It was a dark and stormy night. You know, the sort of night that isn’t fit for man or beast, but due to bad timing and a little lack of direction, you find yourself more waterlogged than when Noah built that ark.
Through the blur of water, you see the lights of a bar. It’s mid-week, so you might not usually be drinking, but extreme weather calls for drastic decisions, and yours is to take any shelter where you can.
As you open the door and enter the bar, you are struck by the look of the place. With an air of a 1930s manor house, the room was rather moody, to say the least. Dark wood panelling, large leather armchairs and a fireplace all complete the picture.
It’s then that you realise there are only four other people in the place.
The first person you notice is the barback standing near the backbar with a bar spoon in her hand.
“You should come to the bar and grab a drink,” she says.
Next, your eye wanders to the junior bartender in the prep area with a peeler.
“Yes, we have a new cocktail on the menu, you should try it out,” he adds.
As the rain doesn’t look like it will let up any time soon, you walk towards the bar. “Sure,” you answer, “why not”.
A customer standing in the service area who has been reading aloud unusual drinks specs from TikTok suddenly turns. She looks you dead in the eye. “I’m a drinks Influencer,” she says by way of explanation. You’re not sure why that matters …
Even though there is no one else in the place, and he is only making a cocktail for you, it seems the head bartender is already in the weeds with a smoke gun … or as the air fills with vapours, is it a smoking gun …?
You reach for the drink that the head bartender has prepared. “Is this your creation?” you ask.
A deathly silence fills the room. “The recipe for this drink could have been created by any of the five of us,” the junior bartender answers cryptically.
You look at the four other people in the room and raise an eyebrow.
“The bar manager is in the walk-in with an ice pick,” the bar back volunteers.
“Good to know,” you answer.
As you go to pick up the glass, you realise that everyone is watching you expectantly as you take a sip.
You swallow gingerly “Oh, that’s just weird …” you blurt out before you can stop yourself.
“But it’s a riff on a classic,” they all answer in unison.
You sigh. “Of course, it is,” and push the glass slowly away from you.
So here, in this manor house-style bar, on a dark and stormy night, your mission seems clear. You are the only person who can work out who created this monstrosity, and murdered yet another potentially amazing original cocktail …
The Barback with the bar spoon
It could be the Barback who is struggling with a passive/aggressive ingredient and trying with her bar spoon to mix in anything to tame it.
See, she made the rookie mistake. Before you start to create drinks with any ingredient, you need to understand how that ingredient functions with other spirits and modifiers. But more than that, you also need to understand how to handle change and adapt the ingredient, so it works with everything around it.
If you are using an Amaro, do the other ingredients in the cocktail require you to amp up that bitterness or subdue it? Do you know how to dampen down the smokiness of either Scotch or Mezcal, so it doesn’t overwhelm the other ingredients?
Does your drink actually have too much flavour or, scarily, not enough?
A great cocktail has a balance between the ingredients, so no ingredient is ‘the one ring’ (to rule them all), so learning to manage your ingredients and the level where the flavour sings is often the first step.
Junior Bartender with the peeler
It could have been the junior bartender … ’cause they’re ambitious when they’re young.
There’s not a bar on the planet that doesn’t like to make some of its own ingredients. And why not, it looks great to be able to say that your Orgeat Syrup, your Lavender Bitters or even your Tonic Water are made in-house.
Additionally, it gives any of your bartenders who really wanted to become chefs, something to do.
But not all bar-made is bar-best.
If your junior bartender leaves the pith on the lemon rinds he is peeling, the Limoncello will be frighteningly bitter. If your Grenadine is not sweet and brightly coloured but sour and a little brownish, it will do nothing for your El Presidente. And the rum gods will certainly smite you down if your Orgeat is lumpy.
Sometimes finding a good independent brand that makes a product really well can be your best bet, rather than getting staff, who may not actually even be that into it, make ‘in-house’ products sub-par.
The Bar Manager with the ice pick
If you’ve created a drink that you think has merit; it’s time to pull it apart.
Have you tested your cocktail enough? Have you asked yourself questions about whether the style in which you are presenting it, is, in fact, the best style for those ingredients?
You may have started by thinking you were making a riff on a collins but have you tried stirring the ingredients rather than building them?
Are you even putting it into the right style of glass? Just because your bar has an outstanding ice programme, does not mean the bar manager should spend all shift in the walk-in chiselling ice to ensure every drink can come out in a rocks glass with your logo stamped into the large, clear block of ice.
The Head Bartender with the smoke gun
Everyone loves a gimmick, but when your vessels or overly elaborate garnishes (yes, smoke gun and bubble gun, we are looking at you) are simply masking a very mediocre drink, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
It’s hard in an Instagram world to accept that sometimes a drink is just a drink. And a bar can simply be a place to get a really good cocktail, not necessarily all the smoke and mirrors that many bars today feel they have to create for it.
While theatrics definitely have their place, and some bars are brilliant at it, the impact can be more significant if those bells and whistles aren’t used every time, but instead only used when it’s appropriate.
As the clothes don’t make the man, nor does the garnish make the drink. A Bloody Mary is not necessarily better just because it has half a cottage garden cascading out of it.
The Influencer with TikTok specs
Is it possible that the influencer has come up with a perfect name for a drink and, if she’s at all creative, concocted a nice little back story and is now trying to persuade the bartenders to include unusual ingredients into the drink, just to make the theme work?
Well, she wouldn’t be the first.
Trying to shoehorn ingredients into a drink because they suit the name or the story, rarely works, and you often end up having to put 8,9 or 10 ingredients into the drink, just to try and balance it out, only to find that even then, it’s mediocre at best.
Have you worked out who did it yet?
Well, in true Murder On The Orient Express fashion, we’re going to say it was everyone.
You see, creating drinks, is very much an art. It is a creative pursuit that balances flavour and science. And with that said, it’s important to remember that it’s not something everyone can do. Some bartenders are amazing at executing drinks, others are incredibly charming and do a stellar job of hosting guests, while a few are nerdily creative with flavour and execution. Yes, Virginia, not every bartender is a mixologist.