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DrinkBoy: Definitions and Precisions

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Robert Hess Posted: 27 Jan 2009 11:04 AM

Excuse me while I promote my own article... which is perfectly fine for others to do as well!

I haven't coded up support for "comments" on DrinkBoy.com (and at the moment don't plan to), so I'm experimenting with creating a thread here to play that role.

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Definitions and Precisions
1/27/2009

Far too many people are mixing cocktails simply by following a recipe, without really understanding the role that the different ingredients or methods play in the final product. I'd like to use one of the focus points of Molecular Gastronomy, and by association Molecular Mixology, to perhaps provide some additional insights on the art of the culinary cocktail.

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Generally, I think this is a very nice essay. Well done.

A brief rebuttal:

I'm having increasing reservations about the convention of describing vermouth as "sweet" and "dry" because of two factors: (1) as vermouth is gradually elevated up from the bottom shelf, they will unavoidably diverge and the conventional assumptions about vermouth styles are going to become even less meaningful than they are today; (2) "sweet" and "dry" gloss over the blanc/bianco style, which is likely to grow in importance, if slowly. (Blanc/Bianco vermouth has roared to the forefront of my interests, particularly with arrival of Dolin Blanc on these shores.)

I'm also getting less and less comfortable with how we discuss the "elemental" recipes featuring these vermouths, such as the Martini, which you explore extensively in your essay. I have no beef with your take on the Martini proportions, per se, except that I'm perhaps inclined to be a bit more inclusive. (But only a bit.) You employ the idea of “a balance of flavors”, and for me the key word in that concept is “a”. The Martini has been formulated in print in an astonishingly wide range of relative proportions, most of those aren't typos, and neither of us is about to subscribe to the idea that this drink's trends have somehow reflected its ongoing perfection at the hands of the multitudes. These days, I find myself mainly drinking Fitty-Fittys (or thereabouts). If somebody wants to decry that as “not a Martini”, I won't argue about the etymology any more—I’ve tired of that dead horse. For me, it’s all about the ingredients, and the curious relationship between the gins (plural) and the vermouths (plural). Different gins and different vermouths dance differently, and whoever leads and whoever follows, if they're both good spirits, the dancing often remains pretty good, even if the effect isn't always reproducible.

 

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Totally agree. As a generic classification, the simple separation of sweet and dry (or red and white, or Italian and French) are quickly becoming less useful. I can percieve a time when on one hand vermouth is simply "vermouth" and on the other hand it is a broad selection of different products, each requiring a little bit of unique understanding and awareness of in order to appropriate integrate them into a cocktail. I suspect that there might always (or at least for some time) still be general purpose vermouths which fall neatly into the "sweet" and "dry" descriptors, with a bunch of others orbiting around them, and taking their own unique position in the spectrum.

In my article I am trying to separate "Definitions" from "Precisions".

A "Definition" should be those aspects of the drink which are basically accepted by all. While I know there are some who will balk at bitters being in a Martini, I suspect that all of us here can accept that a Martini is:

  • Gin
  • Vermouth
  • Orange bitters
  • Chilled, and slightly diluted with ice.

From that point on, the "Precisions" are the parts of the Martini which I personally employ in order to make what I personally feel is the "perfect" Martini. This would include the type/brand of gin, vermouth, and bitters, as well as ratios, method of mixing, garnish, and service.

So most of your rebuttle issues fall into how your "Precisions" might be different from mine. In some cases we might end up making a Martini which tastes exactly the same, but perhaps just employed different methodologies to get there.

If we take my approach on face value, then for somebody to say a drink isn't a Martini, would mean they are saying the drink didn't conform to the "definition" of the drink, regardless of the precisons.

For the Old Fashioned, I included as part of the "definition:

  • Built "on the rocks" in the same glass it will be served in.

Which I'm totally willing to put into a "precision", but I just think an Old Fashioned served up in a cocktail glass, just isn't really an Old Fashioned.

