Jan 262006

Yes, it’s a bit of a pun. I’m not one to write TV reviews normally, but I felt it necessary today. I watched yesterday’s Good Eats this morning after work, and I have a few critical observations to make.

Let’s start with some background. Alton Brown is by far my favorite TV personality; his quirky yet educational demeanor is perfect for getting across the message of his show, which I believe is “anyone can cook”. Good Eats is one of my favorite shows, and I’ve been watching it as “a dedicated Good Eats viewer” for many years.

That said, here we go. Yesterday’s episode was called “Raising the Bar”, and it was, as the title might suggest, about bartending (cocktails, drink mixing or “mixology”, etc). The history of cocktails was accurate, although having heard it so many times, a little boring. The run-down of the “specialized equipment” was also very good, although truth be told, I (like most bartenders I’ve worked with, watched, or talked to) tend to only use the base of a Boston shaker in concert with a pint-sized glass instead of that puny base tin. But I like the idea of using a julep strainer instead of a Hawthorne strainer; I’ll have to see if I can find one of those for my bar kit. Then there’s the actual recipes.

To begin with, the Martini. The recipe presented, with gin, was good enough although I really do feel that a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio (with dry vermouth being the “1”) is necessary for a good martini; no “tossing out the vermouth” for me. No, my particular objection is to how it was presented. Naturally, there was the Bond reference; how can you avoid it if you’re talking about Martinis? He ordered a “Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred”, naturally. It’s a shame more people haven’t caught onto the Vesper. Anyway, walk into any bar in the world, and if you order a Vodka Martini, shaken, that’s what you’ll get: Vodka and (at least a little) dry Vermouth in a glass, shaken with ice and strained. If a bartender ever got an order for a vodka martini, shaken and up, and delivered a “traditional” gin martini, stirred and straight up, what would happen probably isn’t a “hey, this is pretty good”; what would happen is the bartender would have just wasted 2 or 3 ounces of gin, and the 30 seconds or so it took to make the drink in the first place, and he’d still have to make that vodka martini. Always give the customer what they order, even if you’re not charging him for it. If you get an order for a less-flavorful, weak martini, that’s what you should make.

The rest of the recipes were OK (the daiquiri and the mint julep), but so many recipe “types” were left out; all that was really hit on here were what I like to call the “hard core” cocktails: mostly liquor, with not much of a mixer. Which is a real shame, since most cocktails that people actually enjoy (and can drink in larger quantities) are made with mixers. Rum and coke is mostly coke, a screwdriver is mostly orange juice, and a margarita is mostly sour mix (or lime juice and simple syrup, if you’re a pedantic traditionalist). No, I think the three drinks presented in the show would have been a slightly different list, had it been up to me:

1. A martini, with a bit of discussion on how to switch it up. Gin (or Vodka) and dry vermouth is all well and good, but switch to sweet vermouth and whiskey, and you’ve got a Manhattan. Swap the vermouth for lemon juice (and keep the vodka), and you’ve got a lemon drop. Use apple schnapps (yuck) and vodka, and it’s an appletini, that oh-so-trendy waste of liquor that drove hipsters wild 3 years ago.

2. You’re using the glass by name, so why not make an actual highball (ginger ale and whiskey), along with a few of its cousins? Like the gin & tonic, whiskey and soda, the Cuba Libre (rum and coke with a squeeze of lime). Pretty much any mixed drink with an “and” in the name falls into this category. 7&7, Jack and coke, Whaler’s vanilla rum and root beer, take your pick or make up your own.

3. Something with a sweet-&-sour or fruit juice base. Margaritas come to mind, mostly because I live in Texas; I’m not such a big fan of Tequila, but boy are they popular. Or perhaps a whiskey sour. Or heck, you’re using the glass my name, why not a Collins (basically, a sour with club soda)? Screwdrivers (orange juice and vodka) also fit into this category, as do Cape Cods (vodka and cranberry) or Bat Bites (which should technically only made with Bacardi light rum, along with cranberry juice and a lime).

4. And then right before the end credits, switch to the uninterrupted voiceover (like the Popcorn segment in Ear Apparent), and make one of the super-mixers like an LIT (that’s Long Island Iced Tea for the uninitiated). A highball glass full of ice, 1/2 ounce each of Vodka, Gin and Rum, sour mix to fill, splash of cola to color, and a 1/2 ounce floater of triple sec on top. With a lemon wedge. Just in case you were interested.

Note that none of these are shots; in my oh-so-humble opinion, those are really only for college kids who want to get really hammered, really fast. There’s lots of places out there that have shot recipes (like The Webtender, which is my site of choice for drink recipes on the Internet), although my favorite recipe isn’t usually even given the name “recipe”: Take one shot glass, add Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey to fill. Chase with a good cold Bass or Harp.

Which reminds me of another of my hardware peeves: If you’ve got speed pourers on your bottles, use ’em! Don’t pussy-foot around and tip the bottle horizontally when you’ve got spouts on your bottles: fully invert the bottle; that’s what those spouts were built for, and that’s also why there’s an air return on the back of ’em. Lean to count to 4 (speed pourers flow at a constant rate of 2 seconds an ounce, ya know). Or 8. Feel free to use the spout to pour into a pony or jigger if you don’t feel confident enough in your counting, but for crap’s sake don’t use your equipment inefficiently. LITs (to use the extreme example) are easy enough to make, and take about 10 seconds if you’re not bothering to stop and measure each liquor on its own; pour with one bottle in each hand (or two, if you’re that cool) for 10 times the production value and twice the speed.

Now, I realize that the show was probably geared more towards the “retro” cocktails, like the ones presented. And mixing cocktails that don’t require much in the way of mixers does naturally mean that there’s less ingredients to amass in order to make what you want. But come on; why show someone how to scramble an egg if they’re really in the mood for a souffle?

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