By the time I made it to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic gala, I had been drinking heavily for the better part of two weeks and was very familiar with the multitude of ways that a cocktail can go wrong.
There had been cocktails of cotton candy vodka and blue curacao, drinks with essence of leather and hints of lilac, meat-flavored martinis, a shot of something called ass juice, and a large, flaming tiki mug filled with condensed milk, Jamaican rum, Bacardi 151, Grand Marnier, Lillet Blanc, orange juice, lemon juice, angostura bitters, absinthe, cinnamon and mint.
I had downed cocktails that cost more than entire dinners. I had been pleasantly tipsy and I had been fairly drunk.
I had set out to try both the strange-sounding combinations that give off the whiff of potential brilliance and the multitude of terrible drinks that have thrived parasitically on the city’s thirst for bespoke cocktails, from the celebrated cocktails at Angel’s Share to the daiquiris made with real marshmallow Peeps at an Astoria sports bar.
And so it was that I found myself one evening in the Dakota Bar, an Upper West Side establishment, willing myself, against my every natural impulse and inclination, to order the Ice Scream Soda, a $14 cocktail of cioccolato liqueur and Ketel One vodka, topped with club soda and served on the rocks. Besides the name, which was ominous enough, it was worrisome that the “cioccolaco liquor,” as it was written on the cocktail menu, was either misspelled or a mysterious spirit that Google had yet to learn about.
Sipping the mud-colored concoction from a straw, I found that the fizz of the soda assaulted the tongue first, and then the burn of the vodka struck, “like an attack from behind enemy lines,” as my drinking companion put it. It would have tasted very like a watery egg cream if not for the piercing flavor of rubbing alcohol. The chocolate manifested itself as a kind of chalky undertaste, which called to mind Mia Farrow’s criticisms of the sedative-laden chocolate mousse in Rosemary’s Baby, filmed at the Dakota, the nearby landmark from which the bar takes its name. Otherwise, the connection between the recently opened bar and the famous co-op seemed tenuous.
Poorly executed and ill-conceived drinks are two of the most common bugaboos of the craft cocktail movement. Many bars hire cocktail mavens to create menus for them but don’t follow up by hiring bartenders who are seasoned or skilled enough to execute them. Even a twist on a classic can often be disastrous in the hands of bartender who doesn’t know what he’s doing—a misfortune that recently befell Sarah Fina, a bartender at Red Rooster, when she ventured out to a new bar in Clinton Hill.
“They put an old-fashioned in a shaker and started shaking and I was like, ‘Oh no, don’t do that! You’re bruising the bourbon!’” Ms. Fina said. “A lot of places try to do all these fancy things, and they don’t even know the basics.”
Of course, innovation is a large part of what makes cocktails so delightful—it’s the thrill of the unknown and the desire for new tastes and sensations—food and drink being two of the places where people are willing to splurge. Just as Chanel perfume is an entry point into the brand for those who cannot afford the clothes and shoes, so a cocktail, even at $20, offers an attainable luxury experience: a comfortable seat in a pleasant setting, an attentive bartender, a chance to sample a different kind of lifestyle without buying a $200 dinner.
There are bound to be some bad cocktails and spectacular fails as the form evolves. But even a $20 bill for a disappointing drink doesn’t seem so bad in the grand scheme of things—unless, of course, the drinker succumbs to that all-too-familiar temptation to just have one more.
Seemingly counterintuitive combinations are often among the most delicious. Shrubs—or colonial-era cocktails made with fruits preserved in vinegar, have recently been revived to the delight of many. And who would have predicted the widespread popularity of a vodka, clamato, Worcestershire sauce, angostura bitters, lemon, pepper, olives and celery cocktail otherwise known as a Bloody Mary? As Wayne Curtis has noted in the pages of The Atlantic, both martinis and Manhattans came from “the freakish idea of mixing wine and spirits.”
But there are limits. Almost every bartender I talked to agreed that making a good cocktail was a matter of balance (sweet, sour and umami—the bitters) and there are some ingredients that just don’t seem to blend in any agreeable way.
“We’ve all had failures before we found something we could get behind and put on a menu,” said Douglass Miller, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America, ruefully recounting his own Waterloo: “Fish sauce. I couldn’t make it work. I was trying fish sauce and bourbon drinks. Also, carbonated milk. It’s big in Japan.”
Of the two cocktails I tried at the well-regarded speakeasy Angel’s Share, one was the nearly unquaffable tiki drink—named, rather fittingly, the Devil’s Kick—and the other was perhaps the most unexpectedly lovely and surprising drink I have ever had the pleasure of sipping: a cocktail of white truffle and pear vodka, grapefruit puree and tonic.
At Apotheke, a cocktail lounge in Chinatown, I had the misfortune of meeting the White Widow, a frothy mauve drink made of white rum, hemp milk, hemp seed, orange blossom, water, egg white and heavy cream. I inherited this from a friend, who declared that drinking it was “like licking an attic” and persuaded the server to bring her a delicious elixir of vodka, lemongrass and cilantro instead. Sadly, my own drink—the Pancho Villa (mezcal, grilled corn, poblano pepper, agave nectar and lime)—was just as unpalatable. It tasted like a charcoal briquette soaked in tequila.
“The problem,” said my friend, eyeing the White Widow warily, “Is that no one would want to kiss you after you’d been drinking this.”
But the real problem was that the drink not only seemed likely to snuff out the possibility of romance, but “possibility” as a general category, betraying the promise that is built into a cocktail. A cocktail, particularly a good one in a pleasing setting, seems not only to open up possibilities, but to suggest that one is clever and brave enough to take advantage of them. A fundamentally cosmopolitan beverage, it carries with it the allure of the city—as a place where anything can happen and often does—while suppressing more sober realities: the incipient hangover, the long subway wait late at night, the profound statements that will sound pompous in a less forgiving light.
A cocktail is a fundamentally aspirational drink, one that confers on the drinker the flattering sheen of urbanity and suggests an attractive, idealized self: daring, adventurous, sophisticated. The kind of person who might not be invited to an endless circuit of cocktail parties and galas, but would like to be.
As the night wore on, the mood at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic changed in the way that parties do—imperceptibly at first, a rising volume, the women doing the little foot-shifting dance they do when their feet start to hurt—and then, seemingly, all at once. Shoes came off, people began to take photos of themselves with breadsticks and straws in their mouths, miming the act of smoking a cigarette in a fancy holder, and couples started to lean against each other in the sort of dog-tired slump that you most often see late at night on the subway. Suddenly, the corridors were bathed in the eerie glow of iPhones as revelers abandoned the here and now, hoping for a fix in the form of a promising electronic communiqué.
By midnight, the evening’s early magic had all but worn off. There were broken glasses and emergency stain removals. I mistook a woman’s smeared glitter eye shadow for tears. The crowd around a food station with mini take-out containers of sesame noodles blocked the better part of a hall—I myself had consumed three such containers, along with a twist of salted caramel, a dollop of absinthe and burnt sugar ice cream, two cheese-encrusted breadsticks, a tiny mound of gravlax soaked in gin and juniper, a bourbon profiterole, an acorn soda, a celery soda, and the better part of four cocktails.
Soon, the lines for the bathrooms were snaking into the halls. I spotted one woman making off with several loaves of bread from the table upstairs. Another whom I’d stopped to question about her passion for cocktails shrugged. “New York’s an alcoholic city. Does it matter what you drink?” she said, excusing herself to go get another one before they stopped serving altogether.
—Additional drinking by Laura Kusisto, Jessica Yusaitis Pike, Feliks Pleszczynski, Emily Anne Epstein, Hunter Walker and Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke.