How to be a barman, lesson two
RICHARD EHRLICH'SSunday, 2 February 1997 It goes to show just how wrong you can be. I thought that learning thebartender's craft would take me years of patient study, yet I learned it all in afew evenings. Unfortunately, I didn't understand half of what I learned. Beinga cocktail bartender means having good taste, a cool head, and thousands of hours of experience.Memorising endless recipes is less important. Danny Fierstone, ex- barman of Detroit (where I've been receiving cocktail instruction), speaks of a guy whoknew 400 recipes. "The only problem," adds Danny, "was that he couldn't makeany of them well."At Detroit, taste is king. When a barman finishes a complicated cocktail, hedips a straw in and tastes the drink himself. Even if he's never made that drinkbefore, and even if he doesn't actually like it, he will know whether it's good. If it isn't, he will correct it.They can do that because they understand the basic principles. There may bethousands of cocktails in the world, but most are based on a small number of ideas. Master those ideas and you can make anything.My experience of hanging out with professionals certainly bears that out. Of course, it's easy for them: they've got the experience. Boneheads trying toget a crash course (like yours truly) will find the abstract principles baffling.My cocktail guru Dick Bradsell, head barman at Detroit, tried to simplify usingdiagrams, showing how the principal flavours of a drink are brought together byancillary flavourings, and when he draws his diagrams (usually on a napkin) youthink you've seen the light. But try to duplicate the results yourself and - well,it doesn't look so easy. Dick and his team did a lot of demonstrating for me. Ilooked, listened, tried to make notes - but there was too much to take in.For the record, however, here's an approximate version of cocktail basics. Firstare the aromatics: a base spirit "adjusted" with vermouth or bitters. The mostimportant of this class are the Martini, the Old-Fashioned (Bourbon, sugar andorange peel), and the Manhattan (Scotch, sweet vermouth, bitters). These allneed "gentle, loving, respectful treatment, no shaking, no messing around."Next comes the sour. In the States, it's a whisky sour; in Brazil it's a Caipirinha;in Mexico, a Margarita. All combine sweetness and sourness, typically inproportions of 6:2:1.Then comes punch. All punches are essentially "a sour made long" (i.e. withice in a tall glass). Based on the Planter's Punch, they follow exactly the sameprinciple: four parts weak, three parts strong, two parts sour, one part sweet,regardless of which spirits are used, and which mixers.