Don’t look now, fellow cocktail bloggers, but I think my pal Derek Brown is firing a shot across our bow! In his latest blog post for The Atlantic, Derek critiques “cocktail snobs” and the impact they have on bartenders. Now, in fairness, it’s the title of the post, “What Makes a Cocktail Snob so Obnoxious?” that really sets off alarm bells, with a very reasonable article beneath it. The post opens:
I have to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that it is sometimes those with the most distinctive tastes–and sometimes the most abrasive attitudes–that make us better bartenders. I’m talking about snobs. It’s their insistence on attention to the finest details, their unrealistic notion of what is possible behind the bar, and their singular expression of taste that assure we will work twice as hard, twisting over backwards in some slinky-like stair crawl to meet their expectations. That is, if we make the effort and don’t dismiss them out of hand.
Derek goes on to use David Embury’s controversial 1948 book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, and Embury’s consistently problematic take on cocktail recipes as an example. Looking at Embury’s awful rendition of a Sidecar, Derek explores the Sidecar himself:
Yet because of this one line and the subsequent recipe, I have made a heroic effort to study the proportions and best his recipe. It pushed me to explore various recipes and evaluate each one separately. If one takes it in the right spirit, snobs become connoisseurs and their solipsism appears to stem from the dictum: know thyself.
I think this shows that Derek is a committed bartender, willing to work to make a recipe great. But the impetus came from a non-bartendering author and he’s able to give credit to him here.
What troubles me is that while I know a lot of cocktail bloggers aren’t bartenders (I fall in that category), most of my brethren write about cocktails because of the joy we take in them, not out of a desire to snobbishly tell the world what is right or wrong. Sure, I’ve seen some under informed guests of fine bars who think one visit to Death & Company makes them world-class cocktail critics. Those are the people that seem the most susceptible to obnoxiousness. But I think most cocktail bloggers and true fans of craft cocktails come to the bar with genuinely good intentions. It’s very rare for me to find an on-menu drink that I really dislike. And at the bars I visit the most here in DC – like The Gibson or Bar Pilar – the mixologists know my tastes well enough to serve up drinks that I almost always like. In fact, it’s quite common where I’m happy to defer to my bartender for what I’m drinking.
I think most craft cocktail bartenders that I know really work towards the clientele that knows their cocktails. At the end of the day, they have to. Without people interested in great cocktails, great cocktail bars wouldn’t exist. The steady stream of smart customers is what gives bartenders an outlet for new recipes…recipes that often need some level of critique to be improved.
All that said, professional bartenders have spent centuries perfecting recipes. We all relate to them differently and there’s nothing wrong with having different tastes. But criticism of cocktails shouldn’t lead to recipe authoritarianism, at least not at the hands of non-bartenders.
Or if that doesn’t work for my fellow cocktail bloggers, we could just start organizing against Derek Brown and demanding David Embury recipe Sidecar’s at The Gibson until he gives in and retracts this post…