplate the flavors, respect the finely honed liquid materials that went into the glass. Liquor is not for getting drunk. It's cuisine, it's fleeting beauty. To me, shots embody the exact opposite of this whole school of thought. If the cocktail revolution disdains blender drinks, sour mixes, chemically treated garnishes—basically disdains crap drinking—why are shots the knee-jerk nitecap?


frederic said...

I agree about the whole shot thing. I generally sip Fernet shots when they're bought (or any other shot for that matter). On occasion I've done it in one gulp when it was a group event, but some things meant are to be savored. Shooting it almost signals that you don't actually like the taste of what you're drinking.

Darcy O'Neil said...

I would liken it to the appeal of the Big Mac, and other fast food, to some of the worlds top chefs like Gordon Ramsay's not-so-secret love for In-N-Out Burger and Julia Child fondness for Big Mac's.

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Nice comparison, Darcy. No doubt you are right.

Paul said...

As Freud might have said, "Sometimes a drink is just a drink."

And to speculate on your lede, just to put it into possible context -- let's say that it was that journalist's birthday, and he'd entered that bar to celebrate with his friends. Let's also say that the craft bartender you mentioned bought the shot of Jaeger both as a birthday drink, and as a dare: a "Hey, Mr. Cocktail Geek, will you accept a shot of Jaeger on your birthday or are you too good for that?" Well, really, there's only one way the journalist could proceed without being churlish (and the after-the-fact Twittering of the event by the bartender was probably to be expected). No, it wasn't an absinthe frappe or a vieux carre or any of the other nicely done drinks one could find in the French Quarter; but, it was a celebratory drink, offered by a mischievous friend, and -- it was just a drink.

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Context can not be discounted.

Unknown said...

Don't discount the near-immediate physical and psychological effects of a shot, especially when taken late at night by someone who has been working hard for 6-8 hours and hasn't eaten or sat since pre-shift meal. Your sore back and aching knees immediately feel a little better; you take a moment from serving everyone else to acknowledge and toast your fellow foxhole mates, and you're ready to keep going. At the bar, we'll take a staff shot an hour before last call to keep us smiling and shaking.

At big events like MCC, you saw shots being taken not only as a reprieve from the cacophony and disorganization of even a well-run event, but also because we were working with friends and colleagues from all over the country and a quick toast together commemorates our mutual fondness and respect.

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Nice insights, Joachim. Thank you.