Today, I’d like to discuss craft or, to be more specific, the lack there of. Not craftsmanship on a large level or the fact that we used to make things in America and now we farm our manufacturing out to China, Singapore and Mexico because that has been happening since at least the early 1980’s and sees press only during election cycles, kind of like the death penalty.
No, this is on a much smaller scale, so small in fact that you may see it everyday in your local bar but probably don’t recognize it. As a bartender, I know I didn’t truly understand this issue on a conscious level until a few days ago when my friend Tomas called me late last week. He is on a mission to find a bartender to make him a proper Manhattan in his new home in New Orleans. After over ten stops, he is still can’t find his grail.
“It’s a classic cocktail, one that you and I have made a million times. Equal parts rye or bourbon and sweet vermouth in a mixing glass, add a few dashes of Angostura bitters, stir 23 times and strain into a cocktail glass over a cherry with its stem as a garnish. How hard can it be,” he asked me rhetorically.
Although in total agreement with Tomas, every five year old who makes a cake with Mom learns how to follow a recipe, his actions were a bit curious. The interesting elements of the bohemian, hardcore punk rock segment of Generation X had gone from fierce and uncompromising to Jerry Seinfeld whiners about the price of soap. It seems we’ve become, boring middle age fogies in the mold of the picture of Bob Dobbs. Not that I am not one to stop my friends as they go off to fight their personal windmills. One wants to follow the Dead, even after Jerry Garcia has gone down for the dirt nap? They do write good songs, it’s just a shame they still can’t play them. Another decides to go off and live in Turkey, in the rough quarter of Istanbul? Why should I worry? He’s never had a problem ducking. More still decide to move back to the suburbs from whence we came to raise kids and join the ranks of the growing post urban culture? I’m envious and a bit lonely but I can take the train out to see the gang. At least, I get to avoid the mall at Christmas time.
Tomas, though, a family man with a clinical psychologist wife, two beautiful daughters who moved to Old Metairie, Louisiana in August from the Upper West Side to be near family, as a failed seeker in the mode of Timothy Leary; not at all (Maybe the responsibility of that Bob Dobbs existence is a good thing). However, a man with an ongoing mission to see what can be found in the various up and downs in the old school dandy segment of bohemia plus indulging some form of OCD? Absolutely.
“I came to New York from Albuquerque, where you couldn’t step out of the norm, people wanted margarita’s with that horrible out of the gun sour mix so that’s how it was through out the city. When I came to New York, I figured variety would equal demand. If a great cocktail was made at the latest hip happening place in town, then it would eventually dwindle down and be made at the local joint. I was on a quest for the more experienced palate,” Tomas told me. “But in New York, it seemed to go from extremes, from the cocktail counter culture to Irish boozers. There were very few in betweens.”
We worked together for a year in the dwindling hustle and bustle of a just opened New York steakhouse that tried to be one of the in betweens. The corporate office kept a cocktail expert on staff and Tomas used to make his concoctions with more flair and precision than this office lackey could have imagined, all the while carrying on a conversation about the criminal lack of a subway that ran on time with the customer. Of course, that’s what you get when you let a man trained as a bartender loose in the world of the cocktail geek, a species that has generally never put down the Mr. Boston’s Guide To Bartending long enough to set foot behind the stick. Tomas was the man that convinced me it was possible to not only recommend wine, throw beers and the brown liquor at people who wanted to know why their client rosters were dwindling but offering them a well made Collins from scratch was also an option.
“You live half a mile from New Orleans,” I said. “Haven’t you tried the classic cocktail places yet?”
“Anyone can go to any of those joints and get a Manhattan made the right way. I’m looking for some level of trickle down sophistication in bartenders.”
“Thus far I’ve only found unskilled labor behind the bar.”
During our discussion, I began to understand this wasn’t something Tomas just decided to do after waking up hung over one fateful morning as his daughters begged him to wake up and play and his wife laughed at him. No, this is something that has been brewing for sometime. Locals have been hit up for their favorite spots, books have been read, and much research has been conducted in search of the proletarian mixture of the proper Manhattan. The bartenders at Everett’s, Antwan’s, the Australian joint across from Lucy’s, the old place that he calls a Sport’s bar et al. have all failed the simple recipe test. The main problems are a consistent lack of bitters or shaking the cocktail before serving it. “There was this one barmaid, who seemed totally fluxomed by the whole process. So, against my own rules, I gave her explicit instructions on how to make the drink. Guess what, she still shook the damn thing,” he laughed. “You have to try it once, Alex. I’m telling you, it’s a nearly impossible thing to get a proper Manhattan anymore.”
To that end, he gave me his parameters, if I should so choose to take his challenge. The place had to look like it needed some eye candy behind the bar and the bartender had to be in the 25-35 age range. Not old enough to be broken in behind the stick in the old school way, like Tomas and I, but not young enough to think Paul McCartney was actually in a band called Wings. Bartenders that actually had a sense of history, perhaps even took a course in college. Perhaps one or two that even understood that the cocktail is the pure American drink, first mentioned in an upstate New York newspaper in 1803.
I filed his request in my one day I’ll get around to it file and went on with life in the ever sinking borough of Manhattan. That was Tomas’ fight, not mine. I’m trying hard enough to meet some woman who will actually want to continue seeing me after date number 2. However, after I got off last Saturday and turned on my phone and Tomas had left a message, asking if I had found a proper Manhattan yet. I guess I had become a sidekick.
As I was on 7th Avenue and 20th Street and ducked into Le Singe Vert, a bar where, 15 years earlier, I had met my ex-girlfriend Darla. The barman, 33, was quite efficient and pleasant. When I asked for a Manhattan, he asked me bourbon or rye. It was an auspicious start. When he brought out the glass mixing glass, my heart rose. Could it be it was only a New Orleans issue Tomas was getting at? It had to be. Then, after equal parts sweet vermouth and rye, he shook the drink and strained it into the glass. And it was over. I sat there, shoulders stooped, a frown on my face, my head tilted slightly to the left. “Is everything OK,” the bartender asked, adjusting his round John Lennon glasses.
“Fine,” I said brightly. After finishing my cocktail, I left, trying desperately to bring up my memories of meeting Darla in an effort to relieve my exasperation. It appears an entire generation of bartenders can’t make a recipe that dates from the 1860’s. It begs the question: would it help to learn the craft of making a drink if these drink recipes were on the side of a box of Betty Crocker cake mix?