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Renn replied on 2 Mar 2009 2:51 PM

Please forgive me for making this first post a lengthy one.  I was quite intrigued by your article and appreciate your desire to put Molecular Gastronomy and Molecular Mixology in proper context.  As I'm sure you're quite aware by now, both terms suffer from false perceptions by the general public (both positive and negative).  Compounding the issue, there are few individuals who are willing to dig deeper to understand what is meant by MG, and what "doing" MG really means. 

In my own opinion, I think that the confusion stems from MG being a very process driven discipline, that is too often judged based on specific culinary results… results that have been erroneously connected to the term.  (spheres, foams, etc).  Albert Adria knew nothing of Molecular Gastronomy and This when he “discovered” the process of Alginate spherification. Additionally, the only Chef to attend the early symposia on MG was Heston Blummenthal.  As such you’ll often see both chefs and Herve This cringe when a culinary product is called “Molecular Gastronomy.”  In any case, we’ll move on before I get too far down the history rabbit hole.

Beyond what Prof. This provided in his numbered definition of MG (from his original Thesis), I'd suggest that Molecular Gastronomy is 'the application of the Scientific Method to culinary phenomenon with the goal of producing knowledge.' The term itself was created by This and Kurti as an attempt to both classify the work that they were doing as well as separate it from already existing scientific disciplines.  This admits that his original definition of MG was in need of refinement, so I'll refer you to the best source that I have available (http://www.inra.fr/compact/nav/externe/en/activites/ecrans/1721).  You have made use of this "refined" definition in your original article on Molecular Mixology, but I wanted to include a source from This himself.

So, if you've survived that bit of a semantic run-around with me, the main point that I'd like to bring up is that perhaps you may have created your own definition of "definitions" and "precisions."  Your original article does seem to stay true to This's definitions, but in this current article, you seem to create your own definitions and process.  This's original bullet point is "Modeling Definitions" which you have shortened to "Definitions" which I see you mean as "What a particular cocktail "needs" in order to "be" that cocktail."  Restated, I take it that you mean the absolute minimalist form of a cocktail that still "is" that cocktail.  However, it's important to note that Prof. This "Models Definitions."  That is to say...he creates a hypothesis.  It's not simply an assumption or actual definition of a culinary phenomenon, but conjecture acknowledged as conjecture.  This is key because This's method of operation then proceeds by making predictions based on that hypothesis  (If searing a steak seals in the juices, then a steak should not experience any moisture loss after cooking).  The science comes into play when he then rigorously tests that hypothesis through experimentation (multiple iterations being important).  The end result is knowledge, knowledge that is used to refine the original model and therefore the original definition….and then the process can  repeat and continue with this refined definition.

The "precisions" as defined by This are the "technical additions that are not required but contribute to the quality of the final products."  And it seems that you've taken that concept to mean "These represent the added methods, ingredients, techniques, etc. which you might use in order to fine tune, perfect, or improve upon the cocktail in question.”  By which I think you mean the myriad choices that we all have in deciding how to make a given cocktail.  However, I feel that something was a little lost in translation, as This’s original intent more aligns “culinary precisions” with what we’d call “wives tales” or “culinary proverbs.”  That is to say that they are instructions, which heretofore had been called necessary to achieve the desired result.  The Process of Molecular Gastronomy then calls that into question, “does doing X actually result in Y.”  The result then is greater knowledge of that particular precision: What does it actually contribute to the end result? What is the mechanism of its contribution?  Is it essential or superfluous?

One of my favorite examples is This’s “Chantilly Chocolate” Prof. This began with the “Modeled Definition” of a Chantilly as a foam or mousse that is made by whipping cream in a chilled bowl.  Through testing he then discovered that the Chantilly was made of air bubbles that are stabilized by proteins and crystallized fat.   His question then became, “is cream really necessary to make a Chantilly?”  That was the “precision.”  He then found that it is possible to make a Chantilly simply by mimicking cream (essentially a dispersion of fatty droplets in water) with an emulsion of chocolate and water.  (this example is from This’ Molecular Gastronomy pg. 320).  Incidentally, this little experiment also debunked another culinary “precision”: that even adding small amounts of water to melting chocolate will cause the chocolate to seize and ruin the chocolate.

