I Don’t Know You, But I Blame You Very Much
Somebody, somewhere in Beirut – and that someone probably knows who he is – has been doing a lot of cocktail training.
And that somebody, somewhere, who’s done a lot of cocktail training should not ever, ever, ever be allowed behind a bar again.
Anywhere in the f*cking world.
Unless that is to serve some kind of penance for ideas above his station by working Times Square on St Paddy’s Day or Benidorm during hen night season until he repents for his crimes against cocktails.
Now, I’ve been reviewing bars in Beirut for a drinks title I write for (it’s here, if you’d like to read it), and if I had a dollar for every time a bartender has said one of these two lines:
“I’m your menu!”
“I know all the international drinks!”
I’d be, well, up the price of a Negroni. Currently my preferred tipple.
Now, the Negroni isn’t as well-known as a Margarita, a Martini, a Daiquiri, a Caipirinha, a Mojito or a Long Island Iced Tea, but it should certainly make the top 20 cocktails every upscale bartender should know.
For the record, it’s vermouth, Campari and gin, equal parts, stirred over ice, served either straight-up in a martini glass, over ice in a rocks glass, or over ice with a little bit of soda, a controversial inclusion but one that’s probably more true to the original recipe than the straight version most European and American bartenders go with.
Would you like to guess how many of the bartenders who volunteered to be my menu and knew all the international drinks knew how to make this drink?
Yes, you guessed it.
A couple had a vague idea. But not one of them knew the sodding drink.
Now, let me tell you, there is no more guaranteed way to get me to exit your bar – and these are funky, five-star bars, styled to the hilt with a display of cocktail ingredients – or retreat rapidly to the shelter of a spirit and a mixer than say, “I’m your MENU!”, and then not know a really fairly basic drink.
“A Negroni. Equal parts gin, vermouth and…. oh, never mind. A gin and tonic would be lovely!”
I say that, but, in fact, there is.
And this is how it goes.
Another lovely bartender, with a great personality. A seriously 5* hotel, with by far the most beautiful roof bar in Beirut, and an international clientele, albeit many of them the type of men that think candy-coloured jeans are stylish. Or witty. Or summat.
“Do you have a cocktail menu?” I ask.
“No!” he says. “I’m your menu.”
Oh god, I think. I’m on about my 20-something-th bar in Beirut by now, and this opening salvo has never ended well.
And this is because somebody, somewhere, trained all these kids to say that and neglected to teach them the basics of bartending.
And, whoever that man is, I am developing a passionate dislike for him.
“Would you like a Strawberry & Basil Caipirinha?” the guy asks.
Well, no, I wouldn’t, as it happens. Just because I’m a girl, I don’t necessarily drink pink fruity drinks.
In fairness, I’m also appallingly dressed for this style of bar, largely because I’ve been sitting the wrong side of town all day waiting for a man to fail to show up with a camera lens and this is on my route home. They shouldn’t actually have let me in in my cheap Jordanian flip flops.
“No,” I say. “I usually drink Old-Fashioneds and Negronis, so I like that kind of flavour.”
This is, basically, indicating I’m open to either of those drinks or any of their own creations that he reckons I’ll like.
“I’ll make you the best Old-Fashioned you’ve ever had,” he says.
I find this highly unlikely.
I’ve been writing about bars for nigh-on 20 years, and food, on and off, for more than ten.
Off the top of my head, I’ve enjoyed cocktails made by Charles Schumann, Dick Bradsell, Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, Tony Conigliaro, Peter Dorelli, Salvatore Calabrese, and, well, a whole bunch of people whose books the IGNORANT, ARROGANT PRICK who trained this kid (or trained his trainer) should go and read forthwith.
But I’m up for giving it a try.
I can’t say no, at this point, anyway. And I quite fancy an Old-Fashioned. Haven’t had one in a while. For the very good reason, that, unlike the Negroni, which is hard to make brilliantly but easy to make competently, it’s a difficult drink to do well.
The bottle comes out. Maker’s Mark. So far, so good.
Some fannying around while they cope with the wax. That is less good.
Angostura bitters. Check.
Brown sugar cube. Check.
A can of soda. Oh.
The can is opened with the air of an item that is going to be much used.
The bitters and the sugar cube go in the glass. On goes a splash of soda.
“Why are you adding soda?” I ask.
“It’s to dissolve the sugar,” he says. (This is a barely acceptable variation on the theme.)
Really alarming things are happening behind the bar that appear to involve water. Measures of water.
A bar back, being trained up in the art of the Old-Fashioned, is pouring mineral water into a measure. Sweet Jesus god.
“OK,” I say. “But aren’t you going to be adding ice? And stirring with ice?”
I really want my Old-Fashioned now. But I have a horrible sinking feeling that this is quite likely to be the worst Old-Fashioned ever.
This should, you see, be a really, really f*cking great bar. And I WANT the kid to make me a good drink.
