Rebuttal to Deming, Against Mixology
In the Winter 2011 issue of the 3 Penny Review, children’s book author, Golden Gloves boxing champion and gin Martini drinker Sarah Deming takes issue with the word “mixology” and with mixologists themselves. In her piece titled Deming: Against Mixology, she believes mixology and mixologists collectively are a big bag of pretense without substance that gallivant as an excuse for the poor and indifferent service of high priced cocktails. It is an interesting piece and one that is both spot on and completely off the mark. Here, I aim to examine Ms. Deming’s argument, highlight our agreements and critique where we disagree. I will also fill the gaps in her efforts to demonstrate what are the real lessons of her experiences that should be applied by the modern cocktail lounge.
Ms. Deming’s central argument is that getting a cocktail should be an easy act but is one that becomes quantifiably more difficult while attending a so-called mixology bar. It should be easy, she believes, and not an elitist exorcise into the history of spirits or the proselytizing of Slow Food-like principles that have recently taken root behind the brass rail. It is not just the earnest mixologist who knows his or her cocktail history and wants to share that Ms. Deming takes issue with. Her real wrath is saved for the so-brilliant-you-just-don’t-get-it mixologist who looks down from his creative ascendancy with contempt on those who don’t know what he does or know at least enough to understand how great he is. She has no problem with elitism, you see, just not at the bar.
When it’s a question of sin, however—and no matter how much we dress up drinking or call it by a fancy name, it remains just that—judgment is absurd. People want their sin the way they want it. This is something every drug dealer and pornographer knows, so why can’t today’s upscale bartenders understand? To the so-called mixologists, I say: Pour up and shut up.
Drink is sin, keep it simple. Essentially what she is saying is that all bars need to be one way: the way she wants them. The ultimate failure in her argument lay in her statement above:
People want their sin the way they want it.
Agreed. That is why Larry Flint publishes multiple publications. People want virtually everything the way they want it. This is not a revelation nor one that is lost on bar owners. That is why every place from Milk & Honey to Hooters to the local dive bar all exist. Each has its place and its clientele. Ma’am, you’ve been at the wrong bar. If you don’t like your drinks or how you are treated when buying them then vote with your wallet and do not visit that bar again.
She returns to this theme at the end of the piece with a quote by chef Michael Romano:
In Culinary Artistry, chef Michael Romano says, “I think there’s a danger of getting too much into the idea that ‘I am an artist’… A restaurant is about nurturing, about saying, ‘Welcome to my home.’ It’s an interactive process in which you provide your guests with something they’re going to ingest, going to put in their bodies. It’s a very intimate thing, and they should have a say in it. Chefs should be flexible.”
While I agree with this statement generally, it is a bit high minded and preachy in this context especially considering the number of pretentious and overly high concept restaurants (that also treat their guests with disdain) that dot the major cities of the world. Many people visit these restaurants everyday and some are treated poorly by elitist restaurant staff. No one, however, would presume to argue that all restaurants should be like Applebees. They just wouldn’t go back and probably would encourage their friends to do the same.
It should also be stated that changes in cuisine (techniques, attitudes and trends) filter down from restaurants at the fringe of restaurant creativity making it down in various ways to more accessible and lower priced establishments. The same is becoming true in the world of cocktails. There are tinkerers out there barrel aging cocktails, making homemade syrups and tinctures, mixing unusual ingredients and more all trying to stretch the known boundaries of this medium we call the cocktail. These forays into cocktail inventiveness won’t all appeal to a mass audience.
Yet, while lamenting the pretense and disdain she attributes to all mixologists, and after a cool-kid like tirade on the word “mixology” itself, she goes on to credit these so-called mixologists for actually making a better drink than a plain bartender (her distinction, not mine).
Discrimination is one of the qualities of the divine. Bartenders should drink the milk of the mixologists’ techniques and fine attention to detail. They should leave behind the venom of judgment and privilege.
Ms. Demings’ underlying problems lay, it appears, to be the word “mixology” itself and with the packaging that these mixology bars (as she describes them) come wrapped in. Her word problems come across as curmudgeonly and old-timerish. To bolster her point of the silliness of the word she relies on H.L. Menken, himself a curmudgeonly old-timer even when was young. Unfortunately, his quote is from over sixty years ago. The term has been around at least that long and appears to have an established place. Unfortunately, for Ms. Deming, that place is at bars she doesn’t like but insists on attending.
However, Ms. Deming hits home with her criticism of bars whose service personnel treat human beings indifferently and or talk down to them. She recounts two tales of poor service both of which were avoidable and both of which should be lessons for any bar owner looking to have a lasting operation.
