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Last weekend, it was one of my friend’s birthdays which obviously lent itself to a long session of day drinking. Distilleries have become the new breweries, with a ton of independent distilleries opening in the DC area. Naturally, distillery tours and distillery hopping have become a much bigger and trendier attraction. Brewery tours are out, distillery tours are in, but even after hours of tasting various types of gin, rum, and whiskey, I was not so drunk as to prevent me from realizing I didn’t know almost any of the drinks that these distilleries had available.
I’m not some incompetent noob when it comes to cocktails either. I have some experience bartending from a time when I thought maybe the law life wasn’t for me (everyone who takes the Bar or any class in law school and is convinced they failed knows what I’m talking about). So I know a good amount of lesser-known drinks, even though my tastes tend to be much simpler (I’ll never say no to a Cape Codder). And during the course of this afternoon, I saw very few drinks that I knew right off the cuff.
Instead, I found that each of these distilleries was offering a limited menu of their “signature” or “specialty” cocktails. Instead of offering a unique take on a Whiskey Sour, Manhattan, or Old Fashioned,, the whiskey drinks I had to choose from featured ingredients like pomegranate molasses, strawberry dill, or Tempus Fugit Liqueur de Violettes under names like “Washington Star,” “What’s the Rush,” and “Triple Tipple.” There wasn’t a rum and coke to be found, but plenty of drinks featuring ginger beer or Peychaud’s Bitters.
This isn’t a phenomenon that is limited to distilleries either. Many restaurants have also taken pride in eschewing the classics for their own unique takes or a completely customized menu. And, of course, there are lots of higher end bars where they have similar menus. They’ll generally be able to make you those comfort drinks, but you might get some sideways looks and snide comments about being “low-brow.”
You know what? I’m perfectly fine being a bit low-brow. Sometimes, when I’m out getting fucked up, I don’t want to deal with all the complications these fancy drinks bring. Sometimes, I want to hammer back some gin and tonics, vodka sodas, or Jack and cokes and just not care for a few hours.
That’s not to complain and say that the drinks I had over the weekend weren’t delicious. I love trying new food and drink, feeling all high class every so often. And I understand why a distillery would have their signature cocktail line. Their goal is to sell their own liquors, and the best way to do that in mixed drinks is to use ingredients that aren’t as overpowering. Simple syrup, bitters, and soda water are much better than juices or flavored sodas that will mask more than enhance the flavor of their products. And it makes sense for restaurants to do this as well since they are trying to upsell their liquors (liquor is your biggest profit-maker in the alcohol business, so the more pricey mixed drinks you sell, the more money you print). People who are getting a cocktail at lunch or dinner don’t really care how long their drink will take since they’re basically using the drink as a stopgap in the time before apps and the meal arrives.
No, my major problem is with bars that specialize in these cocktails. Even though you should be able to get simple drinks at these places, a lounge or bar with specialty cocktails is basically a nightmare to drink or bartend at. Ask anyone behind the bar, they’ll tell you that when it’s a busy rush the people they hate the most are the ones who order any drink that requires them to muddle, blend, or shake anything. Drinks that you can pour one handed with two bottles, maybe add something from the soda gun or a garnish, is the name of the game. If I’m at a bar and the guy at the front of the line orders something that requires a dash of bitters and muddled orange slice, I groan inside. You just took three minutes of that bartenders time and tips that he could have been using to crack open Buds or pour Jack and Cokes that will earn him more volume and tips that you’re giving him. You’re the guy at Chipotle who orders for his entire family instead of ordering ahead online.
And again, bringing us back to distilleries, I think that there should be some basic cocktails on the menu for when the late night crowd comes by. As opposed to the tastings and daytime drinkers, no one who comes by a distillery at night or for a happy hour special is going to be buying bottles of your gin or whiskey. In truth, they probably won’t ever want to see your product again if they drink too much. So cool it down with all those craft cocktails and make sure your staff has some simple ingredients and maybe a happy hour menu that includes the old standbys. You may scoff at your patrons who degrade your lovingly crafted liquors with Coke or orange juice but trust me half the people who bought bottles are doing the same thing at home. .