Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | April 2, 2013

Overvaluing Originality

Posting has slowed to a crawl here, but I wanted to go back a few months and flag an article by master barman Derek Brown of The Columbia Room (and many other outstanding efforts in DC over the years). In it he discusses the notion that bartenders should probably stop making up their own cocktails at the rate they currently do.

Brown writes:

Surely both consumer and pundit proffered this deluge by pushing the latest in cocktail trends and charting maps where you can drink new cocktails made with quirky ingredients such as dehydrated carrots, yogurt and thai chiles. Not that any of those ingredients ipso facto make a bad cocktail. On the contrary, I love the incorporation of new ingredients, but here the impetus is sadly on creativity and not craft, likely fueled by
something Sigmund Freud dubbed the “narcissism of small differences.”

With this specific narcissistic tendency, each person creates their own little world populated with minor and specific tastes that hardly do more than draw an artificial distinction between similar categories. There’s certainly a place for preference but underlying a person’s insistence on “not too sweet, floral and spicy” versus another’s “violet, tart with a hint of jalapeño” are irreconcilable differences that are waved as though they were flag and country, creating a tribe-of-one prepared to battle opposing tribes for failing to recognize the universality of their claim. What place does a well-made daiquiri have in this world?

Too often, bartenders, rather than sharpening our axes, studying, searching and trying to find meaning among the thousands of cocktails already created, the neophyte–and even sometimes seasoned veterans, I’m afraid–indulge in the worst possible fantasy: that of some mixological Prometheus who steals the eternal flame of creativity from the old, stuffy Gods and re-imagines it as lavender-infused ice or cinnamon-ancho rim. The unfortunate result is that it’s our liver and not theirs that is forever picked at by these often vile and outlandish combinations.

Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, just because you can make it doesn’t make it a good idea.

Brown goes on to suggest some solutions to this problem – basically guidelines for how bartenders can protect themselves (and their customers) from their own worst instincts.

The 90/10 Rule
This rule was born with a simple proposition. For every cocktail you create, try learning nine classic cocktails first, or 90% of your cocktails should be classics and 10% should be new creations. This rule is by no means fail-proof but it’s certainly a way to make sure you practice the basics before proceeding. The very worst that could happen is that you add nine new drinks to your repertoire. Not so bad really.

Forget About It
Remember the recipe for that cocktail you created in 2004? What was it, Sage-infused Tequila, Navan and grapefruit? No, then forget about it. If you have trouble recalling the ingredients to your past creations it may well be because the drink sucked. Trust me, the best recipes are ones that come to mind easily, are often requested and frequently suggested. Everything else is likely fodder.

The Shift-drink Test

If the “90/10″ and “Forget About It” rules fail you, your next line of defense may well be the best one of them all and it goes for both professional and amateur bartenders alike. We become the most critical after a hard-worked shift behind the stick (or any job really). At the end of the day, we just don’t have the tolerance we had at the beginning for pure and utter crap. Imagine sitting down to a Cachaça blood-orange toddy with a bacon-crusted rim. If you can’t, it’s because you have gone too far and are now teetering on that jagged cliff. Go make yourself an old fashioned and relax.

I think these are pretty spot on and, I hope, recognizable as common sense ways to ensure good practice by craft bartenders.

One of the things I love about cocktails is the ability to create, to experiment, to test. In my early days of home bartending, that’s mostly what I did because it was exciting to think I was coming up with something (presumably) for the first time. Of course most of what I came up with was either not good at all or if it was passable, it was fairly forgettable.

Over time I’ve learned that I’m better off making small changes in familiar formats that are easy to remember than trying to start from scratch. I know exactly how I like my Dry Martini, depending on what gins or vermouths or bitters I use. I love playing around with funky tiki drinks. I’ve found some very small tweaks to the Gin Ricky that work great for me. And I’m always swapping around the combinations of vermouth and amari in my Americanos and Negronis.

And that’s just me at home. When I drink out, I tend more towards classics than experimenting with new creations with lots of custom infusions, syrups, and house-made ingredients. Why? Even if I love them, odds are they won’t be replicable by me or most any other bars. They are almost guaranteed to be lost to the ages as soon as the cocktail menu changes. I want more dedicated efforts at permanence than that! I want the romance and the history of drinking 100-200 year old cocktails!

Maybe it’s just me. Or me and Derek Brown. Your mileage may vary for sure and I certainly don’t think there is a wrong answer here, so please don’t be offended if you disagree.



  1. “When I drink out, I tend more towards classics than experimenting with new creations with lots of custom infusions, syrups, and house-made ingredients. Why? Even if I love them, odds are they won’t be replicable by me or most any other bars.”

    That struck a chord with me. I like infusions and wacky stuff, but whenever it hits the lips, there’s always a part of me that hopes I don’t like it too much, because tons of stuff like that are basically impossible or logistically stupid to re-create.

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