How to be a more CREATIVE bartender?
Updated: Mar 29
- The Theory of Creativity -
Bartenders all over the world regularly argue about traditional cocktail specs, glassware, the correct origins of a cocktail, history & best methodology. We spend endless hours searching books, blogs & forums about information about weird ingredients, strange stories from exotic cultures & fret over the carbon footprint of our limes from Mexico. Have you even tasted Mexican limes IN Mexico? They’re absolutely bizzare!
Methodologies: I believe there are many different ways to approach a cocktail, many different ways to look at the ‘craft’ cocktail culture we’re surrounded by & look at understanding this fast moving industry where old is new & new is old in a matter of months. When trying to understand the behemoth that is the cocktail industry we often try to ‘understand’ or ‘justify’ the things that we do, usually with science, sometimes with pseudo-science & in the more ‘old school’ ways of just using your instinct.
Looking into this I found 2 distinct approaches to cocktail making:
- The Deconstructed School - The students of this approach focus on a sublime balance of ingredients where they can identify every single flavour from the list. There is a higher focus on individual ingredients playing a particular important flavour roles within the drink, the quality of the ingredients is fetishised & every millilitre scrutinised.
The pro’s of this approach is that the bartenders focus on K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid) where classic recipes are adhered to almost religiously & the hierarchy in this school of thought is based completely on precision or knowledge. The drinks are often clean, straight forward & bring joy to the masses.
The con’s is that there are often very specific rules you can play by, strive too far into one direction or another & you shall be painted a ‘heretic’ to the cause. It can be compared to ballet for lack of a better metaphor, where the retelling of the same story & consistency is the key. If you question why it then the answer is “you just don’t get it”.
- The Cake School - The practitioners of this approach prefer the analogy of baking to making cocktails. After all you don’t taste the sugar, flour & eggs separately after you’ve baked a cake do you? It is the final outcome & final flavour profile that matters the most as opposed to the individual ingredients. Regardless of the ‘thought pattern’ the focus on individual ingredients playing a particular flavour role within a drink, the purpose of the ingredients is fetishised & every millimetre is scrutinised.
The pro’s of this method is that the bartenders aren’t restrained by ‘traditions’ when they approach drinks making. They try to evaluate every single component for what it is & find a way to use it correctly depending on what the bartender is trying to create.
The con’s of this school of thought is that often bartenders often get lost in their own flights of fancy. Cocktails turn into heavy soups of indescribable layers of flavour that make no sense to anyone with the ultimate excuse for the mess being ‘you just don’t get it’.
The Summary: Personally I’ve always titled towards ‘the Cake School’ of thought with my creations, have you ever read a book by a chef? The tomato sauce contains 20 ingredients! I respect the classics & I definitely appreciate a well made classic cocktail such a Manhattan in the right bartenders hands. The bartenders ‘hands’ is exactly what separates one bartender from another when it comes to making drinks as opposed to the ‘methodology’ that they use.
So here is where I propose my own theory regarding the creative approach to drinks making…
- The Rubiks Cube Theory - I believe that both schools of thought are outdated in my terms of approaching drinks making. I break down every cocktail into 6 specific ‘sides’: - Name This is the first indication for the drinker of what they’re about to have. Is it the first thing to interest them on a menu or catch their eye. - Ingredients Naturally the next thing usually listed are the ingredients in the cocktail. Like it or not this can make or break your drink. You can’t call something ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ without a ‘wow’ effect or ingredient. - Glassware The vessel in which the drink is presented has to represent the story so far. Same principle as above it has to represent the tale you’re trying to tell. - Story Every good cocktail has an inspiration or a story behind it. Whether it is based on a historic piece or just how you came about the idea itself. All good & memorable cocktails have a story.
- Garnish When the cocktail is presented or even carried past a drinker the first that is noticed are the ‘looks’. Again it is important to stress the look of the drink as it has to be enticing to the drinker. - Aroma Human being are animals that ALWAYS naturally smell their drinks. This is the last thing that happens before final taste test of a drink. This is your last great hurdle to overcome where the person can be broken out of the ‘dream’ of having a cocktail.
BUT what comes next? What happens when you have the perfect drink in ‘theory’? All the elements of a cocktail have matched up perfectly so technically you’ve got what is essentially a new modern classic or so you think. What separates us next is the most important aspect of this “School of Thought’.
- Purpose - The intention of what you’re trying to make is what separates a good bartender from just a bartender. Every single great bartender in the industry makes every single cocktail with purpose & intention. He wants it to be this sour or this sweet, he wants it to be an aperitif or a digestif & yes its meant to be that smoky because he created it for that particular guest who appreciates that flavour.
This leads us then to the most logical conclusion: ‘Balance’ is BULLSHIT. For example the Negroni, a bartender favourite & Italian classic, is technically a completely unbalanced cocktail. Its just bitter & sweet as its main flavour profile & yet thousands of people around the world love this drink. Considering our obsession with ‘balance’ do you think if this drink was invented nowadays would it be just as highly praised? Or would they all try to add lemon to it to balance out the sweetness?
- Conclusion - The best bartenders create all their drinks with purpose, knowing exactly the right blend of ingredients the guests in their venues like & want. Being able to make mixed drinks with purpose & finding that purpose every time is the true methodology.
The Rubiks Cube theory, the Cake Theory or the Deconstructed theory are just gateways to the next level of creativity.