The precisions themselves are not the components of a “definition”, but a meme that has gone untested.  Prof. This scours old cookbooks for these precisions, just as mixologists hunt down arcane drink recipes.  Where I think MG and Mixologists break is that Mixologists either slavishly reproduce a recipe to get an “authentic” experience, or they “make it their own” in order to contribute to the cocktail pantheon.  On the other hand a Molecular Gastronomist seeks to understand the mechanisms behind a drink/method/recipe and separate what can be explained scientifically and what is pure folklore.  Hopefully, you see that what I write here is not necessarily a critique of your article, but an attempt to highlight an area of opportunity.

While I may not agree that you have “done” Molecular Gastronomy in your cocktail examples, I think that you successfully attempt to bridge the gap between Mixologists and Molecular Gastronomy.  The point, at the end of the day, is to put greater effort into understanding why we do things the way we do.  Once we better understand the underlying mechanisms, we’re in a better position to chose certain methods and ingredients that will help us achieve what we want.

I’d suggest that the goal of Molecular Mixology should not be to make “a more perfect cocktail,”  just as Herve This’s goal is not to make “a perfect stock” or to make a “perfect steak.” --as those are matters of personal preference and taste.  However, what Molecular Gastronomy and by extension Molecular Mixology can do is provide us with the knowledge to create a cocktail however we like with an unclouded understanding of what it takes to achieve the desired result.  And just as we understand the underpinnings of a cocktail, this then frees us up to apply that knowledge in novel applications…making our own “more perfect cocktails.”

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Renn,

Thanks SO much for the detailed reply. As I was reading through your thoughtful explanations regarding Modeling Definition and Precisions, I found myself mentally adjusting your explanation such that my narrowed re-telling still fell well within its bounds. I'll admit that I was intentionally trying to simplify the definition/precision format to try to provide a straightforward process. And my use of Definition/Precision worked SO well in providing the type of explanation I was after of both the specifics and flexibility of a cocktail recipe. I still like what it achieves, but see I need to pull out my MG books again.

-Robert

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Renn replied on 2 Mar 2009 5:04 PM

No worries Robert,  There's always a line between practical application and academic pedantry and we can draw that line wherever we like...  You've outlined a methodology and a way of thinking about a cocktail that is interesting enough to stand on its own....even if i don't feel that it falls under Herve This's strict rubric of Molecular Gastronomy.

My first Molecular Mixology question would be "why a cocktail?"  What is it about the combination of spirit, water, sugar and bitters that launched generations worth of obsession?  Do we follow this formula out of tradition (cultural reasons), or is there an underlying reason for the success of this combination?  Just as we now understand that a Japanese Dashi made from Kombu, Bonito and water provides more "savory" than a Dashi made with just Kombu or just Bonito.  Why aren't we a group of people obsessed with Juleps alone?  And why is there a separation between folks who love and hate "faketinis"?  Is it simply a matter of taste...or is there more to it than "we're right, and they're wrong?"  Because, while I can understand arguments of taste....what's more interesting to me is how we can understand our own tastes, understand how we make cocktails (or food for that matter), and as a result, become more capable of communicating through food and drink to our audiences...whether that be our friends or customers.

 

 

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Robert Hess replied on 5 Mar 2009 4:00 PM

Renn and I have had a few side discussions about this to help me understand the issue better. So I figured I should summarize things here.

The main issue is that I using "Model Definitions" and "Precisions" ever-so-slightly differently from what they were originally intended for. As I understand it, "Model Definitions" are intended to represent broad hand-strokes which represent the definitions of various dishes and such. For example, while an Apple Pie, Apple Tart, Apple Struddel, and Apple Cobbler might have a LOT of things in common, each also has a "Model Definition" which provides (hopefully) clear differentiating features of each. In such a use, the Model Definition of the original cocktail is "spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters".

Precisions on the other hand are "hints and advice, old wive's tales, tricks, adages, and maxims" which are employed in the process of cooking (or drink mixing in our case). Herve This apparently as gathered 25,000 such "Precisions" some of them useful, some of them not so much.

