Our modern ancestors needed food, so they hunted it first and grew it later. After realizing they could store it, they accidentally found fermentation. Fermented food and beverages have been made for thousands of years, and somewhere after fermentation came distillation—and some time after distillation came mixing. Why mix distilled booze with anything else? It’s rough. It’s sometimes really rough. And it was not always very well-made.
Even well-made, however, it can be rough to many (if not most) palates. The majority of the population isn’t well-equipped to handle straight spirits of 40%+ ABV. But well-made booze can be mixed, as it has properties that make it both volatile and pleasing in ways that nothing else can be! If we can find a way to highlight the good attributes while masking the ones we find displeasing, then we’ve got a cocktail! Cocktails have come a long way since the modernly accepted dawn, but even some of the first remain some of the best.
Innumerable drinks have been fabricated over the course of the years, and, like gold panning, only the ones worth their weight have stuck around. These staples have become categories, spawning new drinks forth from their formulas and build-structures that otherwise may never have come into existence! Hooray for the Sour, the Fizz, the Manhattan, the Negroni, and Old Fashioned Cocktail! I’m sure I’ve left a few out, but you get the picture. Just about every drink ever created falls relatively neatly into one of these categories.
So what’s the first step when we get into bartending as a flavor journey rather than solely a social endeavor? Everybody runs. We run as fast and far as we possibly can. We find every herb and spice and stick it in vinegar and sugar. We mix obscure liqueurs and liquors together in ways that, to both the eyes and the mouth, make very little actual sense. If prior there was simple syrup, there is now cinnamon tarragon syrup. If prior there was lime juice, there is now 70% prickly pear 30% kumquat juice.
This is all well and good, as innovation is often accidental, but what of the knowledge and experimentation set forth and scribbled on paper for the last dozen decades? Can we ignore this? What if one’s blind experimentation for the next 60 years culminates in the following statement: “Two parts 100 pf rye, one part sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters makes the best cocktail in the world.” Well, in that case, we’re in trouble, because we just spent 60 years inventing something that someone already invented.
It may seem embarrassing to a new bartender to be stricken from importance in the industry as an innovator. But it isn’t. It seems more embarrassing to create drinks poorly that have already been created well. The legwork has been done, and in just a few hours a week of reading a variety of (typically older) books, one can come away with 100+ years of cocktail knowledge ready to be implemented better each day.
Re-create the drinks that have already been created. Find the liquors and liqueurs that make them best. Encourage discourse with your peers, elders, and employees. Find patterns and anomalies, and patterns in anomalies. Find larger patterns and then, THEN make your own anomalies. No car company ever made the coolest, fastest, most reliable car without the help of 100 years of innovation already at their disposal. The more we know, the more we’re capable of seeing and finding.
Gotta know the rules before you break ‘em, right?