So you're in your best tux, say, or a nice dinner jacket, and you catch the bartender's eye. You're looking for a drink.
Not some beer on tap. Not some shot of something or other.
You're in a tux, for crying out loud. This is a classy place. You want something created with some thought, some flair. Some class. You want a cocktail.
Philip Dobard has a suggestion or two. He's not a bartender, though he once was during a long and varied career in which he's been (among other things) a musician and singer, a producer of operas, a professor and an administrator in higher education.
Still, Dobard knows cocktails. He is now the vice president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (the fabulously acronymned SoFAB) and — it's the "and" we're talking to him about today — the Museum of the American Cocktail.
The MoTAC, housed with the SoFAB in Dobard's native New Orleans, exists (according to its press releases) "to advance the profession [of tending bar] and increase consumer knowledge of mixology, while stressing the importance of responsible drinking." In other words, drinking good cocktails — and all that goes into that and has gone into it — is what the MoTAC is all about.
So you're all dressed up in that tux — or, maybe, you're just in a nice neighborhood bar and want to treat yourself. Here are three classic cocktails that Dobard says you can't go wrong ordering. (With the basic ingredients, though ingredients can vary.)
Martini. (Gin or vodka, vermouth, garnish with olive or lemon twist.) "I'm partial to gin martinis (at right)...and not real sweet, but I like to know the vermouth is in there."
Martinez. (Gin, vermouth, a maraschino liqueur, bitters, with a twist.) "The grandaddy of the martini. It really deserves its new recognition."
Long Island Iced Tea. (Vodka, tequila, rum, gin, cola, sweet and sour mix, triple sec.) "This is blasphemous to some people in the industry. But those who know it, made with premium spirits, know its glory."
Dobard helps spread the MoTAC's mission through events and seminars in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and New York City. The MoTAC just finished a Crafting the Cocktail series in L.A.'s Craft in America Center, and are opening the MoTAC Whisk(e)y Gallery inside downtown L.A.'s Seven Grand bar in May.
Meanwhile, at the MoTAC back in Louisiana, which opened in 2005 and just re-opened at the SoFAB in February, visitors can view all sorts of bar and cocktail paraphernalia — much of it donated by the King of Cocktail himself, world-renowned mixologist Dale DeGroff.
"New Orleans is where we tell the story of the cocktail," Dobard says. It is a story that starts in the mid 19th century with Americans churning out barrels and barrels of rum and rye. "We had a lot of hooch," Dobard says, "but we weren't making great cocktails."
Officials pour alcohol down into a sewer during Prohibition in the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The first recipe for a cocktail — a base spirit, a sweetener, some bitters — appeared in 1806, Dotard says. As bartenders experimented more, cocktails became more "sophisticated," until the 1919 passage of the Volstead Act — Prohibition — put a damper on everything.
"Prohibition...drove bartenders out of country so they could ply their trade," Dobard says. "[The cocktail] is an American artifact. But like most things American, it is a melting pot."
Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933, bartenders returned from overseas with more ideas and the cocktail again took off. Since then, it has soared through wars, the social upheavals of the 1960s, through more wars and into today. "Demand drove innovation, then the innovation drove demand,” Dobard says. “Now, you see craft cocktail work being done in midsize markets and in small markets all over."
(New Orleans, Dobard is quick to point out, never lost its cocktail-making touch. "New Orleans is a good flouter of the law," he says. "Always has been. Still is.")
Dobard spoke with us from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America convention in Orlando, Fla., where he was also busy judging some cocktail competitions.
Here are three final pieces of cocktail wisdom — "Remember, the cocktail is a culinary creation" — from a man who knows his way around a bar.
Stay away from cheap ingredients and hastily made drinks. "I will not villainize any drink," Dobard says, "but something with cheap well ingredients, some cheap well spirits. Inferior ingredients, imbalanced, out of balance with each other..."
Appreciate your bartender. "A good bartender is someone who can be creative on the fly, all while entertaining and not having to think how hard about what you're doing. What you do has to be so deeply internalized that you’re not thinking about your every move."
Don't look down at a cocktail with an umbrella in it. At the competition in Florida, two so-called "Tiki" drinks were among the top award-winners. "These are solid, handcrafted, nuanced cocktails," Dobard says. "It's all about balance. You've got to be able to taste the base spirit. It has to be able to come through but not scream at you."
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