Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. 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.
Back in 1993, Joe Langhan and an intrepid band of network executives had an idea for a new cable network. It was called the Television Food Network at the time (it was later shortened to the Food Network) and its conception ushered in a new era in food education and entertainment on TV. Suddenly there was a market for round-the-clock food television, much like the way CNN and MTV revolutionized their respective industries.
The idea of informative food programming certainly wasn’t anything new. PBS had been airing cooking shows on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for years. Julia Child picked up where James Beard left off, and Martin Yan and Paul Prudhomme ruled much of the 1980s. But now there was a tidal wave of new cooking hosts, led by Emeril Lagasse, who would eventually become the face of the network.
Meanwhile, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ self-imposed ban on advertising on television, in place since 1948 in a concerted effort to prevent the experiment known as Prohibition from ever happening again, made certain that liquor was kept off of our televisions and away from our children’s eyes. The idea of an entire show centered around anything having to do with alcohol was kinda ridiculous.
But then the ban was lifted in 1996, and while the initial trickle of spirit advertising on TV was restrained at best, it did herald the coming of the cocktail and spirit renaissance we’re in the midst of today. Now we have a few shows about drinking, but almost none about drinking well. Drinking shows are typically centered around a host who travels to a city and gets wrapped up in the binge-drinking traditions of the local culture. And…that’s about it.
For those who haven’t seen Bar Rescue, red-faced bar consultant Jon Taffer spends a half hour hurling insults at bar owners and staff and then remodels a dive bar by covering the walls in flat-screen TVs.
Comedian Dave Attell had one of the first shows that one could classify as bar- or cocktail-related. Though it was presented under the guise of documentary-style programming showing what late-night professionals do during work hours, the majority of the show was about Dave wandering the streets and hanging out in bars. It was fun for a season, but after a while it got uncomfortable watching a live human pour poison down his throat in exchange for money; the last time I saw Attell live, he’d already been forced onto the wagon by kidney problems.
Then there was The Thirsty Traveler with host Kevin Brauch. I always asked Kevin if I could have his job: They’d send him around the world to some beautiful location and he’d get to explore beaches, or igloos, or maybe go whitewater rafting or something. There would be about ten minutes on the local drink, usually presented with less information than one might glean from its Wikipedia page, but more often than not something along the lines of a promotional video for a liquor company. Then the producers would completely ignore the fact that Kevin had any talent behind the bar and simply show someone making him dinner while he enjoyed a drink. Roll credits.
Zane Lamprey has built an impressive career — and a massively loyal fan base — out of hanging out in bars doing shots. From Three Sheets to Drinking Made Easy to Chug!, Lamprey’s shows are usually of the self-described travelogue variety and usually provide an exploration of “local drinking customs,” which is more often than not simply doing shots of the local juice after a long day of sightseeing. Again, a fun romp, an enviable job to be sure, but long on entertainment and short on information.
The biggest, most overwhelmingly successful venture is, without a doubt, Bar Rescue. For those who haven’t seen it, red-faced bar consultant and Donald Trump apologist Jon Taffer spends a half hour hurling insults at disinterested bar owners and staff and then remodels a dive bar by covering the walls in flat-screen TVs. But despite the fact that it’s a poor man’s version of Gordon Ramsay’s Restaurant Nightmares (which itself was an angry man’s version of Gordon Ramsay’s original UK Kitchen Nightmares), the show is actually pretty good. There’s some relevant information presented, the production is glossy and fast-moving, and the consultants are some of the industry’s finest (Elayne Duff, my brother-in-law Joe Brooke and Russell Davis, amongst others). And at least it’s a reprieve from the usual formula of a charming host being flown around the world to drink.
Esquire TV has gotten into the game, now, too. They’ve taken David Wondrich’s well-researched magazine list of the best bars in America and handed it off to Bluto and Otter from Animal House, given them a credit card, and followed them around the country with a camera. What’s the best that could happen?
What we usually end up with instead of quality programming is Sandra Lee chugging expensive vodka cut with frozen lemonade from a can.
Sure, occasionally food shows pander to the home-cocktail enthusiast. Alton Brown’s Good Eats featured a very well-executed single episode about cocktails back in 2006. I watched Emeril make a Sazerac, and he did a great job of it (you know, for a kitchen guy). But what we usually end up with instead of quality programming is Sandra Lee chugging expensive vodka cut with frozen lemonade from a can.
So my question is, where are the accurate portrayals of what drinking in 2016 is really like? Where are the engaging hosts who help show home users how to make a proper daiquiri? How to use a blender the right way? How to pick a bottle of American whiskey for under $30? Where are the informative biographies of history’s most important spirit and cocktail figures? If cocktails are, as I have always asserted, the United States’ one significant contribution to the gastronomical world, what do we have to do to get them adequate screen time?
Sure, we’ve made tremendous headway in the past decade, but if we’re going to really crack this thing wide open, we’re going to have to be invited into the living rooms of real people who enjoy having a drink from time to time. So starting today, I’m going to begin loudly demanding more from television until we begin to see more. More history, more technique, and more about the quality ingredients that are being produced today in greater quantities than ever before in history. And less about chugging them after a day of parasailing.