When two men bellied up to the bar in Toronto's Ritz-Carlton hotel earlier this year and asked for sour-apple martinis, Patrick Hooey had to break the bitter news. The Ritz Bar doesn't stock Sour Puss Apple, the sweet-tart, neon-green liqueur, which the men had specified by name. "What I did have was fresh apples and Calvados, so I made my variation and explained why," the bartender said. "They loved it."
Hooey is no fan of DayGlo liqueurs, but he describes his aversion to vodka and Sour Puss as modest compared with that of a colleague he worked with years ago at another establishment. "He wants to open his own place and said he will charge $1,000 to anyone who orders a sour-apple martini." An appropriate disincentive, some might say.
The easy-mix appletini, a holdover from the 1990s cocktail boom that spawned all manner of déclassé concoctions, may yield a satisfying pucker to devotees, but it induces cringes among many demanding barkeeps today.
Fresh-fruit infusions have been nudging aside industrial mixes. Classically balanced liqueurs, such as Campari and Aperol, are in the spotlight. Though bartenders say the dreaded past is on the wane, some customers have missed the memo.
"I had a couple of rounds of vodka and Red Bulls go out last night," Hooey said last week. "This person was just tired. I try to understand." He also still gets calls for the unfortunately named "liquid cocaine" (a shooter of Jagermeister, Goldschlager and Rumple Minze liqueurs) and "porn star" (raspberry liqueur, blue curacao and 7 Up).
While there may be no salvation from liquid cocaine or redemption for a porn star, other tired drinks are inspiring appetizing variants thanks to the creativity, and gentle diplomacy, of good mixologists.
When people request a cosmopolitan at Chambar Restaurant in Vancouver, general manager Justin Tisdall may suggest the Oi-Ling. Named after the establishment's former pastry chef, it's similar to a cosmo but dispenses with sugar-sweetened cranberry cocktail, instead combining jasmine tea-infused vodka, Cointreau, fresh passion-fruit juice and a splash of elderflower liqueur. He calls it the "cosmo killer."
My quibble with the cosmo and such juice-heavy oldies as the pina colada is sugar. They remind me of the caveat David Wondrich offers in his excellent book Esquire Drinks: "If you can't taste the alcohol, you won't respect the drink." To which I'd add a corollary: Cocktail quality tends to be inversely proportional to calorie count.
There are exceptions. It ultimately depends on proportions and other flavourings. At the venerable Roof Lounge at the Park Hyatt Toronto, Noel Devlin once featured a bourbon-spiked tall drink made with lemonade that had been infused with applewood smoke, resonating with the bourbon's barrel-charred toastiness.
That would be tough to reproduce at home. But you can achieve a similar effect, in a stronger drink, with the classic bourbon old-fashioned. Add a sugar cube to a tumbler and soak it with two dashes of Angostura bitters and a few drops of water; crush the cube with the back of a spoon; add ice, two ounces of long-aged bourbon and the juice of a lemon wedge. Serve with a stir stick.
And no, the old-fashioned does not include 7 Up, stresses Justin Darnes at George in Vancouver. "There is nothing more disheartening and annoying than to make an old-fashioned, sazerac or crusta, only to have it sent back to the bar to have it altered because it's too strong or bold or not to their taste," he said.
Darnes doesn't mind the lychee martini, another 1990s hit, but he kicks his up with lemon juice and fresh muddled apple. "When people just want vodka and lychee liqueur, which they've probably had in some shoddy bar, it kills us because it's just so sweet and bland and misses out on the careful balance that can be created with a little more effort," he said.
Still other drinks may invite scorn not for their saccharine quality but, paradoxically, for the labour involved. In August, the New York Post reported that bartenders across Manhattan were pulling mojitos from menus and brazenly declining to fulfill requests. Made with muddled mint, lime, sugar, rum and club soda, it was also slammed as passé.
Ouch. I happen to love the mojito. Is it really so onerous, Mr. Fancypants New York Bartender? As far as minty drinks go, mixing one has got to be more rewarding than whipping up a grasshopper, the green throwback involving crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream. "I actually recently made one, which made me laugh," Devlin said. "Nasty piece of work. Not a good drink."
Things to avoid at the bar
The casual use of "tini": Those would be the last four letters in "dry martini," not a general suffix.
Dairy: Got milk? Got a mess.
"Shooter": Two or more liquors in a shot glass equal one big headache.
Jagermeister: Not an acceptable substitute for vermouth.
A kitchen-sink ingredients list: You're thirsty for a cocktail, not the whole bar.
"Jell-O": Read the box ingredients; the gelatin is made with water, not vodka.
"Sex on the Beach": Contains no sex and no beaches.