A few thoughts, trends, and remarks from our notebook while on assignment in Paris photographing Cocktail Spirits 2013.
1. Is mezcal the new flavoured vodka?
It wasn’t actually us who asked this. But the (it should be noted) Gin Ambassador who came out with it might be onto something. Vermouths aren’t a million miles behind either.
2. Great drinks can take a while (and that’s okay)
It took Jack McGarry one and a half years of researching for his drinks menu before any liquid ever hit the official glassware. One and a half years.
3. Fiscal realism isn’t just for accountants
When it comes to opening your bar it seems that you are guaranteed to spend every last penny you have at your disposal – and then some. That might seem obvious, but somehow, whether you have £25,000 to open Happiness Forgets or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a spot in Manhattan, the story is the same. And that’s quite interesting.
So the moral would seem to be twofold:
a) get every ounce of backing you can before you start … just don’t expect there to be anything left; and
b) even if you come up shorter than you would have liked, you’ll still manage to pull it off. Everything, it seems, will turn out just fine. If you work at it.
4. Bartenders love gadgets
Monkey Shoulder’s Dean Callan and Tim Ward made quite a stir when they presented their somewhat ‘unique’ armoury of bar tools and assorted paraphernalia – from a new Monkey Shoulder extendable bar spoon and a fire truck bar caddie to Dean’s singing Japanese owl-mixing glass.
With some of their notable DIY extras (ask Tim about his modified fishing stool), the pair echoed Alastair Burgess’s sage warning that you don’t always need that $200 Cocktail Kingdom mixing glass when a £10 basic will do the job just as well. Or as one attendee was heard to whisper: nothing beats a bit of MacGyver.
5. Screw local: think über-hyper-super-local
Just ask the boys at Gam Sei. While there’s no definitive boundary for what’s ‘too far’ for the Munich bar’s crazy-local ingredient remit, a two hour drive is pushing it. That means no lemons or limes for sour. It means storing away seasonal ingredients in ceiling-mounted ceramic bottles so that they can actually trade during the winter months. It also means testing a local-ant-infused honey. (Ants, it turns out, apparently taste a little like lemongrass, which is handy for the citrus-less team.)
As much as any unique recipes and ingredients, the extremity of Gam Sei’s conceptualism and self-administered rules was something that clearly resonated with much of their audience. As, similarly, did the charming historic pedantry of Jack McGarry’s Dead Rabbit menu. Bartenders, it turns out, also love a bit of obsessiveness.
6. Why are all uniforms so uniform?
If, as Jacob Briars has suggested, bartenders (“Rock stars who don’t want to practice,” as he calls them) are a subculture unto themselves, then it’s interesting to take note of the uniforms that they opt for. Furthermore, as Matt Bax asks: Why is it that wherever you go in the world, you end up ordering the same classic cocktails from the same menus, made by bartenders who all look the same?
And this well-meaning criticism uttered a only a few hours after Olivier Jacobs and his bow-tied team at Jigger’s taught the entire audience how to tie their own bow ties. Competitively. Synchronicity is a curious beast.
7. Silly brand costumes (still) attract attention
Just ask the bee-keeper barkeeps knocking out Jim Beam Honey cocktails in honey jars. And of course their sometimes neighbour, who looked alarming like a fluffy Cyril Sneer – only furrier.
8. Transparency is the new secrecy
For his presentation, Ali Burgess presented several of his actual financial spreadsheets for the opening and continued running of his bar, Happiness Forgets in London. Now that’s not something that many operators and owners would want you to see. Yet, from start-up costs to GPs, staff and stock costs to year-on-year turnover, it was all there. And very much as an expression of openness among his peers.
Remember when this was an industry of trade secrets and closed doors? Oh, wait. It still is. But the tides they are a-changing. The bar industry that is emerging today seems to be (with any luck) an organism of honesty and transparency – whether that’s a case of admitting quite how many heated arguments it took to launch your bar in New York, or that some concepts often seem significantly better on paper than they are in practice. Like trying to convince local Münchens to wear slippers in your establishment.
9. Do we value insanely-expensive cocktails less?
It was interesting how comparatively little interest Salvatore Calabrese’s “most expensive Sazerac in the world” received, despite being made with a 1905 Absinthe and an even older Cognac and carrying a retail value of £2500. It might have been because of the somewhat dry preceding presentations. Or perhaps it’s just that fiscal value is, ironically, devaluing.
While not actually part of Matt Bax’s presentation this year, it is interesting too that his next bar back in Australia will be serving classic cocktails in plastic cups for $5. Just saying.
10. Bar awards are the new Formula 1
While many brands and bars continue to showcase ‘authentic’ traditions and skillsets like coopering or perfumery in the quest for consumer and trade engagement, sometimes (in fact: surprisingly often) bartenders just wanna have fun.
And while that may or may note involve blue drinks and hysterical garnishes, you can’t go wrong with a battle-cry of “Champaaaaaagne!” followed by spraying bubbly in every direction. Call it a victory dance, call it a response to the seriousness of real life, the finals of this years Cocktail Spirits involved the emptying of some nine magnums of Lanson onto the heads and clothes of its award winners. And next year already promises to be even messier. Sebastian Vettel’s got nothing on this community of marvellous misfits we call the drinks industry.