The Crappy Craft Cocktail Revolution Is Upon Us
“Ever have the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
The question, famously posed by former Sex Pistols frontman John Joseph Lydon at the conclusion of the original lineup’s final live appearance, was slamming around inside my cranial mosh pit as I sat alone swigging a singularly unpleasant interpretation of a Last Word at a much-heralded new Los Angeles craft cocktail bar. Or perhaps it was a speakeasy. Or a home for recovering mixololoLOLOLogolists. Or whatever the hell they’re calling the unduly dear drinking establishments of the nouveau bourgeoisie these days.
And then I heard it. As if in answer to my self-induced musical reverie, the opening tones of Sid Vicious plonking along to the Pistols’ once-incendiary anthem “God Save the Queen,” now apparently embraced as mood music. Because that’s what lets you know how “real” a place is. In this case the music told me this place was so “real” they were playing a band that co-opted themselves before anyone else could beat them to it. A band whose entire existence was predicated on ripping off hapless suckers surfing the trendy wake of an organic, populist movement that arose briefly to yawp at the establishment before smashing its head into a brick wall and waking up in a pile of broken glass and someone else’s blood.
Actual punk music lasted about a minute and a half before someone in the audience tried to figure out a way to sell it out. Don’t get me wrong, Never Mind the Bollocks is a fantastic album and the world is a better place due to its existence. But don’t lose sight of the fact that one of the most famous and high-visibility avatars of punk music was engineered into existence by a would-be fashion mogul, while he made a mint selling youth fashion back to the young.
It’s what my pal Noam Chomsky calls the commodification of dissent. (And say what you will about Noam, the guy knows his way around a cocktail shaker. And he makes a simply bonkers Last Word. That word? Anarcho-Syndicalism.)
Which, brings me to the point: the craft cocktail movement was born out of a legitimate dissatisfaction with '80s bar culture. The care had gone out of it. It had become plastic, infinitely reproducible. It was McDonald’s in a glass, and heavy on the Malibu please, buddy. Want proof? This is the era that saw Tom Cruise star in a movie called Cocktail, which focused on his ability to toss bottles behind his back while flashing his trademark rakish grin. It was a, uh, “special” time.
In any case, a few bold souls weren’t having it. They launched the craft cocktail trend before it was a trend -- essentially, making fewer drinks per hour, but making each one five times better. They revived the knowledge, the expertise, the ceremony that had accompanied cocktail culture in years past. It was a movement born in places like NYC’s The Rainbow Room and Milk & Honey, where Dale DeGroff and Sasha Pestraske revisited Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide and turned a new generation on to the joys of impeccably crafted classics. And here’s the thing: it was a goddamn sight to behold. The good guys were winning.
And it lasted about a minute and a half before some shit-heel huckster, still glistening with amniotic fluid looked at it and said, “Oh look, something real. Let’s fuck it.”
I figured the vintage of the kid who botched my Last Word for roundabout the end of Bubba Clinton’s first term. He had about as many tattoos on his forearms as I had issues with my dreadful libation. There was no way in his short time on the earth that he could have come by those babies honestly (“I’ll take the Sons of Anarchy special, sir!” “Sure thing! Both arms?” “You bet! You take Visa?”). I could have sworn we used to have a law on the books regulating the ratio of ink to muscle fiber. But it was clear the closest this guy had been to a motorcycle was the time he almost got run over by Jay Leno on his Harley crossing Ventura Blvd.
As I scanned the crowded room, mentally counting up how much money was being consumed, I figured there was at least $1,000 in people’s glasses at that very moment. And judging from my experience, most of it was Green Chartreuse. Because seriously, why the hell would anyone put so much Green Chartreuse in this Last Word? Does this bartender have an uncle who’s a Carthusian monk? It’s called balance, kid. As in civilized societies, in cocktails there must be balance. Without it, there’s no harmony, no equilibrium. And that’s when turmoil erupts, the social contract breaks down, Donald Trump runs for president and wins. Hobbes had it right -- in the absence of structure, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Just like this glass of ass juice you served me.
It was making me angry. Until I remembered that probably no one in this place could recite a Sex Pistols lyric any more than they would have picked up on the intentional error I inserted in this piece’s second paragraph. (To wit: Sid Vicious was not in the original Sex Pistols lineup. Hey Glen Matlock, ever have the feeling you’ve been cheated?) This particular group in this particular bar, this batch of benighted souls might be going to Whole Foods in a handbasket, but there wasn’t any reason I couldn’t save those who had not yet succumbed to the scourge of expensive mediocrity.