What I was doing in my "Definitions and Precisions" of classic cocktails, was to take these devices which were being used in a larger and more general sense, and instead utilize them to describe "a" recipe. Technically not wrong, but perhaps without a proper explanation it misreprented the original intent that Herve This proposed such a model for.

In the end, I think my usage of Definitions and Precisions to help me explain how I make a particular cocktail is both useful and valid, but it should be pointed out that both the definition and the precisions which I presented are definately open for debate.

Now I'll answer Renn's followup question in the previsous post, in the next post.

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Robert Hess replied on 5 Mar 2009 4:20 PM

"Why A Cocktail"

Good question. In Jerry Thomas' 1862 Bartenders guide, he presents both the cocktail and the crusta in almost one breath. He even appears to indicate that his money may be on the crusta for being the "next big thing".

Exactly why the "cocktail" took on such a following I think would be very hard to accurately relate. The way I personally rationalize it is as follows...

For generations of fermentation and distilling, the end product would often be of questionable quality. The role that yeast plays in fermentation wasn't really understood until Louis Pasteur tackled the problem (1879?), and so what is essentially the most important component of the process was seen almost as "magic". There was also the science of distillation. The standard copper still was also fairly mystical in it's functionality. It wouldn't be until the early 1800's that science would start to really be employed in better understanding distillation, and through this the column still (aka: Patent Still, Coffee Still, Continuous Still) would come out in the 1830's.

So essentially, prior to the 1800's, spirits most likely were of such dreadful quality that they had to be mixed with other products just to make them palatable. The "mixed drink" was a necessity. The original cocktail (spirits of any kind, sugar, water, bitters) was yet another mixed drink that could be used to help you get your buzz on. With the added benefit of having a dash of healthy bitters in them, and therefore was a wonderful morning tonic to start the day off right.

As spirits started to increase in overall quality, their use in mixed drinks started to evolve. Most of the mixed drink categories were fairly well defined, and so there was significant history to preventing them from changing too much, but the "cock-tail" was still fairly new, and still malleable. And so gradually the cocktail slightly changed its form, from being a way to mask bad booze, to being a way to celebrate good booze. If you think of drinks such as the Martini and the Manhattan, which sprung to life during the cocktails second generation (~1880), we see cocktails which are not only virtually full booze, but which only work properly if the booze going into them is of sufficient quality.

It thus became the cocktails ability to celebrate the spirit which (I feel) led to it's popularity and it's distinction.

...or at least that is the current explanation that I find works the best. If somebody has facts or figures which support or shatter this, I'd love to hear about it.

-Robert

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Thanks Robert, for both your patience in the matter and lively conversation in what is no doubt a minefield of a subject.  As I said in our side conversation, that you're formalizing a mindset for thinking about cocktails is a worthy goal in understanding cocktails today.

As for your answer to "why a cocktail," I think it points to the fact that since none of us (hopefully) are chained to any one academic discipline...and that we can look at cocktails through any number of lenses, be it casual observation, documented history, scientific method, or any other viewpoint.  All have the possibility to produce new knowledge about what we eat and drink.

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Val replied on 17 Mar 2009 11:37 PM

Robert,

I’m glad that you open the Molecular Mixology topic, it raised few very interesting questions such as Molecular Gastronomy premises, goals, which indirectly are influencing the Molecular Mixology, as well as the definition of what is a perfect drink. I would like to share my two cents as I recently wrote a paper on the benefits of implementing MOM techniques at the work place.

To understand better the Molecular gastronomy and how it relates to the Molecular Mixology I want to go back in time and mention one person who played major role in making the idea of science of cooking to happen , her name is Elisabeth Cawdry Thomas, she had cooking school in Berkeley.

     According to Harold McGee the term Molecular Gastronomy was used for a first time in 1992, during a workshop. in Erice, Sicily. There were three co-organizers of the seminar, Elisabeth Cawdry Thomas, Nicolas Kurti and Harold McGee.