It’s beautiful. 26th floor. Architecturally stunning, designed to frame the sunset. It is the single best-looking roof terrace I have ever visited, anywhere, on top of a 5* hotel, and they’re doing everything right, from the door girl down…
“No,” he says. “We don’t use ice. That dilutes it.”
My head explodes.
For the magic of the Old-Fashioned, gentle reader, lies precisely in this. You stir the very simple ingredients: sugar, bitters and bourbon, lovingly and slowingly with ice, adding more and more ice, and stirring more and more, until the dilution is balanced. (For more on this, see Drinkboy.)
“I thought the drink was all about dilution,” I say, rather feebly, watching this slow motion car crash of a drink deteriorate before my eyes.
In fairness, you need good ice to achieve correct dilution: good, hard, cold decent-sized chunks of ice. He doesn’t have it.
All they’ve got is crappy little chipped ice things that will work OK in a Caipirinha, and someone, somewhere in Beirut CLEARLY THINKS is the way forward for all international drinks.
I don’t know who it is. But I am rapidly developing a passionate dislike for him.
“Oh no,” he says. “We use soda for that.”
The guy stirs and stirs and stirs away at the drink, which is now an infernal blend of mineral water, soda, Maker’s, sugar and bitters.
Let me repeat that. WITHOUT ICE.
It looks most unappealing. Kind of murky. Like pond water, rather than the amber glow of tendrils of bourbon sinuously unwinding over ice that we Old-Fashioned geeks so treasure as we watch our drinks being crafted.
Further, one stirs a drink with ice, dear reader, in particular this drink, for three main reasons: controlled dilution, controlled blending of the ingredients and cooling.
Why’s cooling important? Because it gets the drink so cold that the ice in it melts super-slowly, enabling the drink to last.
At this point, I am really, really wishing I could change my order.
Or just scream, “Stop!”
But it’s too late. He’s opened a bottle. He’s opened a can. He’s making me “the best Old-Fashioned you’ve ever had” and it’s going to be the worst Old-Fashioned ever,
And, worst of all, I’m going to have to drink it.
It’s my last night in Beirut. There’s a beautiful sunset happening framed by some wonderful architecture.
And I so, so, so want a well-made cocktail to accompany my beautiful sunset. In fact, I’d settle for a gin and tonic.
This is an international, five-star hotel. An absolutely fan-fucking-tastic roof terrace at a five-star hotel!
They’ve got to be able to make me a cocktail, right?!
A lemon comes out. I raise an eyebrow. Orange is the generally accepted garnish, typically a zest not a slice, although some folk do also add cherries, which has been displeasing purists for decades now.
“We make it the original way,” he says, with no air of doubt or uncertainty. “With lemon.”
SOMEBODY out there – and you know who you are! – has actually TAUGHT him this. Someone has sat down with him and said that this is how you make an Old-Fashioned. And, someone somewhere probably paid this man to do it.
“Really?” I say, dredging up some half-remembered cocktail lore. “The drink was invented in Kentucky, right? At the Pendennis Club?”
I’m trying to figure out whether they could possibly have had lemon in those days.
Half a can of soda on the top. A scoop of chipped ice, that will melt into my already massacred concoction in about a nanosecond in this humidity.
My drink is ready. Quite possibly my last drink in Beirut.
I compose my expression and taste it.
It is, without a doubt, the worst Old-Fashioned ever.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“Well,” I say, as diplomatically as I can, inserting my very best holiday smile. “It’s rather like a whiskey and soda. Is that the Lebanese way?”
“No, no,” he says, rather offended by this. “It’s the international style. It’s an international drink.”
“Mmmm….” I say, diplomatically.
I’ve reviewed bars on four continents, from memory, and drunk cocktails on six continents.
And this is, by some way, the single worst Old-Fashioned ever.
Now, here’s the thing. It is not that this guy, or the other guys and girls who used the same lines and same sequences but, rather than screwing up the Old-Fashioned opted to be unfamiliar with the Negroni instead, necessarily lacks talent as a bartender.
It is that whoever taught him is an absolute imbecile with zero knowledge, zero palate and zero understanding. Of anything.
Y’know. If someone tells him that’s how an Old-Fashioned’s supposed to taste, he’s going to believe them, right?
He’s just going to think it’s a crap drink.
Somebody, somewhere has trained half of Beirut’s bartenders to describe themselves as walking menus, use chipped ice instead of cubed ice – I’m not asking for blocks or spheres here, just good, old-fashioned, solid cubes – and, I would wager, mangle many of the great classic cocktails, not just the one I ill-advisedly landed myself with.
I believe he has also taught them that the “dou dou”, a perfectly excellent and thoroughly Lebanese shooter of vodka, tabasco, lemon and olive juice with an olive, is an international cocktail.
Which, last time I asked, it wasn’t.
And, whoever that man is, someone needs to stop him. Now.