We look at bartending as a profession and the future of cocktails
There are varying accounts of where cocktails came from and what made them popular, and equally controversial is where the cocktail craze is headed. The current cocktail trend is at least partly responsible for bringing American whiskeys, particularly rye whiskey, roaring back into popularity and this craze was spearheaded by the professional bartenders and mixologists who have turned hospitality into their chosen career. One such person is Eron Plevan, bar manager at ALEX&NDER and teacher at the Ideal Bartender School, both at Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, whose bartending philosophy is so robust he teaches it to other bartenders in hopes they will help to elevate the profession.
But where did cocktails even come from to begin with? Plevan has some insight into this history, as well.
“What isn’t that well known is that the oldest recorded cocktail in America is Benjamin Franklin’s Brandy Milk Punch, first documented in 1763, preceding another famous date by three years,” says Plevan. “This original cocktail, a libation combining spirits, bitters, sugar and water, spawned a million iterations that we are familiar with today. There’s an excellent article by the immortal David Wondrich in Saveur that covers the ‘history’ beautifully, including this description of how the spirited concoction made the drink and drinker more “lively”, similar to putting “ginger up a horse’s fundament, to make him lively and carry his tail well.” A horse dealer would do this before exhibiting the poor ginger-suppositoried beast for sale; a raised or cocked-up tail being a sign of a spirited horse.”
There are a lot of theories about where cocktails and bartending came from, but the idea of bartending as a career hasn’t always been accepted. Plevan heads the Ideal Bartender School at Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery, where he teaches hospitality professionals all about Tom Bullock’s history and philosophy as well as how to manage a modern bar program with creativity and hospitality. It is a 15-week course that meets once a week at Copper & Kings for industry professionals looking to give their careers a competitive edge.
The idea of bartending as a career hasn’t always been accepted
There’s also another important role for the Ideal Bartender School: to encourage and foster diversity within the bartending community in the US.
“Tom Bullock was an African-American bartender, Louisville native, who, 103 years ago, illuminated his craft and skill by publishing a cocktail book called The Ideal Bartender,” says Plevan.
Bullock’s work is an inspiration to many of the people who are actively working to boost diversity not only in bartending, but also in the spirits industry as a whole. Teaching the work of an early pioneer in the hospitality industry gives the entire profession a higher stature, and the fact Bullock was a highly-esteemed African-American at such a difficult time in our nation’s history highlights the standards of professionalism in this field as well as what the industry is capable of.
“It starts off with hospitality,” he continues. “What is in the glass is irrelevant if you don’t provide a friendly, accommodating environment where the drinker is the hero, not the bartender. The second thing is that this is a craft and a worthy career, it takes application, discipline, and dedication; it is not for the thin-skinned or weak-willed. Finally (and this is a summary) it’s about building thoughtful drinks, to transfer joy in to the glass, a cocktail should look beautiful, taste better than it looks, and make you want another. Easier said than done.”
Bartenders must be on top of their craft as well as the trends at all times, another feat that is easier said than done. This training course helps not only to polish basic skills, it also prepares the next generation of well-trained bartenders to do the next great things with their craft, which can include cocktail competitions, management or buyer positions, or even opening their own bar.
So what’s next for cocktails and the professionals who prepare them?
“The trend is adventurous eating and drinking, and the alcohol trend is spirits, cocktails are a very big driver of that trend,” says Plevan. “I think that we will see more cocktails, certainly more classic cocktails as people get comfortable ordering cocktails, and we will see a trend of freshness with less heady (and heavy) concoctions.
“There is an increased awareness of sustainability in the modern bar, looking to minimize waste and to use sustainable ingredients. Far in to the future people will still be drinking Old Fashioneds.”
Plevan teaches four basic principles in his classes that he feels make a great bartender: passion, art, science, and discipline. Passion and art are the two things he believes keep great bartenders working under difficult circumstances while still coming up with creative new ways to express their skills. Science is the basis of these things, as you have to have a good understanding of how ingredients work together in order to build from that knowledge. Finally, discipline is the thing that keeps a great bartender growing and thriving in this career path. Implementing these four principles, Plevan believes, is what keeps a good bartender growing for years to come.
So what does Plevan sip on when he’s looking to sit on the other side of the bar?
“The Everyday Superhero [is my favorite cocktail]. Hopefully one day this will be defined as a modern classic,” he says. “It’s a gorgeous cross-over, a wine and brandy cocktail; a blackberry smash using Copper & Kings American Craft Brandy and Merlot red wine. Very refreshing, drier than a typical cocktail, very easy drinking and not too boozy (not that I don’t like boozy cocktails). I only make cocktails I like to drink.”
The next time you belly up to the bar, try asking your bartender what’s new or what they recommend. Putting your trust in a seasoned professional is unlikely to yield a negative experience. You may find your next favorite drink, a new spin on a classic, or something completely unexpected.