It was Saturday evening, in a city known for its (over)abundance of local character and characters. I was shopping for next season’s lipsticks, when a huge fight broke out at the department store’s entrance.
Shoppers inside and bystanders outside ran with their camera phones towards the drama. Security guards lowered the massive steel doors to keep rioters from breaking through the glass entrance walls, and looting the high-class, designer-label merch. An ambulance and cop cars showed up.
Helluva way to start a bar crawl.
The bar I went to for some post-riot Zen showcased their offerings beautifully. It was almost happy hour, and the place was filling up quickly. I managed to get a seat at the bar and ordered a dry martini with olives.
In under a minute, I felt that something was off. I looked around to see what it could be. There was no background music. The chatter was getting louder as more people arrived; the noise was crashing against the concrete walls and low ceilings. Plus, the lights were too bright.
I could usually chill at a bar with a normal-ish vibe, but somehow, this evening, everything and everyone at this particular bar was getting on my nerves. Maybe that adrenaline rush from the riot was making me crave another kind of cocktail experience – something odd/interesting/dangerous. And so I just didn’t have the patience for “normal” right now. I finished my cocktail and left.
I wandered over to a bar with a balcony like a stylish penthouse overlooking downtown, and had the Shen cocktail, an Asian spin on the Manhattan. Sipping it was like floating in a volcano-heated pool in the middle of a forest on a warm summer night. Pure bliss.
I was ready for my next experience.
Just for the sake of contrast, a dive bar was next on my list. In every Chinatown I’ve been to, I have always felt that walking alone in a sketchy part of town, surrounded by grime, crime and shadows was really stupid. And I was feeling all kinds of stupid now. I hurried over to the bar. The last thing I needed to be doing was standing alone in an alley in Chinatown, pulling out a camera phone in front of these staring, homeless men to capture this Instagram moment. If I kept moving, I might just be okay.
The bar was populated with beardos with attitudes, hipsters, sex industry workers and “tourists” who drove in from the west side for some atmosphere. The booze selection was limited to beer (NOT the craft brew variety), hard liquor shots and PBR. Their idea of a cocktail would be Jagermeister in a clean shot glass. I opted for good, reliable Makers Mark – also my bourbon of choice for Manhattans.
I love bars with an interesting history. Back in the day, guys who got falling-down-drunk at this and other bars in the area would be kidnapped and transported in underground tunnels. When the men woke up, they found themselves on a ship, out at sea, and forced into servitude.
I sipped my drink while trying not to stare at a couple of call girls, dressed like Barbie doll twins. They sat, silent and bored, next to a couple of young, clean-cut, obviously drunk guys dressed in business casual, talking and laughing overly loud about software companies and upcoming projects. Suddenly, one of the guys looked over at the two rent-a-dates, yelled “Yeah! YEEAAAAHHH!” and pumped his fist into the air. The girls looked at him briefly then away, still silent, still bored. I finished my drink, left quickly, and burst out laughing as soon as I was outside.
One of my girlfriends texted me to meet up at a downtown bar, one of her favorites. It was named after a thief that operated within a labyrinthian network of hideouts in the criminal underworld of 1930s Morocco. She was downstairs, saving me a seat.
The foyer was bright, but the lights got dimmer as I walked down a stairway to a small, subterranean cocktail bar. I spotted my friend waiting for me at a table in the far corner, glaring at me like some moody European when I walked over and took her picture.
The bar’s ceiling was curved, the walls decorated with tastefully framed porn, and I found “secret” meeting spots just around the corners. I was enamored with the place. The cocktail, though, was another story.
The drinks menu was a short but impressive selection of house cocktails and classics. According to my research, the bartender at Pepe Le Moko was outstanding, but he wasn’t working that night, unfortunately. Because I was enjoying myself so much and thought nothing could possibly go wrong, I decided to order off-menu. Nothing strange, just another classic cocktail.
I was sure a place with a reputation for cocktail greatness couldn’t possibly screw up the Corpse Reviver #2. I checked with the server, to see if the bartender had the knowledge and materials to create the cocktail I wanted. I was assured that she did.
And yet there it was, a very pretty cocktail that tasted like disappointment. First of all, the absinthe was missing. The cocktail should have had either a rinse or a dash of absinthe. There was no smell or delicate flavor of absinthe at all. After just a couple of sips, I pushed my cocktail aside.
Second, instead of fresh lemon juice the bartender used some liquid that poured suspiciously out of a white plastic bottle. And that citrus flavor – that wasn’t Cointreau or Triple Sec, plus there wasn’t an orange peel in the glass. Oh no…did they use…pre-packaged citrus flavoring instead of fresh??
I made the mistake of not observing the mixology and methodology before ordering my cocktail, like I would usually do, because I was busy chatting with my friend. But now, I watched the bartender as she used that citrus liquid to prepare other cocktails. When a classic cocktail recipe calls for fresh lemon juice, it must come directly from actual fruit.
My takeaway from this night’s final crawl is, a bar’s choices of liquid refreshment, combined with its ambient offerings, can definitely affect your state of mind, what drink you order, and your level of enjoyment while sipping it.
However, a bar’s fun theme – sexy cool, edge-y, moody, freaky or quirky – will not make up for a cocktail’s poor execution. Ever. This is especially true if they’re charging a lot of money for it.
Ambience is just the opening act to the real star of the show – the cocktail. Bartenders should learn to create each and every cocktail on their menu to perfection, or be honest and offer an alternative if a special request is beyond their ability or expertise.
When it comes to the art of the cocktail, precision and mindful creativity are key.
Faking it ’til you make it just doesn’t cut it.
Corpse Reviver #2
1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 dash absinthe
Orange peel, for garnish
Shake all ingredients together in an ice-filled cocktail shaker; strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with orange peel.
3⁄4 oz Plymouth gin
3⁄4 oz Cointreau
3⁄4 oz Lillet Blanc
3⁄4 oz Lemon juice
Rinse a chilled coupe or Martini glass with absinthe and set aside.
Add the remaining ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice.
Shake, and strain into the prepared glass.