Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s new Contributing Cocktail Editor and author of the occasional column, Easy Drinking. Jeffrey is an industry veteran, having worked at many styles of bars for the past two decades. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. In this space, he will talk about making excellent drinks at the home bar — which, as the name suggests, does not need to be difficult — as well as suggest favorite products, gear and maybe tell you where you need to drink when not perfecting the Blood and Sand at home.
I recently had the honor of being invited to travel to Berlin and speak at the BCB — Bar Convent Berlin — possibly Europe’s most important bar show. Nearly 10,000 visitors from all over the world come to taste incredible new products, learn about the very bleeding edge of mixology and meet one another.
But I wasn’t there to sip and socialize. I had been invited to Germany to speak about a topic near and dear to my heart, and the subject of my first published book: cocktail technique.
In the weeks preceding the talk, I struggled to find the right way to present the topic of technique to the audience. After all, Europe’s best and brightest were going to be in attendance and I couldn’t simply give them a demonstration of how to shake a cocktail. I would have looked like a moron, and I’m sure the crowd wouldn’t have been able to be less interested. Instead, I decided to use my time to try and inspire this audience of 400 people to start rethinking everything they had ever been told about the techniques we all use behind the bar.
One of the major points I made during my time onstage was that bartending is — possibly more so than any other industry I can think of — full of mythology. There is a long, rich history, I told them, of bartenders passing down misinformation from one bartender to the next. Here are a few of the cocktail myths I spoke to them about.
1. It’s bad to heat your simple syrup
There is a small movement in the bartending world towards what is known as “cold process simple syrup” — a fairly labor-intensive method of dissolving sugar into water without the use of heat. Now, sugar doesn’t easily behave that way, so it takes quite a bit of time and agitation to do so, as opposed to quickly heating the mixture on the stovetop to facilitate the rapid dissolution of the sugar into the water.
Proponents of this method make some pretty bold claims regarding its importance. The first such claim is that heat will break down the sucrose molecules into fructose and glucose molecules, creating what is called in baking an “inverted syrup”, which is sweeter than sucrose. While this is technically true, it takes quite a bit of time and heat to invert a syrup; far more heat and time than it would take to simply dissolve the sugar.
Syrup that has had some heat applied to it is less likely to crystallize and will remain preserved for far longer than cold-process syrup. But the myth that really infuriates me is one I read in an interview with a well-known “mixologist” who shall go unnamed. The star of this interview claimed that his dedication to the craft went so far as to use only cold-process syrups to “retain the fresh, uncooked flavor of sugar cane” — as if there is actually anything fresh or uncooked about processed sugar.
2. Ice and heat behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways
Lord Kelvin would be spinning in his grave if he could witness some of the late-night conversations about chilling and dilution I’ve had to listen to bartenders share over the years. In an attempt to “out-geek” other bartenders, some pretty interesting “facts” about the natural world have been created. One night I listened to a well known bartender explain to me that it’s poor form to handle the mixing glass while stirring a cocktail, as the warmth from one’s fingers will drastically change the temperature of the cocktail. I had to attempt to explain that glass is a very poor conductor of heat, but I don’t think I was heard.
Another run-in with a couple of bartenders had them trying to convince me that high-proof spirits will melt ice more quickly, as they are “hot”. The truth of the matter is that ice doesn’t know, nor care, how spicy a particular spirit is on your tongue. The only thing that matters to the ice is the temperature of said spirit, and the temperature of the ice.
3. The lemon experiment
This is possibly the most pervasive myth in all of bartending and cooking. We have all been told at some point that leaving lemons out at room temperature, and then rolling them on the counter with the palm of the hand will unlock more juice than refrigerated, unrolled lemons. So when it came time to write the book, I decided to investigate this “rule”.
I took four groups of lemons: cold and rolled, cold and unrolled, room temperature and rolled, and room temperature and unrolled. I juiced each group and measured the results, which were surprising. It turns out that refrigerated, unrolled lemons produced the most juice — I would assume this is due to the fact that refrigeration slows down the evaporation of the water inside.
These are just a few of the myths I debunked in my talk and in my book, but the main theme I’d like to share is this: taking for granted everything we learn — particularly when we learn it in the oral tradition — isn’t helping move the craft of making cocktails in the right direction. Only when we discover the real truth and continue the conversation of cocktail technique will we all have the ability to make consistent, well-constructed cocktails at home and in our bars.
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