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The Rebirth of Fun!

The once-snobby craft cocktail scene enters its fun phase


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Paul Body

“People started taking classic drinks really serious. Everyone had to dress the part with the suspenders. It started to get in this really serious and nerdy direction and people were demanding respect because they were a cocktail bartender. It started to get snotty, the way sommeliers were."--Steven Tuttle, Kettner Exchange

If the last decade of the craft cocktail movement has taught us anything, it’s that being a pretentious boob is necessary.

In the 80s and 90s, the bar became a riot of unsophisticated booze-chugging. Canned juices, with their deceased, metallic charms, ruled the day.

It’s understandable. Restaurants don’t make money on food. In fact, some menu items are loss leaders. The bar is the cash register of any food and drink operation. It’s the Gordon Gecko of the joint, whereas the dining room is the feel-good, romantic nonprofit worker.

So, to fund their food operation, business owners needed to churn out as many drinks as possible in as few minutes as possible. Pay a prep staff to fresh-squeeze juices by hand? What are you, a Democrat? Do you burn money for warmth in the winter?

And so canned juices and bulk garnishes and cheap syrups helped turn the bar into a hyper-efficient assembly line. Customers didn’t seem to mind this level of quality, which is best described as “utter crap.” Because while we may wait 20 minutes for our steak to be cooked to perfection, we need our cocktail right now. We’re out in the public, we’re apprehensive, we need the social lubricant, the wet courage, we’ve punched the clock all day and deserve a drink rather immediately.

So, man, hangovers were especially bad during the 80s and 90s. Sugary drinks and mixers—Midori! Blue Curacao!—went into our bodies with all the productivity of a home invasion. The drinks kicked puppies in our blood systems. We woke up and felt as if our souls had been forcibly evicted through our temples.

Half-naked gals downed shots and danced on the bar, just like Gloria Steinem always wanted. Tom Cruise was winking and flairing his way into hot Hollywood babe hearts. Bar life turned into a tawdry spring break affair with black lights, blackouts, and behavior unbecoming of a non-jungle species. Tons of T&A, very little art.

And so the craft cocktail scene arrived to save us from our douchey selves. It’s hard to boat race with a negroni.

Just the word “craft” indicates a certain seriousness. Bars and restaurants participating in this movement even, for a brief moment, called their bartenders “mixologists.” That didn’t last long, because it was the verbal equivalent of a fanny pack. But the reason they did so was understandable—the word “bartender” had become so denigrated, so artless, that there had to be a better word, right?

Craft cocktail bartenders were doing everything from scratch. Juicing their own juices. Making their own orgeat (almond) syrups, falernum, everything. They were researching the history and culture of cocktails, resuscitating ancient tinctures and sodas and recipes. It was like an excavation project for a time when sitting at the bar was a more sophisticated, adult experience and not a mere spigot to turn the bar into an ad-hoc, Saturday-night sex farm.

Craft cocktails ARE art, in comparison to the gun-and-done bartending of the 80s. The bartenders started dressing the part, what with their suspenders and vests and topiary mustaches. Instead of drinking five mediocre drinks, they promoted drinking fewer drinks of higher quality. They encouraged patience. They encouraged not being a jackass.

People paid attention. They enjoyed this rebirth of cool. They enjoyed feeling sophisticated again.

And then it went too far. As the movement swelled and people became fans, bartenders got an over-inflated sense of self-importance. They became snobs. “You don’t know what a swizzle is? There’s a Bud Light bar down the street, pal.”

Craft bartenders embodied the same off-putting, pretentious blow-hardery that sommeliers did in the 90s. In their efforts to reclaim some respect for the craft, they became unbearable hipster elitist tools.

The pendulum swung so far in the direction of seriousness that having a drink almost became an exercise in sobriety. People were afraid to go into craft cocktail bars because they didn’t want to be mocked. Beginners weren’t welcome. It became an insider society whose adherence to deep cocktail knowledge was suffocating itself.

And now that is over. As bartenders pointed out to me in our cocktail feature (read it here), cocktails are fun again. They've realized they went a little too far, and are smiling again. "Hospitality" is the most common word they speak of. Over the next year, San Diego will see an explosion of tiki menus and bars. Why? Because it’s hard to be a pretentious boob when you’re drinking a tiki drink out of an elaborate, colorful mug with an ornate garnish.

But back to the point. The pretension was necessary. With any part of society that’s been reduced to a joke of itself—please re-watch the movie Cocktail—you need that overcorrection in order to achieve, eventually, a more reasonable, welcoming middle ground.

Without all those bartenders sporting man parasols and sneering at your drink order, the craft cocktail scene might not have been taken as seriously as it’s become. That dedication to quality spirits and ingredients may not have stuck as hard as it has. Thanks to the judgy craft cocktail nobs, it’s now more shocking for a bar or restaurant NOT to source the best stuff. 

So, thanks, pretension. And good riddance.

That said, we must be careful with our fun. Don’t go too far down the who-cares rabbit hole.

“I’ve seen these bartenders work so hard to educate people about craft cool boozes and now you’re bringing them back to blue curacao?” says  David Thyne, who was the bartender at Lion’s Share until recently. “It’s like falling back down.”

I’m not going to tell you how to fun. But in my perfect world, it would always promote quality over speed, and include some sense of decorum. Hopefully the craft cocktail scene can now let its hair down without taking its pants off.

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