     In 1988 Elisabeth was in Erice accompanying her first husband, who was physicist to scientific conference. There she spoke with Prof.Ugo Valdrè about the science of cooking being important and not studied enough subject and he suggested to her to organize a workshop and also to find a scientist interested in the subject to preside over the seminar.         

      In 1990 Prof. Valdrè and Mrs. Thomas asked Nicolas Kurti to join the seminar as director. After that Elisabeth invited Harold McGee to be part of organizing the event and Nicolas Kurti invited Hervé This to be part also of the science of cooking workshop.

 

    At that time the “Molecular Biology” was the hot new science and for Marketing purposes, and to give more credibility Nicolas Kurti by request from the director of the center changed the name of the seminar to “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy” from the initial intended name “Science and Gastronomy”.

    Renn mention already the premised on which the Molecular Gastronomy was intended to develop as stated by Hervé This and according to whom there is separation between scientist and cooks, with which I fully agree. The scientist is not interested with the way the chefs are presenting the food or the drink, but only with the mechanisms behind the process. As a result of that new methods were developed, new equipment was introduced and new knowledge was acquired be the cooks. Now it was up to the chefs to implement these techniques and present them in artistic way, breaking the perception barriers in the people of what the food should look and taste like.

     As this post gets little bit long I will stop here and in mine next post I will share some ideas about Molecular Mixology, there are people who think is a fad and nobody will remember it in few years time.

 

 

 

 

 

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This is one of the best and most thought provoking threads I've read in a long time. I do hope the nature of this stays civil and mature.

For a long time now I have been wondering about the basics and the rules of cocktails. It bothers me that I can not prove my bosses wrong that their vodka, vanilla syrup and muddled strawberries + grapes, is not a proper drink. Sure its flavoured poser fluid with the sole purpose of getting you drunk by masking the flavour of a neutral spirit  with sweet flavours. I would compare it to the culinary equivalent of a pizza. But it sells better than my old fashions, side-cars and manhattans. It never comes back, (where when I go on a limb and tell a customer I'll make you something nice, the classic sometimes does come back). WHY DO I HAVE TO TEACH PEOPLE WHAT IS GOOD? Shouldn't the taste speak fo itself?

I've come to believe this. (and this is just my theory, so take as it is before crucifying me with names like; Embury, Saunders and whatnots). For a long time there has been no rules in the art of mixology, so refreshingly, we started to look back to the likes of; Thomas, Craddock and Embury for the basics of the skill, however unquestioned and opinionated it may be. This though is what the Gastronomy world has been doing for centuries.

In the midst of our so called "cocktail renaissance", these rules are being questioned in the culinary world and with major success. The same thoughts are moving over to mixology in the form of MOM, but our basics have not even had the time to settle and be classified as old wives tales yet. In theory MOM should be questioning the rules X Sweet X Sour X Strong X Weak or bitter sweet strong that evry good bartender should be following,  But I still train 5 year strong bartenders with these rules as something BRAND NEW! I myself have not yet even made up my mind whether I prefer classifying my drinks according to Regan or David Wondrich or the they did it in Cradock's days.

I truly believe that "Molecular Mixology" (the science behind drinks, not the gimmicky Pina Colada eggs and shit) is not a fad but will question of how we shall be thinking of drinks in the future, BUT, I do not think there is enough set down to question yet. Which is why it has such little impact on the industry at present, compared to MOG.

 

 

 

Why the long face?

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Just to show how confusing Molecular Gastronomy can be in a cultural context, here is a series of very recent blog posts from Grant Achatz in the Atlantic's new food section:

http://food.theatlantic.com/back-of-the-house/

Grant, at least in this country, along with Wylie Dufresne could be considered the supposed figurehead of Molecular Gastronomy in this country.  However, it becomes very clear that his use of "Molecular Gastronomy" aligns very little with the definitions advocated by Herve This, and more closely follows the popular perception of the term...the use of the end products.  In particular, it's interesting to see his disappointment at the Madriid Fusion conference, when other "authorities" on Molecular Gastronomy can do little but circle around the term in trying to explain it.

