View from the Bar: Solving Cocktail Program Problems

Image provided by the author. (Donny Clutterbuck at Cure in Rochester, NY)

There come trying times during each bar shift. Times defined by complaints from and about coworkers, guests, drinks, menu offerings, kitchen interactions, etc. I find myself repeating a mantra during these moments: “I’m in the business of solutions.”

 While this very much impacts my management style, I’d never given much thought to the manner it impacts our style of service and ultimately what we serve. It turns out, we live by a solutions-based ideology at Cure. The first person to bring the whole “can is not would” ideology into my life was Dave Arnold, of Booker & Dax and Existing Conditions fame. We can smoke a cocktail, light it on fire, and serve it chilled with liquid nitrogen—but does that mean we would? Well, we would if it makes the drink better. Is the cocktail missing smoke? Smoke it. Does the burnt cocktail need to be colder but not more diluted? Liquid nitrogen. These processes are solutions, but they’re only solutions if you’re starting with problems.

This life-changing process prompted me to view the restaurant industry analytically, rather than emotionally. Do we have an inefficient inventory system? Make a better one. Does our FOH staff lack the wine knowledge our wine director has? Post in plain sight a cheat sheet full of usable, digestible information for them. But what for drinks? How do we apply this type of thought to a cocktail? Well, I’ll give you three examples.

First—when a guest orders a Manhattan from a barkeep, the usual prompts occur. They may say “X rye, up, with a cherry.” Notice there’s no mention of the vermouth in that order. Strange, no? I mean, 1/3 of the cocktail build is vermouth. You’d think by now we’d have developed preferences as a people who drink tons of vermouth by way of the Manhattan. Instead of hosting vermouth training seminars for the rest of our lives and trying to change the perception of this fortified wine into something desirable—we could analyze what the functional problem is here and how we might best go about solving it.

The problem is that not all sweet vermouths get along swimmingly with all whiskies. In fact, I’d say that each vermouth quite likely has at least one arch-nemesis whiskey with whom it will fistfight. We could solve this problem by pairing a vermouth with each individual whiskey we carry that someone might want to plug into a Manhattan, but that would be a cumbersome endeavor, leaving us no time to feed ourselves or love our families or whatever it is we do when we’re not bartending. One might argue that an elegant solution would be to blend together a few vermouths such that their sum doesn’t argue with (at very least) any whiskey in the building. This way, we don’t need to change the ordering path to which most folks are already accustomed. Hospitality, right? After all, it’s not anyone else’s job to be educated regarding spirits—it’s ours.

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We can apply this concept to a variety of products. Blend a couple of dry vermouths if that’s your druthers and you’re looking for the perfect Martini. Like the body and flavor of the VS Cognac in your well, but think it’s lacking on the finish? Blend in a brandy with very little body and a heck of a lot of finish. Test out different ratios of them. Add a third if you’re feeling crazy, as long as it satisfies the goal of achieving a balance for your guests that you can’t find in any single product. In pursuit of the best achievable drink for your guests, it’s nice to think about these concepts in advance so that they don’t have to.

Next, we address the Gimlet. Conceptually, I’m a fan of the Gimlet we used to make for guests in the early 2000s—you know, one made with a choice of gin combined on the rocks with Rose’s Lime Juice. In recent years, for both better and worse, this drink has begun to look more like a Daiquiri. It seems that might be its way-back-original form, but if I wanted a gin Daiquiri, I’d just order a gin Daiquiri. The texture of a stirred gin drink with Rose’s Lime is a far cry from a shaken lime drink. The problem here is that we have to shake lime juice into a cocktail, as it contains particulate matter and needs to be emulsified or whatever is technically the proper word for it.

Our solution to this problem is to enzyme treat lime juice and spin it in a culinary centrifuge in order to clarify it. This removes particulate matter, making the lime juice clear. Combined 1:1 by weight with sugar, this lime juice becomes a lime syrup. This not only extends the usable life of the lime juice, but allows us to stir the syrup into a bunch of gin. Back to the (improved) dark ages Gimlet! We’ve thoughtfully resurrected it using a now increasingly common and accessible piece of lab equipment.

