As much as I would like to one day be able to walk into any bar on the street and order a decent rye whiskey or craft beer, I won’t hold it against a bar if they lack the expertise or ingredients to make a Sazerac or Ramos Fizz. Most bars do not have those sort of dynamics built into their pricing or infrastructure, so it would be unreasonable to expect it.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions people tend to have about cocktail advocates, is that we drink only at venues which spotlight high-end cocktails and fancy ice cubes. This could not be further from the truth, because despite how much I love a great drink, the last thing I would want is for every bar to provide me with the same experience.
All of us, whether we realize it or not, go to plenty of different bars for plenty of different reasons. Sometimes we go to celebrate with friends, and sometimes, we go to meditate alone. Frequently, we wish to engage the bartender with what we are about to have, but just as often we simply want a cold beer and a little peace and quiet.
I know that many of my friends in the community will vehemently disagree with me, but I don’t think every venue has to offer fresh juice and proper technique to be considered a good bar. Mind you, I do know of a couple of proper dives that will stir your Manhattan and maybe even squeeze fresh lime into your Margarita, and I celebrate them for that, but I would not begrudge them if they didn’t.
I do not go to my favorite burger joint because they are well-versed in French kitchen techniques. I go there because they have quick, tasty burgers for a good deal. I would never expect them to offer anything more extravagant, and more importantly, I wouldn’t want them to.
Several years back, when I was still at Bourbon & Branch, I had a bar owner, who had recently discovered classic cocktails, approach me about revamping his venue and turning it into a craft cocktail bar. He was going to pay me a decent sum and the gig would have taken me six weeks.
It seemed like a good ideal initially, but once I got more information from him, I not only told him no, but I talked him out of the revamp all together.
Here is the deal, the bar that I was meant to retool, had been in his possession for eight years, and had a great local following. It was near a college campus and was busy with students nearly everyday, and even more so on weekends.
They did not make any fancy drinks at all, as their clientele came strictly for draft beer, shots and the occasional Long Island Iced Tea. The location’s pour cost and labor were both very low, and he did not need to spend much on maintenance or advertising.
Without mincing any words, I told him that I would love to work with him on another project down the road, but that he would have to be out of his mind to change anything at his present bar. It had a loyal clientele, very low overhead and more importantly, it was extremely profitable.
This bar was exactly what the community wanted, fast cheap drinks for a stressed out and financially-strapped demographic. Unfortunately, most college students have not quite hit their earning potential, so between work, finals and homework this is exactly what they are looking for, which brings me right back to where I started.
The thing that every successful bar realizes from the start, is that before they serve a single drink, they must first serve the community and that comes by fulfilling a role for the neighborhood around it.
The bar cannot run independently of the neighborhood, as any good bar is a part of the neighborhood, and will reflect that in how and what it serves. Not every bar needs to stock an extensive Italian wine list, just as not every bar needs to stock marshmallow vodka.
Regardless of whether we are drinking a can of domestic beer or a properly made cocktail, all of us go to different bars for different experiences, and it is grossly unfair to say one bar is better than the other. A more prudent way to think of it, would be to better understand which bar is better for the occasion.