In 1888, the population of the United States was a mere 60.4 million, Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland for the presidency and the cocktail was experiencing its first golden era. In the cultural centers of the country, the gentry made popular a drink called the Golden Slipper. This layered concoction featured Yellow Chartreuse, Danziger Goldwasser and an egg yolk suspended between the two layers. Since you dare not risk having the egg yolk drip down from the corners of your mouth, it was accepted etiquette to consume the Golden Slipper in one swallow.
Cocktails have enjoyed several golden ages, most having directly followed an American war. Its current renaissance, however, may well go down in the books as the most impressive. The degree of innovation demonstrated behind bars today rivals the creative output of any previous generation.
As in ages past, the mantra today when it comes to concocting drinks is “balance, taste and quality.” While arguing the relative balance and taste of contemporary cocktails compared to those of the past ultimately renders down to personal preference, quality is the factor that decidedly favors today’s drinks.
You don’t need a college degree to know that the best cocktails are crafted using the freshest ingredients. The resulting drinks are more flavorful, vital and exuberant on the palate. Today, master mixologists are not only using freshly squeezed juice in their cocktails, they are also making their own bitters, syrups and drink mixes. While using the freshest possible ingredients seems to be the path to cocktail glory, it does pose operational challenges. Fruit needs to be procured and juiced on a near daily basis. Because the juices are not pasteurized, or laced with preservatives, continually ensuring their freshness is an ongoing process. The amount of prep work involved and the labor costs incurred makes the concept of “fresh” too steep for many operators.
“Fresh juices and ingredients are definitely the basis of better beverages, but the use of fresh juice is no guarantee of better drinks. That’s largely a matter of balance,” says noted beverage consultant David Commer. “It’s common today to make drinks with super-premium spirits that can easily cost $1.00 per ounce. It makes no sense to me to compromise the quality of a signature cocktail by saving 3¢ an ounce on sweet ‘n’ sour. There are ways to overcome the labor objection including preparing fresh juices ahead of time for that shift, or using high quality prepared, or partially prepared products.”
Barry Carter, former vice president of beverage operations for Dave & Busters, has spent the majority of his career fine-tuning the inner workings of bars. “Do fresh juices and scratch ingredients enhance the flavor and character of cocktails? Sure they do. For upscale, one-off, or multi-unit independents, it’s highly advantageous to employ a ‘Bar Chef,’ one whose passion is working with fresh-squeezed juices, purees, infusions, reductions, bar syrups and whatever else his creative juices can concoct. There are guests who will gladly pay a premium for these cocktails.” Carter continues on to say, however, that they’re likely not in the mainstream. What about operators whose clientele aren’t so loose with a buck? Or those concerned about the higher labor and product costs and speed of service issues that are thought to beset the ‘fresh’ strategy? Is there a middle ground where they too can take advantage of this burgeoning mega-trend? Carter and others insist there is.
Unless one is preparing cocktails for guests at home, the question of whether to convert a beverage program over to fresh ingredients is a business decision. Proponents of using prepared drink mixes point to their consistency, convenience, labor-savings and shelf stability. Both sides of the discussion readily admit that there are a number of superior drink mixes on the market that offer operators viable options to scratch.
Barry Carter has worked in both environments. “Prepared mixes occasionally offer an alternative, but in my mind they are at the other end of the spectrum from absolutely-fresh-ingredients all-the-time. As an example, several purveyors offer fruit purees that can be added to recipes and deliver a much more fruit-forward component and create more body in drinks such as Margaritas, Daiquiris and Mojitos. These products are relatively inexpensive, shelf-stable until opened and then good for at least 30-days if kept refrigerated. I suggest exploring all of your alternatives.”
Firmly in the fresh camp is Jacques Bezuidenhaut, an award winning mixologist and beverage manager at San Francisco’s Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. “Detractors of the strategy are correct that fresh ingredients are more expensive and labor intensive, but something done exceptionally well normally is. Bumping the price of a drink a few quarters will adequately offset the increased cost. The overriding consideration should be drink quality.
People are willing to pay a little more to drink better quality cocktails.” Philip Raimondo, mixology expert at Patrick Henry Creative Promotions, questions whether scratch recipes are, in fact, more expensive than prepared. “Strawberry puree provides a good cost comparative example. A premium strawberry puree/mix costs approximately 12¢ per oz. You can buy fresh (or IQF) strawberries and prepare a puree about 6¢ per oz. The cost savings can be applied to the extra labor and you’ll be making higher quality drinks.”
No one has more experience dealing in the realm of fresh than master mixologist Dale DeGroff. Quite possibly the world’s most respected drinks expert and author of numerous seminal works on the subject, DeGroff has almost single-handedly brought the matter to international attention. That having been said, DeGroff believes that with respect to some products, such as orange and grapefruit juice, some commercial alternatives may well be the best. “Most bars around the country have access to purveyors who sell fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juice by the gallon or half gallon. They are very acceptable products. But they are unpasteurized and without proper handling will spoil rapidly. They must be delivered cold and kept refrigerated until used.”
When it comes to lime and lemon juice, however, DeGroff sees no viable alternative to freshly squeezing them in-house. They are the foundation of most popular contemporary cocktails and in DeGroff’s estimation prepared lime and lemon juice fall short of the mark.
“The problem is two fold. First, commercial juicers often grind into the white pithy portion of the fruit and produce an unacceptably high percentage of the bitter pith. When the juice is thawed—these products are usually frozen after squeezing to extend their shelf life—the pith will produce a white milky substance on the bottom of the bottle. When mixed into solution it will render the juice too bitter for use in cocktails. Second, lemon and lime juice don’t have the same sugar content as orange and grapefruit juice. Thus, they have shorter shelf lives.”
Developing the techniques and standardized procedures for incorporating fresh ingredients into your beverage operation may seem daunting and riddled with pitfalls. The following expert advice though is being offered to make the process less maddening and the learning curve less steep.
A great drink mix is a thing of beauty even if it’s packaged in a bottle. Pour them over ice, add a spirit or two, splash in a few modifiers and even the most beverage challenged amongst us can thrill the crowds. For decades prepared drink mixes have been the cornerstone of the bar business. Most are made using natural flavors and are stabilized and pasteurized. It’s their ease of use, consistency and utterly reasonable cost per ounce that makes bottled mixes so alluring. Ah, but do they measure up to contemporary standards?
Depending on how high you set your sights the answer is yes. Locking in on the exact brands that best suit your bar though is half the battle. As is the case with all products at the bar, the process ultimately renders down to making the pragmatic decision of quality versus cost. Evaluating drink mixes is an art form with a shallow learning curve. Start by sampling light-bodied, light flavored mixers first — sweet ‘n’ sour, Margarita and Mojito— before working with heavier products such as Piña Colada, Bloody Mary and Strawberry Daiquiri. Taste the mixes side by side, sampling a version of each at room temperature and then another flight with the mixes over ice. Make note of the mix’s color and opacity and compare that with your notion of what a scratch version might look like. Does the mix have an engaging bouquet?
The last qualifier is, of course, taste. Swirl it around your mouth, assessing flavor, mouth feel and eventually its finish. The winners will taste marvelous alone in a glass. If they can stand-up to that degree of scrutiny, they’re bonafide keepers.
Since the mid-1980s, the spirits industry has steadily expanded its offerings of premium brands. The explosive growth of single malt Scotches, 100% agave tequilas, small batch bourbons, vintage-dated rums and luxury vodkas has largely taken place over the past two decades. Master mixologists and bar chefs now have access to far more refined and sophisticated spirits and liqueurs than were previously available, which affords those of us today a marked advantage.