Renowned bartender and (P)our founder Alex Kratena on the similarities between comfort food and classic drinks and what we can learn from our white-hatted friends
When learning how to make drinks it is important to start with the foundations and I am going to draw comparisons between bartenders and chefs. Why? Because I think we have so many people working with fancy techniques and they still don’t know how to label their products and I always struggle to understand, if you didn’t label something, how are you going to tell how long it’s been in the fridge?
If you work in a kitchen everything is a matter of two factors: time and precision. You need to do things as fast as possible, but also correctly. And I think sometimes in the bar we do things very fast but we don’t always do them right.
Some of you might say that it is also important to be consistent. So let me give this example of a client in London whose beverage costs were going through the roof. We took a look and found the bartenders were over-pouring – doing fancy cuts and extra dashes, essentially throwing a case and a half of alcohol out every night. The lesson? You can be consistent, but if you are doing something consistently wrong you are also consistently shit.
The reason why a lot of drinks go wrong – or drinks by chefs are not always that amazing – is that the concepts of cooking and bartending are very different. In the kitchen, you often concentrate flavours. You reduce wine, you reduce sauce to concentrate those flavours. Behind the bar, we work with alcohol, meaning a lot of things are so concentrated that we actually need to dilute them, and getting the right dilution is often the thin line between success or failure.
The trouble with bar schools
Let’s have a look at how it works in most of the bar schools around the world. At the beginning, you start to learn about history – I’m sure somebody makes up half the stories. Then you start to learn about the five spirit categories. Tequila, vodka, gin, rum and whiskey, and I always wonder what happened to all the other categories? What happened to mezcal, aquavit etc? Only five categories, it’s surprising.
Health and safety are mentioned very little – I haven’t seen this in a bar course.
You start to learn the recipes then recreate the recipes and actually it’s very hard to memorise them, because nobody is teaching you how and why to balance the drinks. Nobody is teaching you why you are doing what you are doing. Knowing the proportions can be good, but understanding a recipe from the culinary point of view is more interesting.
It’s obvious that the intention of the old bartenders was exactly the same as ours. But the modern palate and many products are completely different to what we think of when we read those old recipe books. So the aim, in my eyes, of a modern bartender shouldn’t be to recreate a museum but should be to serve delicious drinks.
Hamburgers and Manhattans
I’m going to make comparisons to food, because I think we can all relate to food much more easily. And I’m going to start by asking a simple question – what do classic cocktails and comfort food have in common?
I find a lot of similarities between burgers and classic drinks. Comfort food is comforting, often quite rich in calories and the recipes are often quite consistent. They don’t really reflect a time or a place as they are made exactly the same from the same number of ingredients all around the world.
On the other hand, you have seasonal cooking which is individual, it changes every single day, it is the very expression of ingredients and the ingredients may vary. Rhubarb, which was so sweet two weeks ago, might be much more acidic now because it’s been raining in the Yorkshire triangle. The ingredients reflect the time and the place.
So where I am going with this relationship? Comfort food and classic drinks are very similar in how we think about them. What’s really wonderful about the industry now is that we’ve reached a stage where if you go into any bar and ask for a classic drink then you can get it.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge respect for classic dishes, hamburgers and classic drinks, but when I travel to Mexico the last thing I want to be eating is a club sandwich and drinking a Brooklyn. I think we would prefer to be diving in the ocean of Bacardi Ocho, mezcal and some tacos.
Know your product
Where does a chef start to cook? When does a bartender start to make a drink? It’s always about the product. You pick a product and decide if you are using technology or not. Do I need to apply culinary techniques or do I leave it in its pure, raw flesh form?
If you’ve never worked with broccoli before, you’re most likely going to cut off the heads and throw away the stems. If you’ve worked with it though, you might recognise the stems are nice, fresh, salty and juicy – and use it. Or maybe the stem is really hard so you can chop it and fry it on the pan. Or temper it in hot water and then shape it. So the more you know about produce the more you can do with it.
We work on a scale of one to ten for flavour intensity. If you know you’re working on this scale where citrus is five to seven and spices can sit between six and nine, this can give you a clear indication of how you’re going to work with the produce.
Lastly when are people going to be drinking this cocktail, and where? The importance of this often shows in a cocktail competition. I was judging one where I was served one of the best drinks I think I ever had, but it was a winter drink served in Miami and the person lost. No matter how much everyone tried to stay professional it just didn’t suit the location whatsoever despite being a very, very good drink.