Finely crafted cocktails are created by artists! Lately, I have been reading a lot of different articles, recipes, blog posts, etc. The craft cocktail scene is steeped in history. Many cocktail bars are themed with antiques and remnants from ages past. The classic cocktails have withstood the test of time, and are just as, if not more, popular today than they were in their heyday. Mostly because there are more people on the planet, and more people drinking them. I have had, what I refer to as, neo-classic cocktails. The same ones in many bars across the world! For instance, I’ve had a Penicillin cocktail, made essentially the same, in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Chicago, Minneapolis, Prague, Ceske Budejovice, London, and Paris. That’s a classic cocktail in all senses of the term! The thing about classic cocktails is that they are usually simple. They are well balanced and maintain the golden cocktail ratios for flavor profile. For many of them, you should be able to switch the base spirit and, although it won’t be the same cocktail, will be a great cocktail! A good comparison is the Negroni and the Boulevardier. The proportions can be argued to make the best tasting versions according to personal preference, but in general they are the same cocktail with different base spirits. Negroni with essentially equal parts Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and bitter liqueur (most use Campari), and the Boulevardier with Bourbon or Rye, Sweet Vermouth, and bitter liqueur. These are distinct cocktails. Both great and both classic.
The best way to learn how to cocktail bar-tend is to learn the classics first. Understanding drink profiles, standard ratios of sweet, bitter, spirit, and other ingredients that balance those classics, creates a standard blueprint for making unlimited numbers of cocktails. The most classic of all cocktails is the Old Fashioned. The original recipe was just called a “Cocktail” and contained only 4 ingredients; Spirit, Bitters, Sugar, and Water (the Americans used ice to impart the water). It was developed about 100 years before the whiskey revolution and was likely most commonly served with rum aged in wooden barrels, since that was the most prevalent spirit at the time. It’s purpose was to showcase the spirit that was in it and to bring out the full flavor pallet in that spirit. People would order things like a rum cocktail, a gin cocktail, or a whiskey cocktail at bars. After a while, people started adding other things to cocktails, and when you wanted the original, you would order a cocktail “the old-fashioned way”. During prohibition, people started adding fruits and juices because the spirits that were available weren’t fit to be “showcased” to say the least. This essentially changed the cocktail, but now it’s known as just one version of the old fashioned.
Where am I going with this? New cocktail bartenders today are excited about their newfound knowledge of these classic cocktails, and their new abilities to create new great cocktails! Many times, in their head when they are working on the next great cocktail, they are thinking, “I’m going to start with an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, and I’m going to add to or change it in a few ways. When they are done, and they want to advertise their new creation, they say things like, “Try this twist on the Manhattan!” Well, the story continues… I also have an affinity for classics, originals, and the like. I love the classics, maybe even more than most people. When your new cocktail includes Rum, orange curacao, coffee, and cardamom, it’s no longer a twist on a Manhattan. It’s a new cocktail that possibly utilizes proper ratios and balance, maybe the same type of balance as the Manhattan. However, it’s not a twist on the classic! Take credit for your artwork! I won’t even start on the “fill-in-the-blank-tini”.
A great musician or composer has learned the standard scales and chords and understands music theory and what sounds good together. You wouldn’t hear a new composer saying “Hey, check out this twist on Mozart’s Symphony #40!” Painters understand what feelings using different color pallets invoke, and how to put colors together to express whatever it is they want to express. You wouldn’t hear a painter that just painted a picture of a lady say “Hey, take a look at this twist on the Mona Lisa!”
Great! You’re a new bartender with great ideas and you’ve learned classic cocktail theory, flavor pallets, and proper cocktail ratios! Take credit for those new creations and name them what you like… just not “A twist on a…”. It’s bad practice, a bad idea, and doesn’t sit well with classicists. You’re not doing yourself any favors, and there is nothing to gain by doing it. Take credit for your new cocktail and name your cocktail something new!
– The Cocktail Engineer