The drink that turns you on to cocktails is not easily forgotten, nor should it be, says Gonzo's Mike Baxter.
I'm not really a drinker, well not yet anyway. It's 2001 and I'm perched up at the wood of a polished old oak bar. An array of multicoloured bottles smile at me temptingly from the back bar and a purplish ‘Martini’ is pressed into my hand. In it, floats the happiest little dollop of margarita slush; it's called a Fat Boy and I'm in love. By today's standards it's a Disco Drink, best left behind with the Blueberry vodka and Bee Gees albums. Vodka, cranberry, triple sec, peach schnapps and of course, blue curacao. Most of us, of course, would never let it see light in our venues today.
But why? If we're honest, in 99% of bars Disco Drinks are still adored in one form or another. Sure, we riff them: a dash of bitters here, a fat wash there. We get out our centrifuges, rotovaps and sous vides and get to work, creating these boozy Frankensteins, dug up from the past. And I'm as guilty as anyone. My last menu featured a Pornstar Milk Punch (The Naked Pornstar - get it?) and I've probably tried to riff every modern, classic, tiki and prohibition drink ever shaken or stirred in an effort to stake my claim. Sure, we occasionally find success, but for every Champagne Piña Colada or Hemmingway Daiquiri there's a Dry Manhattan out there just telling you some recipes shouldn't be messed with.
In all of this, at what point do we admit people just want a bit of Disco? Espresso and Pornstar Martinis still dominate any menu they're on and I know several famous bartenders who have a secret love affair with the Junebug. Vodka is still the biggest market leader in terms of sales volume in almost any bar you walk into, begging the question, do our customers really want to taste their liquor? Does anyone truly need a Negroni, have a hankering for a Hanky Panky, or is the industry trapped in some Wandavision-esque false reality where Fernet Branca reigns as a bartender's handshake and we all drink shots of Cynar to the bitter end? It could be that bitter drinks are our rebellion, our ego, or just the natural evolution of the palate searching for greatness.
The most vegetal amaros, smokiest mezcals and peatiest whiskies all compete in a bartender's arms race desperately trying to outdo one another with the most complex drinks available, akin to Anthony Bordain scoffing a bowlful fish eye ramen while the audience at homes shields their eyes in horror. There must be a reason some things just don't catch on.
Somewhere out there I can already hear someone shouting “Sweep the Leg Johnny”, so before I get myself strung up, I concede. I have sat in bars and been astounded by many things in a glass that were firmly not blue. They were bitter and they were complex. They reached for the golden ring, did a little backflip and stuck the bloody landing. But I am a bar operator, I'm a restauranteur - I've been doing this for 25 years and yes, I chase the dragon and I'd eat me some fish eyeballs. I love it all and am consistently in awe of the amazing flavours many of you have packed into a glass. I've celebrated their trickery and their all-singing-and-dancing complexities.
I'm proud of the amazing world bartenders have created. I've watched our craft evolve from Blue Lagoons to Chocolate Martini's to the Penicillin and seen us move from sticky-floor juke joints to marble-topped palaces that challenge the best restaurants in the world for culinary ingenuity and experience. But it’s not ourselves we should always try and impress. In denying the sweet and fruity, bars risk becoming self-congratulatory and forgetting that time someone sat on a barstool and first fell in love. Maybe the drink was purple or blue, maybe it had a sparkler in it or a paper umbrella perched proudly atop a bright red cherry. If you're as old as me I'd be pretty damned sure it had blue curacao.
There is a time and place for the exceptional but if we don't leave the door open to new drinkers, it will always end up a lonely party. So, bring me your rotovaps, your fat washes and every method found in the pages of Liquid Intelligence - I'm all for it. I'll drink my Clarified Mezcal Martinez and revel in it, but lest we forget our past: the Cosmos, the Espresso Martinis, the Junebugs. Sometimes it's best to admit that Mozart isn't fun for dancing and Disco never died. Somewhere out there Saturday Night Fever is catching and the only cure is more Pornstars.