Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | June 15, 2009

Expanding Horizons

Yesterday’s Washington Post included a letter to the editor by Nick Wineriter which was somewhat critical of the an article on the rise of craft cocktail bars in DC.  The letter’s author, himself a bartender, bemoaned the lost stature of the simple orders in a bar like a beer and a bump.

Being an old-school bartender, I often wonder: Whatever happened to just a beer and a shot? Or a classic Manhattan? Or a classic anything? These old-school cocktails will always stand the test of time. How many bartenders know that a Manhattan requires a dash of bitters?

Well I think Wineriter will be happy to learn most of these cocktail bars actually primarily serve classic cocktails or drinks inspired in the same tradition as classic drinks. The menus include items that have roots going back 100, 150 or even nearly 200 years. I would hope that this bit of information satisfies Wineriter. In fairness, Wineriter was responding to an article where 5 DC craft bartenders were specifically asked to create new cocktail alternatives to the mojito (a drink which itself dates back to the late 1800s). He may be reacting to the creative process these bartenders were undergoing in finding new things that expand the imbibing options of a knowledgeable clientele.

But more to the point, I don’t think the efforts of craft bartenders to come up with new drinks as alternatives to classics or reviving classics that have been forgotten in any way stands in opposition to the past times of 99.9% of American bartenders. In the year and a half or so that I’ve been heavily involved in the craft cocktail movement — the first year as a customer, the last 10 months or so as a blogger and home bartender — my interest in really well crafted drinks has never stopped me from enjoying classics. On any given night, I’m more likely to order a domestic light beer, bourbon and ginger ale, or Jameson on the rocks than any fine cocktail. If I want a fancier cocktail, I’ll go to a bar that I know makes them. But I certainly haven’t stopped going to good ol’ fashioned dive bars, sports bars, hotel bars, or restaurant bars because I can’t get a perfectly made Ramos Gin Fizz.

A great deal of what appeals to me about the craft cocktail movement is that it adds a level of history and culinary adventurism to drinking that goes far beyond comparing vintages or flavor profiles of the spirits themselves. To me, this adds another avenue of enjoyment beyond intoxication. It’s just fun to geek out on cocktails. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also fun to hang out at a deep dive, chat with the other patrons and make a new bartender friend. In fact, I consider myself a dive bar guy above all else. I can think of no other bar I’d rather hang out than a joint like Cherry Tavern or B-Side in New York City’s East Village. They’re dingy, concrete floored, beer and a shot type places with great punk rock on the jukebox. My enjoyment for the exquisite hasn’t tempered my like for what Wineriter likely would call “old fashioned” bars.

I’m not working in the bar industry so I can’t adequately assess how craft cocktails are impacting the business of someone like Wineriter. But I would hope that at best it means that every now and then a customer will have a new drink idea or recipe, tasted at a fine cocktail bar, that they want to tell him about while in his bar. At worst, it will mean that Wineriter has to learn a few new tricks to keep customers coming back. I don’t think either of these things are bad and, in the end, I don’t think Wineriter really does either.



  1. […] I don’t have a set posting frequency, but I’ll hopefully have a post up every week or two. I’ll also be doing occasional podcasts. Check out the column and the rest of PRZ Man – they’ve been live for a couple weeks and have a ton of content up already. A reprint of my first piece is printed below the fold, though it is a modified version of a post from 2009 called Expanding Horizons. […]

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