Recipes vs. Improvisation

If you follow my posts here, or know me at all, you’ve probably figured out I have a penchant for information. Collecting it, organizing it, analyzing it — there’s something I find embarrassingly satisfying about having a wealth of data and then making it sing and dance and show off all its hidden secrets at the slightest wiggle of your fingertips.

It’s the closest thing we have to real magic in our world.

In the cocktail world, when people think of “information” they most likely think of recipes. And if you take a look at the drinks shelf of your local bookstore (or smartphone’s app store), you’ll see there are dozens, if not hundreds of books packed with cocktail recipes:

The Ultimate Bar Book, Big Bad-Ass Book of Cocktails, The Craft of the Cocktail, 100 Popular Cocktail Recipes, 500 Cocktails, The Little Black Book of Cocktails, Vintage Cocktails….

(I could go on listing titles for several more paragraphs. If you’re that kind of masochist, send me an email and I’ll write up a special post just for you to suffer through)

The Highball Glass of Babel

Unsurprisingly, my information addiction manifests itself as a desire to catalog the recipes from the most notable books into one magic tome, a Tower of Babel for cocktail recipes of sorts.

What could one do with such a book or app? Why, you could certainly look up old recipes you’ve forgotten, not to mention find drinks with all kinds of combinations of spirits and flavors:

  • Want something sour, but also wintry? We’ll find more than a few suggestions, no doubt.
  • Want a cognac based drink with peach and smoke? It’d be there.
  • Want a gin and scotch high ball garnished with Southeast Asian fruit? I’m sure we could find something for that too.

But many of you probably have a sinking feeling in your stomach, as if something about our fantastical approach here isn’t quite right. And I’d agree. It’s not just that it’s a ton of work, impractical in a bar setting or even what some would perhaps consider cheating.

No, I think this exhaustive recipe collection approach completely misses the point.

One Time, One Meeting

In Japanese, there’s a saying: 一期一会 (ichigo ichie), which literally means “one time, one meeting”. When you make a drink for yourself or someone else, you are experiencing a moment that will never ever happen again.

In that moment you have to consider all the possible factors:

  • Time of day
  • Time of year
  • Mood of yourself
  • Mood of everyone else
  • Atmosphere around you
  • State of the world (both big and small)
  • …and much, much more

No matter how many cocktail books you cobble together into a shiny new app, you’re never going to be able to search by the context of the moment. You need to use your brain, your guts and your intuition for that.

That is why I’ve come to believe recipe lists and cocktail books can only be a stepping stone to your own spur of the moment creations.

Yes, certain classic — Manhattans, Margaritas, Martinis, among other things that don’t start with M — have persisted and will likely continue to persist, but there is no need to cling to the mass of new recipes being produced in our wide, wonderful world of tippling.

It’s like Improv.

Scenes can be built on classic principles and devices, but good performers don’t pore over the thousands and thousands of scenes that have been performed by other troupes. Not only would it be ridiculous to attempt to do so, but it would fail to serve the moment. Instead, performers look for cues from the world around them and create something from scratch using the skills they’ve developed.

Celebration Hangover

My emphasis on technique over recipe is why I dismay at all the articles, blog posts and retweets that put a selected recipe in the spotlight for its darling 15 minutes of fame.

Very often the recipe is quite deserving of praise, but rarely does such praise include education for the reader, acting instead as just another sweaty round of industry circle-jerking.

Telling me that this drink has Buffalo Trace, Carpano Antica and Prickly Pear bitters is not enough. Tell me why these ingredients work well together, tell me about the proportion of them, tell me about the process that lead to their combination.

Any monkey with a typewriter will eventually stumble upon good recipes — what’s priceless is the journey.

Tell me the full story, not just the ending.

Caveat Venditor

There’s one major exception to my opinion on recipes vs. improvisation: Bars.

At the end of the day, a bar is a business like any other and any good bar manager will want to do at least some crude modeling around inventory, forecast demand and projected sales. An established menu of well-documented recipes works wonders here.

Even so, many high end cocktail bars offer bespoke or “bartender’s choice” drinks, sometimes for no premium at all. A good analyst (with a good POS system) could derive average cost of these drinks and a good bar manager could use this information to train their staff on what or what not to use.

It all comes down to the quality of your information. As always.


One thought on “Recipes vs. Improvisation

  1. “Buffalo Trace, Carpano Antica and Prickly Pear bitters”

    That wasn’t aimed at one person in particular, no, nuh-uh.. Do you want to discuss further? ‘Cause I get the feeling that what’s being seen on the surface doesn’t reflect what’s going on behind the scenes.

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