Stop the Madness!


Let us review the brief and troubled history of the Modern Cocktail.  It began in the early nineties, when youngsters realized that a Martini was a nice thing to order in a bar. A few variations on the martini followed, most notably the godawful “dirty Martini” made with excessive amounts of olive brine, and the vodka-based Cosmopolitan, which featured prominently in HBO’s “Sex and the City.” That gets us to about 1999. A few years later, somebody in Brooklyn decided it might be refreshing to order a drink with some whiskey in it, and pretty soon we all remembered about the Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned. (See AMC’s “Mad Men,” 2007.)

Around that time, a few bartenders grew out their sideburns, put on vests, and started mixing Prohibition-era cocktails with obscure and interesting ingredients that had to be smuggled in from London because liquor distributors had not yet caught on to what was happening.  The smuggling was part of the fun, actually: these bartenders preferred to mix their strange and wonderful drinks in tiny unmarked basement rooms which they called ‘speakeasies,’ thus allowing us all to pretend we were doing something illegal or at least illicit when at best what we were doing could be called “exclusive,” which is to say that we were simply paying very high prices for very nice drinks in locations that were (for a short time) not well known to tourists.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, bartenders realized that as long as chefs were working with fresh, seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients, they might as well get in on the action and infuse some cucumbers in vodka or throw some basil under the muddler. Which was a fine idea.

That brings us to about a year and a half ago, when it all went to hell.

Here’s what happened, as near as I can figure:  the fancy cocktail movement went on a date with the slow food movement, and they had a few too many drinks, then they went back to the fancy cocktail movement’s apartment, and things got a little out of hand, and together they spawned the Modern Cocktail.

The Modern Cocktail might have a dozen or more handcrafted, artisanal, obscure ingredients. It might call for such things as freshly-pressed heirloom tomato water, rhubarb-vanilla-ginger simple syrup, a rinse of absinthe or vermouth, a mist of rose water, a few drops of housemade cigar and allspice bitters, and the frothy whites of a freshly-laid egg from a young Ameraucana hen who has been named after a member of the Algonquin Round Table. You may have to special-order an aromatized wine whose name you cannot pronounce. Essential oils may be involved. There could be vinegar or pickling liquid. The glass may be placed atop a board of smoldering hickory to coat its interior in smoke.  Spice-impregnated sugar may grace the rim of the glass. A garnish of snap peas, sun-dried beet chips, or imported Italian marasca cherries soaked in Kentucky bourbon may confront the (by now quite thirsty) drinker trying to get at the beverage.

The Modern Cocktail is, in short, a mess. This was illustrated most recently by the short-lived fame of the bone luge, in which alcohol is chugged through a split-apart animal bone so that some of the marrow mixes with the booze as it goes down the hatch.

Awful, right?  Makes you long for the days when a good-looking man or woman dressed mostly in black would just stand behind the bar and shake a few ingredients over ice and pour it in a glass and wish you a good evening.

Here’s the thing:  making really good liquor is complicated enough.  Whiskey goes through a very careful fermentation and distillation process in wonderfully crafted copper stills, then it gets aged in a precisely charred oak barrel that may—believe it or not—be made only from one particular part of the oak tree because the distiller believes that branches make for better booze than trunks do, or the other way around. Gin might have a dozen or more botanical ingredients, with each flavor extracted or infused or distilled in a different manner. Vermouth has a few dozen ingredients, and those crazy old European herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse claim over a hundred.  A good classic cocktail—a Martini or a Manhattan or a Vieux Carré—might already contain seventy or eighty distinct botanical ingredients, and that’s before you add the olive or the cherry or the lemon peel. Does a bartender really need to contribute a few dozen more?

Lately I’ve heard of gin infused with cattails, Campari infused with cardamom, and bourbon soaked in barbecued short ribs.  No good can come of this.

So here’s my advice to you, the recreational drinker, the amateur bartender, the gardener:  Grow a little mint in your garden for mojitos and mint juleps.  If you’ve got raspberries or any other kind of summer fruit you don’t know what to do with, wash it well, pack it into a Mason jar, and fill it up with decent vodka. In a few days it’ll be ready to filter and drink.  If you’re lucky enough to have a citrus tree, by all means make some homemade limoncello. But beyond that?  Don’t go too crazy. Even a simple drink is already extraordinarily, wonderfully complex.

