Preparing a Cinema Highball, the buttered-popcorn-infused rum cola invented at New York's PDT cocktail bar, involves some six steps – pop, infuse, strain, clarify butter, fat-wash, fine-strain – and a solid 25 hours of infusion time. That's before making the cola from scratch, as some bartenders prefer. Turning it into the Dr. Redenbacher's Good Time Flip, a creamy cocktail with a vanilla-salt garnish, as they do at Aviary in Portland, makes the process longer still.
The Dr. Redenbacher, a delicious concoction, is worthy of the $12 price, but perhaps not the effort. "No, thanks," is the new refrain from a slew of bartenders and customers who are rolling their eyes at super-complicated drinks. Instead, people are embracing cocktails, involving fewer than five ingredients and sometimes only a step or two, as in: Stir and strain into glass.
"All the great cocktails are simple, almost without exception," says Simon Ogden, bar manager of Veneto Tapa Lounge in Victoria's Rialto Hotel, "Nobody will ever make a better drink than a well-made Manhattan. There isn't one on the planet."
Ogden trains his young staff in product knowledge and tried-and-true techniques as opposed to adopting rapidly cycling trends such as barrel-aging or sous-vide infusions. He has always championed straightforward drinks such as his Desperado, essentially a Tequila Sazerac, or his Wax Poetic, a refined Brown Derby (bourbon, grapefruit and honey). And his philosophy of paring down is gaining converts.
Bartender Aja Sax, who recently devised a restrained cocktail list for The Emerson in Toronto, says that elaborate recipes mean longer wait times and can also produce uneven results.
"The simple menu here is definitely a conscious choice," explains Sax. "In terms of training and teaching other staff to make drinks, the simple ones are the cocktails that wind up being made consistently, which I think is really important."
The Emerson's five-drink menu is made up of modified classics – a spicy gin sour, a sparkly Rusty Nail and a Dark 'n' Stormy with a hint of rosemary – made from a modest clutch of carefully selected bottles. Sax finds a lot of people now order off-menu, opting for aperitivo cocktails (made with lighter-alcohol Italian aperitifs and/or French vermouths), such as her White Negroni, as well as amari (Italian bitter digestivos) served straight up or on the rocks.
This is the direction Dave Mitton, one of the country's top barmen, is moving in with his new Toronto venture, THR & Co., a larger space located some three doors west of his little bar/restaurant, the Harbord Room.
"Our food is going to be southern European, so we're looking at a lot of tall and refreshing aperitivo drinks, like Cynar Sours and Americanos," says Mitton. "There's also a new drink I came up with, [my version of] the Negroni Sbagliato, a 'bungled' Negroni made with Campari, sweet vermouth and cava."
Even at the Harbord Room, which has a reputation as one of the city's leading cocktail destinations, most of his drinks, such as his Coverdale Comfort (whisky, sweet vermouth, Cynar, maraschino liqueur and bitters), are already based on three to five ingredients and, he boasts, can generally be made in under 40 seconds. With 150 seats at the new location, Mitton and his bar manager, Liz Campbell, are looking to make things even more basic, both for practical reasons and because they feel their clientele appreciates well-made drinks.
"I can feel guests starting to poke fun at some of the more out-there cocktail fads that seem to be trying to re-create the wheel," says Mitton. "Nobody wants dehydrated beets and smoked pine needles in here."
Neither, apparently do the many who sit at Ogden's bar, opting for Veneto's popular bespoke cocktail option, which allows the customer to specify a base spirit and flavour profile, leaving the bartender to improvise the rest. This, he explains, guarantees that his bartenders stick to the basics.
"When your bar is lined up with chits that read 'Rum, Sweet' or 'Tequila, Savoury,' you have no choice but to keep it simple and stick with the classic proportions from drinks like, say, the Twentieth Century or the Corpse Reviver #2," explains Ogden. "You take the basic DNA of one of those drinks and swap out specific liquors to make something new." No time for barrel-aging, no time for hot-siphon infusions.
Ogden won't put fussy cocktails on his menu and avoids new techniques unless they have a clear "thesis" justifying the extra work. He's fond of the popcorn-infused rum cola, in fact (though his is a simplified version), which, he says, really does taste like a night out at the movies.
"But I think this is how we make progress," says Ogden. "We try out 99 ridiculous things, so that we can find the one thing that really moves us ahead."