Friday, June 13, 2008

Innovation and the Future of Cocktails

America thrives on fads. Market mavens, and early adopters jump on trends like fleas with thronging crowds following dutifully behind screaming, "Me too! Me too!" And just as quickly as the star of popularity rises, it falls -- One white trash beer is shunned in favor of another. Backs are turned on that really cool Grasscore band from Rhode Island because, you know, everybody likes them now. Next thing you know everybody's ironically drinking wine coolers, and wearing Hello Kitty belts around their chests. Amongst this swirl of pop cultural miasma, like gummi bears resting in their frozen yogurt tomb, is the cocktail.

There is no denying that a large part of the current cocktail resurgence is due to its status as a fad. Certainly it is also being driven by the ongoing "foodie" movement, but even that movement is fraught with a number of sub-fads (foams anybody?). Being a fad, it is destined to be forsaken when the next big thing comes stalking through the land (could the recent rash of Belgian beer focused pubs here in San Francisco, and the seemingly increasing press being given to craft beer be a harbinger?). Even at my tender age (would you believe I just turned 21? Anybody? No? Fine.) I have always been philosophically ok with this. I bought garbage pail kids, I owned a hypercolor shirt, I was even down with the McD.L.T.. I know how the kids roll.

Pragmatically I'm selfish, I don't want to lose even a single place at which I can currently get a great drink. I don't want to see those places that are squeezing the bandwagon by serving swill and getting away with calling it a cocktail by charging crazy prices, and having a DJ on the weekends, fuck things up for the rest of us. I hate change and I love deliciousness. What does this have to do with innovative (the house cocktails which take up most of the menus at many drink joints) cocktails? I think they may be unintentionally contributing to the impending death of the "fad". This isn't a big reason, and there are certainly numerous other factors (this missive was even longer as I digressed into the effects of food trends over the last 10 years, as well as domestic attitudes to drinking in general), but it's one that I think is interesting.

Since I feel a bit like I might be treading on shifty sands, and often when I try and gingerly pick my way through an issue that might be sensitive, let me get one thing out of the way now. I love what's currently going on in the cocktail scene. I love the use of seasonal ingredients, the application of savory elements, the freedom that mixologists have to go crazy and apply their art. Nothing makes me happier than when a bar tender I trust asks me, "You mind if I try something out on you?" Hell, sitting at home right now I've got a failed attempt at lemon-coke bitters, and some kumquat gastrique I'm dying to play around with this weekend.

With that enormous caveat out of the way, here's the thing -- When I go out to grab a cocktail I see plenty of people happily imbibing drinks off the specialty drink menus, and I wonder how many of these people will be in the least bit interested in cocktails a year or two from now. Eventually many people are going to get tired of things like Thai basil, and green cardamom syrup. When that happens will those people fall back to Manhattans and Daiquiris? I'm not so sure they will, because for them a Manhattan is something their Grandpa drank, and never had made correctly anyway, and if it doesn't come out of a slushy machine it can't be a Daiquiri right?

Want to go on an analogy with me? Come on, it'll be fun! When I was 12, after a summer spent watching cooking shows on my local PBS station, I decided I wanted to give cooking a try. The first dish I made was chicken piccata. It wasn't very good, but it wasn't so bad that it made me want to give up kitchen experiments. I raided my mother's cookbooks, and began to acquire my own, faithfully following the recipes I found with painful precision. As my confidence (and dare I say skill) increased, I realized I had jumped past many of the basics, and back to basics I went. I learned how to make a perfect steak, roast a chicken, make the major sauces and learn their myriad uses, etc. Learning those basics hugely informed how I looked at the things I made after.

I would posit that this analogy can be applied to a number of the people who are fueling the current cocktail scene. They are, at least potentially, the cocktail equivalent of foodies, but they have jumped into the deep end, and as the intensity of the trend wanes will they explore the basics and stick around or will they drift off to some other far flung place? Perhaps more importantly, given that it isn't the job of a bartender or owner to force anybody into drinking any particular drink, is there anything that can be done? Does it even really matter?

Having spent an insane amount of time trying to get this thought on paper, I'm still not sure.

Comments always welcome or feel free to e-mail us at drinkaweek [at] gmail [dot] com.


erik_flannestad said...

Thought provoking post.

In regards cocktails, I like the jazz analogy.

To really swing, I think you have to have spent some time mastering the basics. You have to know your scales and changes.

But then someone comes out of left field with so much native talent that they seem to start where other people spend years getting to.

Or sometimes people get bogged down using classic formulations, where someone without that baggage can think of something altogether new.

Ultimately, I think, cocktails surviving beyond faddishness depends on just the same old boring basics of the Food and Beverage industry. Providing quality service. Providing perceived value for the dollar. Running the bar or bar program well enough to turn a profit for the owners.

One of my big worries is that the price of cocktails will be a detrimental factor in the coming years, depending on how the economy shakes out. And this sort of ties into my fears about the gentrification of San Francisco. Is San Francisco just becoming a sort of theme park for rich foodies and wealthy overseas investors. But, that's another very complicated discussion.

erik_flannestad said...

By the way, you didn't really just turn 21 did you? Really?

drinkaweek said...

Thanks Erik,

Great analogy -- for both imbibing and mixing I would say. I think you're definitely on to something with the "boring" basics. I suspect one of the reasons that the fad part of cocktails has lasted as long as it has is that, generally speaking, one is going to get better overall service than they would at dive bar A, and the difference between even a well crafted G&T is profoundly noticeable over cheap gin and tonic from a gun creating that perceived value for the dollar (which I think skyrockets when you start looking at the use of fresh seasonal ingredients and whatnot).

I just started getting into my third paragraph when I decided that perhaps I ought to go ahead and turn my response into a second post on the subject, but suffice to say I very much agree with your other points.

As for turning 21 I'm afraid I passed that milestone long ago. I think that night was the last time I ever drank a long island ice tea.