Has mixology jumped the shark? Are we finally over waxed moustaches, vests, and arm gaiters? There have been a lot of recent rumblings to indicate that’s true. First, the word “mixologist”—which was hard to commit to anyway (and whenever I heard it or spoke it, I always mentally added air quotes)—has virtually dropped out of common restaurant parlance, and, frankly, good riddance. Instead, you’ll hear more straightforward titles: barman, bartender, and beverage director. It’s a transition that seems to make everyone feel more comfortable when they’re talking about drinks.
The other indicator of the death of mixologists is the near absence of the bartender’s witchery in the growing popularity of small-batch-distilled whiskeys. These are often served neat or with a little bit of water, and, obviously, there’s little opportunity for stagecraft when pulling a craft beer.
But, though flaming, muddling, shaking “mixologists” may be on the downswing, barmen are rising—and, they’re also getting smarter.
Jason Schuler, barman at Gleason’s (he thinks the word “mixologist” gets thrown around too easily) says he uses his position behind the bar to educate rather than to perform a show. “At Gleason’s, we have a lot of people who really want to know about the ingredients: the bitters, the spirits, all the infusions. So, instead of doing all of that showmanship—and I came from LA where there was a lot of showmanship—I take the time to educate people about the ingredients that we use.” Soon, Schuler will be debuting his line of packaged organic, boutique bitters, syrups, and teas under the name Drink More Good (drinkmoregood.com). In fact, some of Schuler’s products are already being used in Gleason’s cocktails, like The Black Dahlia, which is made with Rittenhouse Rye, Meletti Amaro, and Schuler’s house-made bitters. You’ll find Drink More Good products at Gleason’s and at Gleason’s sister restaurant, Birdsall House; Schuler is also hoping to vend his products at local shops and farmers markets.
Restaurant North’s co-owner, Stephen Paul Mancini—who was introduced into popular consciousness by the New York Sun as the the “Mad Scientist” when a journalist discovered him in the basement of Union Square Cafe concocting nuclear-yellow limoncello—is no stranger to the more avant-garde wing of cocktails. Yet Mancini’s maddest visions always fall within the Slow Food mission of Restaurant North. “My boss [Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe] always told me to make sure that I’m as proud of my wines-by-the-glass as I am of my entire wine list, because there are a lot of people out there who don’t make it beyond the first page. We feel it’s the same with the cocktail list. Each cocktail should really express our vision at Restaurant North.” In that vein, Mancini recently debuted a lightly carbonated cocktail that is the ultimate nose-thumb to mixologists: the Bottle Rocket. It’s presented to the diner in a capped, recycled-glass soda bottle with a twist-cap.
“We want the diner to get that ‘pssssht’ moment—you know, when you pop the top off a bottle of soda.” The 10-ounce cocktail is made with vodka that Mancini infuses with Buddha’s hand citrus, plus kaffir lime leaves, Lillet wine, and Vespaiolo wine. The concoction is lightly carbonated, then placed into a sanitized bottle, which is then hand-capped with a lever-operated Portuguese capper.
Mancini admits that there is some theatricality in the presentation (he laughs, “My boss [Meyer] always told me to sell the sizzle rather than the steak”), but it all happens far from the mixologist’s stage. In fact, it’s revolutionary that drinkers hold the power position in this cocktail. “But that’s just who we are. We’re all about fun here. I wake up and start inventing this stuff just because it’s fun.”