Here’s what I’ve been drinking this summer. I don’t know if this drink has a name; it’s just something I mixed up one night when I wanted something a bit drier than Lillet but not quite as strong as a Martini. It contains several dozen herbs, spices, and fruits, all blended together in complicated infusions and extractions on strange equipment in a foreign land–but all you have to do is buy two bottles and mix them together. The Lillet will keep about a month in the fridge after you open it, and if you can’t get G’vine (a lovely French gin made from a grape spirit similar to that found in Lillet) use Tanqueray instead.  Here, I’ll make up a name for it:

Enough Already

3 oz Lillet blanc

1 oz G’vine Floraison gin

Lemon peel for garnish

Shake and pour into a short rocks glass with ice. Add more gin if you feel like it. Drop in a lemon peel. Drink.


This post is from a series called The Drunken Botanist that I’m writing for the North Coast JournalMy next book, of the same name, will be out in March 2013.


  1. Your Drunken Botanist posts always make me wish for a better stocked liquor cabinet, and more friends that would come have drinks with me. But that said I will one day get the mint in the ground and then we will see!

  2. Thank you for this post. I echo your calls to stop the madness, it’s just gotten way out of hand. And the worst part is that now when I order my Manhattan folks look at me like I’m trying to be trendy, when the truth is it’s been my drink of choice for 10 years. Grrr…..

  3. I will admit that a basil julep kicks a mint julep’s ass, to my mind, but I draw the line at anything where I have to drink through bones.

  4. Yvette de Boven’s book, Homemade, set me off last summer on a infused-vodka kick since she has a bunch of recipes for homemade liqueurs. I recycled a bunch of booze bottles, stuffed them with sage, thyme, and summer savory, lemon peel, pink peppercorns and coriander seed. Topped them off with vodka, and let them sit for a while — it made a deeply herbal booze. I drank it with ice, lime and seltzer, or added a small slug to cheap white wine to make a sort of vermouth-y apertif.
    However, I agree with you whole heartedly that the “artisinal” cocktail craze is deeply annoying. Luckily, it hasn’t infested Montana yet …

  5. The “Enough Already” is a bit like a Vesper (without the completely gratuitous vodka).

    I played around with exotic drinks for a while but frankly I love my Manhattan the best.

  6. The popularity of the mint julep in Louisville rises for the week of the Kentucky Derby and crashes, after the race, like a bad hangover. It’s a miserable, sugary adulteration. At least it provides a good market for local mint growers. Good bourbon is best served on the rocks or with a splash.

  7. I became addicted to Pimm’s when I went to the Chelsea flower show years ago.
    Pimm’s, a good ginger ale, cucumber (sometimes from my garden), strawberries, or lemon, lime what fruit or veg is handy. Should try it with basil or mint though. hmmmm must do research………….

  8. I’m going to go against the grain (alcohol) here and say that I’d much rather have the present situation than go back a few decades to the age of bottled sour mix, horribly out of date bottles of vermouth, and bartenders who thought mixing up a Harvey Wallbanger was really getting fancy. Sure mixology has been overdone, or badly done, as much as any other food or fashion trend — take molecular cooking, which has a definite affinity with mixology, for example: when’s the last time you woke up and said to yourself, “today, I think I’ll have a seaweed carpaccio topped with rock shrimp emulsion and with reisling gelee on the side for dinner?” — but done right, a skillfully executed, properly balanced (this is what separates the talent from the wannabees) complex cocktail can be an astounding symphony of aromas and flavors. Plus, it’s fun!

    I have a feeling that in a few years it’ll settle down and and we won’t be assaulted by inner-tube infused rye barrel-aged in a tree stump, with housemade road weed vermouth and topped with a dash of anchovy-licorice bitters. There’s nothing like a proper Manhattan, but the fact is there are far more places where you can be confident of getting a well made one than there were before mixology became a common word.

    And last, the Enough Already sounds like a tasty summer drink, though I generally prefer London dry style gin!

    Great post!


  9. One the other hand, boutique cocktail menus make for some amusing reading.

    Oh, and you forgot to mention the cocktail-specific glassware and specially prepared ice-cubes.

  10. I’m going to go against the grain (alcohol) here and say that I’d much rather have the present situation than go back a few decades to the age of bottled sour mix, horribly out of date bottles of vermouth, and bartenders who thought mixing up a Harvey Wallbanger was really getting fancy.

    Good point, Jim. My husband and I became interested in classic cocktails in the late 90s. Trying to find materials and ingredients was a chore. We finally got a muddler at a restaurant supply store and when we found an ancient bottle of maraschino liqueur at a liquor store, it was unearthing buried treasure.

  11. Try grain alcohol instead of vodka when making liqueurs. I find it much more satisfying when making limoncello, etc. Mmmm. Now I’m even thirstier than I was from reading your post. I must try your cocktail recipe soon.

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