Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | January 20, 2010

A Good Decade

Jonathan Miles of the New York Times makes a good point – the first decade of the twenty-first century was a very good one for cocktails and fine drinking.

If you observed the ’00s from a barstool, and limited your reading to cocktail menus (as I did, as author of this column for almost four years), you’d be forgiven for deeming the decade a bona fide golden age. For my final column, then, a toast: to 10 years of fizzes, slings, juleps, sours, cobblers and rickeys, to a time when the avant-garde seemed to shift almost nightly, to the best decade in generations.

We greeted the decade with sugary, vodka-based “-tinis” — which, despite their suffixed claim to noble descent, were in some ways extensions of the neon drinks of the ’80s: alcoholic candy.

Yet a quiet revolution was already under way. Building upon the work of Dale DeGroff, the former Rainbow Room bartender, young bartenders, casting aside process mixers, were gleaning inspiration from their counterparts in restaurant kitchens and perusing antique cocktail books like scholars combing the Dead Sea scrolls. The first half of the decade saw a wave of creativity and experimentation come crashing through barrooms in cities like New York and San Francisco and Portland, Ore., followed, in the decade’s second half, by a counterblast of earnest classicism.

The cocktail was no longer a fashion accessory, as it was in the ’90s. It was fashion itself. What had once merely lubricated conversations became the subject of conversations, in much the same way that dinner parties, with the rise of foodie-ism in the ’90s, became more about the dinner and less about the party.

Bar patrons broadcast their selections over Twitter. Home bartenders blogged about their latest experiments. Surrendering your drink choice to the bartender, the way diners at sushi restaurants request whatever is freshest, became the ’00s hippest drink order.

By the end of the decade, bottle service, once a mark of downtown sophistication, had come to be viewed as the province of rubes. The cocktail — especially the classic, painstakingly made variety, served with hand-cracked ice or in recherché glassware — had triumphed.

Miles is right. Drinking in America achieved new levels of class and sophistication in the Aughts. And it’s only getting better. I appreciate that Miles took the time to recognize this development, as most retrospectives of the last decade were less positive.

Miles’ best point comes in his closing and really can’t be expanded on: “the art of the cocktail, as practiced by pre-Prohibition bartenders — that, after the ’00s, can no longer be called lost.”

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