Justin Anderson, beverage manager/barkeep at Branch 27 (1371 W Chicago Ave, 312-850-2700) , serves up his thoughts on the state of the cocktail-slinging profession and where it’s heading if he has his way.
On the term mixologist “There is definitely a growing trend with this title within the bar industry, but really at the root of a mixologist you hopefully find a bartender. Seeing the growing pretension around mixology, there is a trend toward the identifiable mustache, vest with bow tie, the excessive cocktail shaking, etc., but this doesn’t define one as a great barman. The focus on this role of ‘mixologist’ or ‘bar chef,’ taking ten minutes to make one cocktail, with all the flourishes and everything, is ridiculous. I take pride in creating a delicious cocktail the right way, and you can make the guest much happier making a drink in two to three minutes, skipping all the indulgent techniques [such as excessive shaking, repeated ‘taste testing’ with straws, etc.].”
On mixology competitions “It’s definitely a way to make a name for yourself, but I just find it humorous that most of these competitions are held by spirit companies that the majority of contestants would never put behind their own bar or use in their own cocktails…just sayin’.”
On bar styles “Lately there have been many attempts at re-creating the speakeasy, but it seems that most fail, epically. Not enough R&D [research and development], loud music, bright lighting, overpriced product, etc. If owners/operators would put a bit more thought into re-creating the modern speakeasy, they could work, but I believe that we’re going to see more concepts develop around the idea that ‘less is more,’ but with quality product. Smaller, intimate, friendlier environments—this will be the new wave, even in the downtown area. This provides more than just a hot concept, but an environment that focuses on being in the community for the long term and not for what’s ‘hot’ or ‘of the moment.’”
On the bartender’s role “You should know basic cocktails, especially classics. Being familiar with everything behind your bar and having a good grasp of the drinks and beer knowledge seems to be what is lacking these days. Brushing up on some history and knowing the basics of everything you’re putting into your cocktail, the 101s of each spirit, ingredients, etc., is crucial in educating your guests, especially if they’re only familiar with the ‘usual suspects’ they are used to seeing behind a bar. Even sparking up some good old-fashioned conversation is a thing of the past, as the TV has taken over basic interactions. The consumer is becoming more and more interested and inquisitive in what is being served to them, and they deserve good, honest answers. A better balance of service and education to the guests is the next ‘thing,’ or at least I would hope.”
On what’s in the glass “It’s almost like there’s a checklist of popular spirits now, but just putting them all into a drink doesn’t make it taste good. You have to actually have a palate for it, but most of all, have the ability to take feedback from those drinking the cocktails and adjust without straying too far away from what you’re trying to create. I have a feeling that the continued growth of craft beers will give us even more options, and that the trendy resurrection of the PBR genre will fade with that of the hipster.”
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