A few months ago, while traveling, I finally had the chance to check out a new restaurant that I had heard and read so much about. The place had been announced to much fanfare, as the chef at the restaurant was well-known for his rustic take on Italian cuisine*.
Because of this approach, everything from the décor to the wine list reflected this vision. Even the beer list and soda pop was made up of interesting and esoteric selections directly from Italy. When I had heard that an up-and coming star bartender had signed onto the project, I was eager to see what the bar program would hold in store.
Naturally, I was excited to see what interesting Italian digestif and liqueurs would be available and in what combinations. Perhaps, some new takes on stirred aperitivo or amaro highballs. Maybe even some interesting dessert wine or Grappa that are not often seen outside of Italy.
Sadly, I was disappointed on all fronts. There was nothing there that in anyway reflected the personality or character of the venue whatsoever. It was the epitome of the dreaded cookie-cutter cocktail bar.
The entire bar program from the spirits selection to the drinks menu could have just as easily been picked up and dropped into any other faceless craft cocktail bar in the country. This was because there was absolutely no sense of cohesiveness in place to tie the bar to the restaurant.
It was almost as if the bar manager just looked through the latest cocktail book, picked out ten drinks at complete random and chose to put those on the list. There was nothing that said rustic Italian, and Aperol was the most obscure Italian product on the entire back bar, which for some reason was primarily American Whiskey and gin
This is a symptom of what I think is happening for too often in the bar industry right now. Young bartenders who are not ready to undertake the whole scope of building a bar program are being handed the keys to the kingdom without proper vetting, and the result is a proliferation of programs painfully out of sync with the rest of the house.
At best, this one-size-fits-all approach illustrates a disturbing lack of forethought and awareness in the culture. At worst, it gives the cocktail movement a bad name, by portraying the cocktail as clichéd and out of sync, and thusly unworthy of taking its place next to its proud peers, beer and wine.
No one is proposing that a proper bar should not have the ingredients to make the classics; that would be going a bit far. But they should always and at all times retain an identity that reflects the heart and soul of the venue itself.
*The identity of the venue has been altered to protect the guilty.