Has Mixology Jumped the Shark?
In the world of vaporized, liquid nitrogen, infused-everything cocktails, why creativity matters
Keywords Mixology, Cocktail, Bartender
Leave it to Portlandia to skewer what's become of mixology. In the season two opener, Andy Sandberg stars as a bright-eyed, innovative mixologist serving up the weirdest cocktail creation of love — with a little love, of course. The drink he delivers to Carrie Brownstein is a ginger-based bourbon cocktail, but it isn't just bourbon and ginger ale. His creation is "infused with lemon, honey, and charred ice... then building off that base we've got cherry tomato, lime zest, I actually made the bitters myself at home... We've got egg whites, egg shell, egg yellows... rotten banana... secret of the pros... also just trying to get rid of it... the final ingredient, a little bit of love." Yeah, did you catch all of that? Of course, let's not forget how the episode ended: in a fratty Los Angeles bar, with our beloved maker of drinks, the cocktail genius, behind the bar pouring booze into willing open mouths. Looks like the final ingredient wasn't really love, after all.
The final scene (or Ron Swanson and his dismay at molecular mixology on Parks and Recreation) may in fact drive the nail into the coffin of mixology: If the masters of mixology are over it, should we be, too? One famous bartender certainly seems over it. Derek Brown, writer and bartender at the Columbia Room and the Passenger Room in Washington D.C., in an opinion column on Table Matters, nails it with the title: "Bartenders, Stop Making (Up) Cocktails." While Brown acknowledges the need for creativity, he also says 2012 was the year of really, really bad cocktails. We could go through our own list ourselves: The vaporized cocktail in Chicago. The liquid nitrogen cocktail (that nearly killed an innocent girl) in London. The human toe cocktail in Canada. (OK, we can't change that one — it's a legend.) These are extreme cases, maybe, but Brown argues that even the hand-crafted, bespoke, craft cocktail movement has lent itself to something that's just not that good. (Not to say Brown considers himself outside the pressure to mix up terrible cocktails; he readily admits his own Hot Cosmo was as gross as it sounds.) Brown writes:
"Too often, bartenders, rather than sharpening our axes, studying, searching, and trying to find meaning among the thousands of cocktails already created, the neophyte — and even sometimes seasoned veterans, I’m afraid —— indulge in the worst possible fantasy: that of some mixological Prometheus who steals the eternal flame of creativity from the old, stuffy Gods and re-imagines it as lavender-infused ice or cinnamon-ancho rim. The unfortunate result is that it’s our liver and not theirs that is forever picked at by these often vile and outlandish combinations."
Could it be that mixology has jumped the shark? Has it simply become too much? Speaking only from a consumer standpoint — and one who is required to drink many cocktails as part of the job — it could be that we're simply inundated with the deluge of choices. I put a request out for Bloody Mary recipes that differed from your average Bloody mix and vodka combination. Within a day, the floodgates (bloodgates? too much?) opened; my inbox flooded with at least 75 recipes from bars and restaurants from coast to coast. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. Far too often I sit at a cocktail bar in New York City with a group of friends and have no idea what to order. Shameful as it is to admit, I often go to my fallback Manhattan cocktail, because I know that nine times out of 10, I know what to expect. Until someone subs in some new ingredient and throws me off all over again.
Plus, there's the case of gimmick: mixologists who toe the line of creativity in cocktails, and the undrinkable. In the case of the liquid nitrogen cocktail, the whole bartending world went awry; liquid nitrogen is not something to be messed with, after all. And those in the U.K. argued that the use of liquid nitrogen in a cocktail wasn't to make the cocktail taste better, it was for show. Unfortunately, that show happened to rip a girl's stomach apart. Of course, bartenders aren't necessarily to blame for the gimmicks; perhaps, as Eddie Huang argued in a "foodies jumping shark" rebuttal, customers are just as much to blame for the vile cocktail creations of late. (Why do you think flavored vodkas are still a thing?) Huang writes: "... If we play chicken or the egg, I'd blame the Yelpers and customers who put pressure on chefs to deliver things at the prices they do. There is little to no money in this industry and when money dries up people put their hooker heels on." He may be talking about chefs, but the same goes for mixologists.
Brown argues for the 90-10 rule: 90 percent of the cocktails you master behind the bar should be classics, 10 percent can be new creations. After all, you have to master the martini before you can shake it up a bit. One bartender friend I talked to about it said he couldn't see the 90-10 rule working in a city like New York City, where you're in throwing stones' reach of a bar anywhere you stand. After all, competition is tough, and if you as a bartender can't separate yourself from the pack with an Asian-inspired Bloody Mary, how can you make it anywhere?
And besides, arguing that mixology (whether molecular mixology, bespoke cocktails, and the like) has jumped the shark is a bit like arguing haute cuisine has jumped the shark. There will always be a demand for the creations of the hottest new chef, much as there will always be a demand for the creations of Jim Meehan of PDT or Grant Achatz of the Aviary. After all, who else can reinvent the standard drink of high school girls and vacationers, the Piña Colada, to be a drink of magic that dazzles even the most critical cocktail connoisseur? As Arthur Bovino, our executive editor, described to me, the magic of the Piña Colada at The Aviary (which he described as the best drink he had in 2012) is something that can't be replicated. To watch a plume of barbapapa, or cotton candy, vanish into thin air after the bartender pours in the pineapple juice was mesmerizing, he said. It was playful, whimsical — and yet not crossing the border into gimmick. And that's why a Manhattan, or any other classic cocktail, may always be the fallback order instead of the first thing we try: we're always going to want to try something new. We're always going to desire to be mesmerized — even if it's just by the glass that's in front of us. Sure, it may sometimes turn out to be a glass of hand soap pretending to be a gin cocktail (I'm looking at you, fancy New York speakeasy). But that won't stop me from trusting my mixologist to deliver something new.