Prior to moving to Seattle, I assumed a tailor-made cocktail represented a slightly>"/>
Prior to moving to Seattle, I assumed a tailor-made cocktail represented a slightly mystical alchemy of the bartender's latest tricks, the current farmers market report, Jerry Thomas' advice, and a precise reading of the customer's mood. Coming from drinking cultures dominated by beer and bourbon, I was tantalized by reports of bartenders making sense of tequila, strawberries, and cilantro.
So I began visiting local bars renowned for the wisdom and whimsy that make a bespoke cocktail worthwhile. While bartender's choice is now such a popular alternative that servers at half of the restaurants I've visited this week have suggested it, I'd rather leave improv to the experts.
I stopped by Liberty, where I asked for a brown liquor drink. "Maybe something with citrus," I suggested, since it was a plausibly summery day.
The bartender complied, producing a very familiar-looking cocktail. "This is called a Manhattan," he said grandly.
That was it. No freshly shaved nutmeg, no raw egg, no coconut water.
I later wondered if perhaps I didn't look the part of a cocktail adventurer. Maybe I seemed too young--and too female--to have any familiarity with a recipe that David Embury lists as one of six basic drinks in his classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
I decided to test my theory with the help of our two interns, who are as dissimilar as two white alt-weekly writers can be. Here's Joe, who describes himself as "a large, bearded man with a couple of tattoos.":
And here's Julia, who just turned 21:
Joe and Julia's assignment was to select three leading cocktail bars, and pay them solo visits during the same shift on different days. I instructed them to place the same order as I did at Liberty, and record the results. If bartenders were prone to sizing up girliness before mixing drinks, the proof would appear in their glasses.
Here's what happened:
At Zig Zag, Julia reports, "the bartender immediately started mixing a drink, seemingly with a recipe in mind." She was served a bourbon crusta, made with bourbon, maraschino, orange liqueur, and lemon juice.
The Zig Zag bartender engaged Joe in deeper cocktail conversation. "The amazing bartender was genuinely kind-hearted and interested in helping me find a fun drink," Joe says. After some discussion, the bartender produced a bourbon crusta, made with bourbon, maraschino, orange liqueur, and lemon juice.
Over at Sun Liquor, Julia encountered another single-minded bartender who went straight to work. He offered her a Derby, the bourbon-and-bitters cocktail that leads the Capitol Hill bar's drinks list.
Joe got the same on the rocks, much to his disappointment. "The drink, while pretty, was pretty much just straight whiskey," he grumbled. (Joe and Julia aren't whiskey drinkers.)
The bartender at Bathtub Gin was the only bartender to ask Julia a follow-up question. "He threw me for a loop, asking if I wanted it sweet or spicy," she says. "Not wanting to skew the results, I told the bartender to make whichever he felt like." He settled on a Lion's Tale of bourbon, lime, pimento jam, and bitters.
Joe found his Lion's Tale "tasty," but didn't bother to take a picture. He rightly assumed Julia had been served the same drink.
Apparently Seattle's cocktail gurus aren't closet sexists, after all. But I think the experiment does prove that the operative word in "bartender's choice" is bartender.
"The bartender's choice is about making it easier for the bartender during busy times," Eric Alperin of Los Angeles' Varnish told Food Arts earlier this year. "[It] can make the machine move faster."
Daring cocktail drinkers, it seems, would do better to stick with making their own choices. Take note, Julia.
"Although whiskey doesn't quite have the gag-inducing properties of tequila, it never would have been my first choice as a cocktail base, until last week," she says. "I have a new appreciation for the alcohol."