And what's my point?  If the big dogs of cooking can't wrap themselves around Molecular Gastronomy, perhaps we should all be free to come up with our own interpretations and approaches.  Yes, there is value in understanding This's approach, but it seems that the creativity that chefs like Adria, Achatz, Blumenthal and Dufresne tap into is something very different.  Perhaps only Pierre Gagnaire (This's main chef collaborator) can speak wisely about the direct interaction between Molecular Gastronomy and his kitchen.

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I believe it’s not that important to try to classify what is Molecular gastronomy, it’s clear that there are two parts of the equation one is the science and the other one being the application of this science, which is the technology side or the techniques used by cooks and bartenders. There clearly related to each other.  This division is not clear cut as the scientists can be cooks as well and the other way around.

Ferran Adria was not invited to this MOG in Italy back in the 1992, but that didn’t prevent him from using MOG methods in his kitchen. The bottom line is someone before him had to make this discoveries and make people aware of them and than is up to the professionals to bridge the gap between science and production.

     If the cooks are not happy with name MOG, keep it for the science part or called it the” Science of Cooking”, let the scientists examine the mechanisms behind  the cooking, answer the question “Why” and present us with their findings.

     Regarding the chefs, I think they are more interested in the artistic presentation, the taste of the product, providing unique guests experience and breaching the preconceived psychological boundaries of what the food should taste and look like. Going to a restaurant is not just about eating, but having a good time. It’s not surprising that these top chefs can not precisely define what is MOG, they are not concern with definitions, but with creativity and innovation in their food presentation.

     Now going to the MOM the same thing applies for the bartenders. MOM is part of the gastronomy experience and follows the finding of the MOG. In the history of cocktail creation the number of the “Precisions” can not be compared to the “Precisions” in cooking. Molecular Mixology is more about using techniques and answering to the questions of “How” and What if.” which trigger the thought of creating drinks.

     Personally for me the use of MOM to describe bartending style of making drinks is not my favorite one.

     For me the MOM is a set of innovative bartending techniques available to bartenders to create new or present already established drinks in completely different and unexpected way.

The customers want to have not just great time, but unique experience as well. We don’t have to build menus around them, but incorporate only few different types of drinks in Mixology menu section. How many customers we had asking to have something different, this is the time to offer your guests something unexpected.

I’m sure everybody knows the techniques I’m talking about, but just in case here are some of them; Pearls, Ravioli, Foams, Air, Dust, Cotton Candy, Solids, Gels, Hot and Cold drink separated vertically in the same glass, Infusions.

     I think they should be regarded in the same way as shaking, stirring, muddling, layering, rolling and building. Placing them under the umbrella of MOM will probably lead to a reaction such as “MOM is just another fad, will go way in couple of years, so why do I have to bother learning all these staff and spending money for equipment.” Does every bartender should use these approaches of making drinks, of course not, but they at least should be aware of them.

    And for the science part let’s leave it to scientists, that’s were the term MOM is more probably applicable.  Just keep an eye on them; you never know what they may come up with.

   

 

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David,

I have the same experience as you do, making lots of fruity, tropical drinks, shooters with weird names and not enough of the old classic cocktails. So many people are going on INTERNET, surfing for drinks and going to the bar and asking you make them.

I think the people are just not well informed, regarding the old classic ones, can we educate them, doing that at bar our scope will be limited, but here is an idea.

All these cocktail web site hosting thousands of recipes, have to create a special section  dedicated to the classics with pictures, recipes and the stories behind them. Promote them, make the visitor feel they are must know, create sense of history.

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Aaaaah but Val, here lies the crux of my problem...

At the risk of being shot down I raise the question; "Is the Old way always better?" I am sure it can be argued, but I do not believe the industry as a whole is set enough in the "old ways" for us to be questioning it allready. That is where I believe MOM will be coming in, but are we ready for that?

I do not believe that before the next generation of bartenders come along that would know how to make a Sazerac and a Collins before they learn LITs and Harvey Wallbangers, would there actually be enough to question. Unless you see us making edible cocktails and neon absinthe jellies as the future.

Why the long face?

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