In the first, she takes her father to Smith and Mills in the Tribeca district of New York. From the description below, it appears she has been here before and thought enough of the place and its drinks share it with her father. She writes:
The last time my dad came to visit, shortly before he died, I took him to Smith and Mills, a tiny bar in Tribeca built of reclaimed industrial fixtures. As a city planner, Dad was sensitive to the beauty of architecture, and I thought he’d like the quality of the space.
In his broad Oklahoman accent, he ordered an Amaretto sour.
I’ll never forget the way the waiter smirked. “We don’t serve those here.”
“Why not?” Dad asked.
“The mixologist doesn’t like Amaretto.”
My father looked hurt and confused. He was probably trying to simultaneously parse the word “mixologist” and understand why it mattered whether he liked Amaretto, since it was my father who was going to drink it.
“Do you maybe want a whiskey sour, Dad?” I asked. “They’re really good here.”
He shook his head stubbornly. “How about a Mojito?”
This time the waiter actually laughed. “We don’t have those this time of year.”
This is not a problem, as she suggests, in part, of the bar not having Mojitos that time of year or even Amaretto at all. The issue, obviously, is the waiter. No member of your staff should ever belittle a paying customer for ordering something they want whether or not you have it. That is a moment for a waiter or waitress to shine by triangulating, either on their own or in consultation with the bartender, what the person ordered into something you do have that they will enjoy even more than the Amaretto Sour they originally asked for but could not get.
While I do not doubt the accuracy of her tale, this is not the experience I have had in almost all of the bars of this type I have been in. Nearly all of the mixologistically inclined bartenders I have met go out of their way to make someone happy to the point of creating something out of thin air if need be. I have found this lot to share rather than show off and always with the happiness of the individual paying customer in mind. The caveat to the bar owner is to hire waitstaff with the same care withwhich they create cocktails.
Ms. Deming’s second example is a sample of what ordering a simple Manhattan can sometimes be like in certain bars.
“Rocks or up?”
“Perfect or sweet?”
“Um…perfect, I guess.”
“Shaken or stirred?”
“Stirred?” Good answer! It’s considered terribly un-Mixologically Correct to shake a Manhattan.
“Angostura bitters or housemade miso bitters?”
“Cherry or twist?”
“Twist?” Correct again! This particular mixologist has authored a series of scathing blog posts denouncing the cherry garnish.
“Rye or bourbon?”
It’s not your fault. You are tired and thirsty and from up close that beard is really scary. You say something disastrously un-MC.
“I’ll take Maker’s Mark.”
A wave of relaxation spreads over the mixologist’s face. He strokes his ascot with a little smile. “We don’t carry industrial liquor here.”
“Any brand that has a production of over a thousand cases a year.”
“In addition, most educated drinkers agree rye whiskey gives more complexity to the finished cocktail than bourbon. Since you’re obviously a little new to all this, let’s start you off with a Kentucky rye that’s been aged in Madeira cask and contains thirty percent corn…”
To me, this is spot on and hilarious as I have tragically seen this happen. Those of us among the cocktail cognoscenti proudly can are hoping to answer such questions. To those not among our kind this undoubtedly comes across as a mock and disdain filled interrogation. Again, the point is similar to before and is the ultimate point we should take from Ms. Deming’s piece. Keep it simple and try not to treat me poorly. Have a few simple questions to clarify a persons wants and needs but surely not a whole laundry list.
Here is how this should have gone.
“I’d like a Manhattan, please.”
“Certainly. One Manhattan coming up.”
That’s it. If they want something specific they will tell you. Otherwise, make them what your bar considers the house Manhattan, how you think it should be made. You are paid to be the expert after all. It’s like a Martini. I like mine a certain way and I order it specifically and by name or I don’t order one at all. If I come in and ask for a Martini and do not specify the particulars just give me what you think represents a Martini. Simple.
After all of this, every bartender and bar owner should read her piece for the warning about the service, if for no other reason. Her description of the average mixologist is a scream however.
“You may now proceed slowly toward the bar, which is the large object in front of you made of zinc or tin, groaning beneath the weight of all the fruit infusions. Behind it stands the man whose sole purpose in life is to keep you from your drug of choice. He is probably a white male in his late twenties with a handlebar moustache, mutton chops, or pubo-Amish beard. He dresses like a member of a barbershop quartet. A frown hovers over his lips as he surveys his vast collection of bitters.”
An argument could be made that our current generation of bartenders are singlehandedly keeping vest makers in business.
On the whole, however, I find Ms. Deming’s complaints about mixologists to be pretty snarky. She comes off at first as a flippant cool kid who is not in this club and so tries to nay say it as not cool. By the time she gets to her stories of bar elitism I am not feeling as sorry for her as I believe she wants me to be. Her larger point is well taken. The service should never make anyone feel stupid or like they do not belong.
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