Not only can this lime syrup now be stirred into almost any white spirit and still be delicious—the same process and execution can be applied to lemon syrup and aged spirits. Now we’re not just recreating old drinks, but we’ve opened up an entirely different side of this cocktail. We’ve jokingly named this category of drinks the “Sprewell.” It’s a joke about a basketball player who was (at least in my mind) falsely credited with inventing “spinners.” You know, those wheels that either keep spinning when your car stops moving or remain still when your car is moving. Get it? It’s a stirred version of a shaken drink. Spun. I know, it’s not funny.

Finally, the ever-problematic-without-realizing-it Gin & Tonic. You want this cocktail to be cold, bubbly, refreshing, and of relatively high quality with a pleasant balance of sweetness, bitterness, acid, botanicals, and alcohol. Well, very few of those goals are regularly accomplished with any care. No matter the gin, it starts out warm and flat, which leads me to believe that when combined with cold and carbonated tonic, the end solution will be of medium temperature and carbonation. Sounds thrilling, right? Let’s make it worse.

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We dump this poor attempt at a cocktail over ice. The ice makes the drink a bunch colder, but immediately begins to decarbonate the drink. Especially the ice you’re putting it on. You know what I mean: that little chunk ice that every restaurant in the world uses so that the glasses look fuller than they are. Would you do this to sparkling wine? If you would and aren’t looking to be a better person, I’m not sure why you’re still reading this. Packing anything carbonated with ice is a safe way to reduce the carbonation of the drink, which makes it that much less satisfying.

The Gin & Tonic isn’t cold enough, bubbly enough, and doesn’t often use appropriately thoughtful tonic, right? We want it colder, bubblier, and made with a (not-corn-syrup-sweetened) tonic. I won’t get into sugar types here... So, what do we do? A bunch. We install a temperature controller in the power supply of a dorm freezer which allows it to run at a temperature of our choosing instead of just being way too cold all the time. We set this freezer to 22℉, which happens to be just barely above the freezing point of our particular Gin & Tonic (lovingly referred to as a “G&Q”—a story for next time). We build a carbonation system out of a CO2 tank, regulator, piping, and a ball-lock fitment that attaches to carbonator caps that screw onto the tops of commercially available soda pop bottles full of Gin & Tonic. We carbonate this thing in its pre-combined entirety to 45 psi (a touch below the level of most Prosecco).

So, in all its glory, the G&Q is now 22℉ and 45 psi. This drink is served neat in a chilled seven-ounce rocks glass with only an inoperably small lime garnish on the rim so that you don’t think it’s a glass of water and accidentally choke yourself with a mouthful of highly carbonated delicious cocktail. But don’t throw the garnish into the drink, as that will have one of the negative effects ice would have: decarbonation. Can’t help but want to squeeze lime into your Gin & Tonic? Never fear, the G&Q has a small amount of citric and malic acid solution batched into it so that your very thirsty brain already thinks a lime has been squeezed in there. Just drink it. Trust me.

We charge no more for a whatever-else-and-tonic than we do for that crazy G&Q, and the reason for this is that we pre-batch and carbonate on the front end all of that nonsense. The pour time is lower than a Gin & Tonic made the standard way, and we’re able to avoid specific requests for gin type, so we use something that fits super well with our tonic and lies at a great price point. The G&Q we serve from the high-temp freezer would be set at an 18 percent pour cost at $10/cocktail if we let them take home the glass its served in. That was a huge selling point to the owner. The drink material costs us less than $1, and the glass costs about $1.

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Sorry if that was super long-winded, but this is really exciting stuff to me, and I could go on and on about it and 30 more concepts. If you made it this far, you must care, so I’ll stop apologizing. The point I’m trying to make is that this all seems a little over-the-top, right? A centrifuge, a temp-controlled freezer, and a carbonation system? Those do all sound like gimmicks, but I’d argue that gimmicks are just solutions without problems. One can only be a solutions person if one is a problems person first.

What problems do you see—and more importantly, what solutions?

From the editor: The average dorm freezer cost is under $100 and a temperature controllers for freezers can be had for under $40. Expect to pay under $200 for a commercial quality CO2 tank and regulator. One culinary centrifuge will likely cost more than a dorm freezer, temperature controller, CO2 tank, regulator, piping and fittings. The Spinzall, a popular centrifuge endorsed by Dave Arnold of Booker & Dax and Existing Conditions fame, costs $500 on Amazon.

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