I couldn’t lay all the blame at the feet of the kid, covered though they might be in spotless vintage Vans. Clearly someone who ought to know better did this to him. Dressed him up like Vincenzo Marianella and filled his head with delusions of mixologico-biological grandeur. Truth is, there aren’t very many Vincenzo Marianellas out here in the City of Angels (I only know of the one, actually, you’ll find him at Copa d’Oro). Or Beau Du Bois-es (Corner Door), Yael Vengroffs (The Spare Room), Dave Kupchinskys (The Fiscal Agent), Karen Grills (Wolf on Melrose), or the other LA bartending elite who mix drinks the way Adele sings. Trouble is, a few years back someone figured out that most people can’t tell a drunk bachelorette karaoke version of “Rolling in the Deep” from one by She Who Sorrows For Us All, and all of a sudden, the sequel to the Craft Cocktail Revolution was here: the Crappy Craft Cocktail Revolution. And it just charged you $23 for a Negroni with no Campari in it.
The Varnish may very well have been the Ramones of the craft cocktail movement in LA, but a lot of the places that came after it were less “Anarchy in the UK,” more “Party In The USA.” Because while anyone can hop on a stage and sing, there’s just only ever going to be so many legit rock stars. Willingness, opportunity, and technical know-how can only take you so far. True rockstars are that rare breed who possess “it,” that elusive and undefinable quality that while indescribable, is instantly recognizable. Over the years I have met a great many bartenders who make kick-ass drinks, run top-notch programs, and give great gab behind the stick. But only a handful have “it.” And some of them, sadly, have lost “it,” usually after they went to work as industry consultants or booze brand ambassadors.
I can’t really blame the great ones who’ve gone to work for The Man. The bar life is a young person’s game. Up 'til dawn a lot of nights. Infinite booze, plentiful drugs, dangerous friends. And you’re often only as solvent as the tip you get from tonight’s problem drunk. The Man, on the other hand, has lots of money and isn’t shy about sharing. The Man will give you health insurance. Shit, he’ll give you a pension plan, an expense account and a travel budget. That’s the kind of security most gin slingers for hire will never know. It’s certainly a safer bet than opening your own bar in Hollywood. Still, it hurts when one of the great ones goes over to the other side. Like seeing your favorite musician stop making innovative new music and turn into a greatest hits act. You guys used to be the Rolling Fucking Stones! Do you even remember that? Oh that’s right, you don’t.
And let’s not forget, there are still many quality cocktail bars around, where the drinks are worth every pretty penny. But right now in LA, by my count, the defenders of the faith are outnumbered by the pretenders about two to one. And this is where you come in. Because the problem is not with the pretenders or the defenders.
The problem is us.
The only reason ersatz speakeasies and faux-dives can get away with selling us inferior product at inflated prices is because we buy it. If we’re going to fork over an hour’s wages for a cocktail, our taste buds damn sure better have a volcanic love eruption. Otherwise, we’re just part of the problem.
So don’t be intimidated by that fedora or that curly mustache or that insufferable attitude. Tell the entitled prick who just served you a nasty Pink Squirrel with Bon Iver’s beard clippings in it to kindly pack up his Meehan bag and Uberbartools and go try his bullshit on someone who pays $1,000 an hour to lick strangers’ feet in Koreatown. There’s only so much abuse the rest of us can handle.
That said, once we bar-goers rise up as one and send these blood-sucking leeches back to their unfinished MBAs, we will have another problem on our hands. What do we do with the legion of talent-free zombie bartenders left without employment in the wake of the Crappy Craft Cocktail Purge? Luckily, a potential solution presented itself later that very same night.
“Want to try something different?” my chucklehead friend asked, after I declined another Last Word
“You know how to make a Glen Matlock?” I replied.
“I’m not sure if I... ”
“You crack open a Genesee Cream ale, then pour in a shot of Jack. Then you pour in another shot of Jack.”
“But... ” I could see a tiny spark behind his eyes struggling to stay alive.
“Stay with me here, this is the important part. You give the can a swirl, then as you start chugging it, have your best friend punch you in the head. Hard.”
“Are you saying... ” the spark was losing. I felt its pain.
“Then it’s his turn,” I said as I saw the tiny spark finally give up and snuff itself out. “All the kids downtown are doing it. It’s the next thing.”
“Oh, I get it,” he replied, with a knowing smile. “So you want one of those?”
“That depends,” I replied. “Will you be my best friend?”
After a long pause, he nervously dipped his head ever so slightly. An approximation of a nod.
“Outstanding,” I exclaimed, slapping the bar. “First one’s on me.”
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Dan Dunn, in conversation with Time magazine’s Joel Stein, discusses and signs his latest book, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues, on April 14th at 7 pm at Book Soup. Follow Dan on Twitter and Instagram.