We live in a golden age of cocktails. Skilled bartenders, artisan ingredients. Even something as simple as a Manhattan can be a labor of love, given a distinct signature flavor sting by a bartender at the top of his or her game. But sometimes... well, sometimes you have to say "fuck all that noise." Sometimes you want a big glass of hooch, ice, sugar, and catharsis.
Trouble is, more and more often, ordering something like a screwdriver or a Cuba libre gets you, at best, a condescending look. Sometimes, it gets you straight-up shut down at a bar. And that shit needs to stop.
Cocktails, in their early days in America, were designed to help mask the nastiness of bootleg liquor. That often meant sugar. Lots of sugar. And I, like many drinkers in my early days, developed a taste for sugary, sweet cocktails. The kind you get at a dive bar, served stiff and often in a pint glass.
Now that we’ve entered an era where mixology has permeated our culture, higher-end bars tend to treat you with a certain disdain when you order up something less-than fancy. They’ll look at you as if you walked in, naked and deranged, asking for a gun. As if, somehow, your desire to get something simpler than a concoction named after an obscure 17th century metal-smith containing house-made honey liqueur, whiskey aged at an altitude of exactly 43-feet sea level, pickled melon rinds, and bitters made from the tears of Jack Kerouac would somehow cause the roof to cave in. Look, at least I made the effort to call it by a Spanish name. All I really wanted was a pint of Sugarbooze ™.
Yet now that we live in an age of revisionist cocktail history, we're getting away from the roots of the cocktail itself.
“We don’t serve that,” I’ve been told, multiple times, by bartenders at high-end joints when ordering something less-refined, sending a shockwave of shame into my heart. I’ll reluctantly ordered up some weird-14-ingredient concoction out of embarrassment the first time, pretending I was joking. It was $14 -- a buck per stupid ingredient. I would have paid $14 for a shot of RC Cola and some Old Crow at that point. And so, later, I just ordered up a shot of bourbon and a soda and made my own, sheepishly, in the corner. Try doing that with a Long Island: it’ll cost you about $60 to get all the ingredients that go in that typically $8 cocktail.
I’ve asked around, in my travels, to see why a bartender would simply refuse to make a drink despite having all the ingredients on hand. Is it because they’re under pressure from the angostura lobby? Put a sprinkle of bitters in that shit. Is it because I’m denying them the pleasure of flair bartending by asking them to squirt soda in a glass rather than flip cups and pour a bottle from on high? Tell you what, Coyote Ugly: Whip the soda gun around your head like a cowboy, squirt that shit in my whiskey, and call it a “Rough Rider.” Charge me $14 and send me on my way. Hell, there's a 250-percent tip in it for you. That's how much DMX references mean to me.
We’ve reached a point where we can’t get a good, old-fashioned, shitty cocktail in a place that doesn’t have a cigarette machine and a neon beer sign in it without being shamed for insulting the storied art of bartending. At the very least, the drink comes with a whale eye. Or you just get straight-up shut down. I'd rather hang out with an entire truck stop full of women named Starla and get curb-stomped by a dude named Ruffneck than be made to feel like a puppy that just shat in some hipster's lace-less shoes for wanting a vodka cran. Especially if it means my drink is probably on special, and Starla's buying.
Maybe I’m ordering a shitty cocktail because it’s what my grandmother drank, and I want to honor her (Black Velvet was Mare’s jam). Maybe I'm researching fructose and alcohol as a possible cure for chronic fatigue. Or maybe, just maybe, I want a screwdriver because I want a screwdriver, a two-ingredient 10-second drink.
Which leads me to another point: If I decide to eschew some artfully crafted masterpiece and opt for the old pour-n-squirt (tm), aren’t I saving you time? If there’s a line, I just doubled your output for the next 30 minutes.
Bartending is a hard job. It really, truly is. These folks put up with people at their worst. They endure slurred speech and fisticuffs. They get hit on by all manner of lunatic. They’re often underpaid and more often overworked. But that doesn’t mean they should feel compelled to drop you down a peg just because you want a quick and easy fix rather than some science experiment masquerading as a cocktail.
We drink, friends, not to be ashamed, but rather to forget shame altogether. So here’s a thought: Bartenders, whether you work at a place that serves $300 whiskey shots in a crystal glass or a joint that boasts more Big Buck machines than tables, let’s try something new: make me the drink that I fucking ordered. You can make fun of me behind my back when I’m long gone, red-faced and happy that I got exactly what I wanted.