In honor of cocktail week, Eater reached out to Alexander Gregg, bar manager at The Pass & Provisions, to write about an issue of interest to him. Gregg has previous stints at a number of spots around town, including Anvil and Grand Prize. Read more of Gregg's writing on his blog Commercial Free Cocktail.
When asked if I had anything to contribute to Eater for cocktail week, the first thing that came to my mind was perishable ingredients. The cornerstone of any quality cocktail program, and hell, any good cocktail for that matter, as most of you reading this know, is the use of fresh, quality ingredients. The problem with quality ingredients is that over time they change and don't last forever. Sure, there are things out there with infinite shelf lives, but, with a few key exceptions, those ingredients are rarely of quality (one big exception would be the booze itself which really doesn't change much over time once it is in the bottle). Nowadays it's easy to go to the nearest wine and spirits super warehouse or neighborhood boutique and pick out the finest Calvados and Italian vermouth or go to a farmers market and grab fresh, seasonal citrus (Texas grapefruits are bangin right now!), but the question remains how do you protect these things once you get them back to your bar or home kitchen?
I first started bartending at a time when fresh juice was basically unheard of. Occasionally, there might be the persnickety customer who would ask you to squeeze the garnish limes into the glass to make the margarita, but that was a rarity. The vermouth was always either on the back bar or in the speed rail with a pour spout in it, and single bottles could remain in one place for over a year. It's no wonder people were drinking martinis and manhattans with little to no vermouth in them- the stuff was deplorable. Cherries were bright red and nobody I worked with, including myself, actually knew that grenadine was from pomegranates, we all thought it was the same stuff the cherries were packed in. I remember a time when you could pinpoint a serious bartender by the fact that he or she wouldn't let bar fruit get near her or her drink.
Thankfully, times have changed, and I feel fortunate to have been working in this field during such a dramatic shift towards quality. These days, dozens of bars around the city offer fresh juice and make amazing cocktails with quality spirits, fortified wines and house made syrups. The key to a consistently good cocktail now remains in the way these quality ingredients are stored and rotated. It may help if we all think of these ingredients as food.
The teenager working in at his first job in a fast food joint actually has a better grasp on product storage and rotation than many bartenders do, even after years behind the stick. And it's not their fault; they, like me, were trained to ignore quality in pursuit of higher volumes and lower costs with this notion that everything behind the bar will last forever, or at least until the fruit flies get to it. A kid working at Subway, however, likely understands that temperatures affect quality, knows about the "danger zone," and utilize the FIFO (first in first out) rotation concept.
While to some these things may seem like common sense, it's easy to see where things got lost behind the bar. When we as bartenders use rotten vermouth in a manhattan or two day old lime juice, that was never properly refrigerated, in a daiquiri, nobody gets physically hurt, they just get a bad drink, and in turn, switch back to something safe like vodka and water. But if a cook or chef were to do the same with their fish or fowl, people would get sick and could actually die. It's the lack of consequences that allows delicious cocktails to be at times, mediocre.
When training a new bartender or barback, I often employ the chicken analogy regarding juice, produce and fortified wines. "Pretend its all chicken. Everything needs to be wrapped up (or closed), dated, nothing cross contaminated (or married), and everything gets rotated."
The biggest threat to your fresh ingredients is oxidation. While somewhat complicated on a molecular level, prevention of oxidation is easy, all one has to do is to prevent one's products being exposed to oxygen. Additionally keeping ingredients in the cooler or on ice will slow the process. Here are a few simple rules that are easy to execute which will aid in your quest to making the perfect cocktail.
Lemon and Lime juices have a one day shelf life. After that they shouldn't be used in cocktails. The same goes for cut lemon and lime wedges. Grapefruit and orange have a slightly longer (2 days max) shelf life, due to their higher sugar content. It is important to taste each ingredient daily, throughout the shift, and to taste every drink. Don't marry new, freshly squeezed juice with older juice. Start with a new bottle and keep them separate; yes, even if it's just a few ounces to get through the last hour of a night.
Vermouth and other fortified wines are still wines and need to be kept in the refrigerator or on ice with the top on at all times. Items in this category include not only vermouth but also things like Quinquina, Port and Sherry. Never, under any circumstance, should there be a pour spout in vermouth, fortified wine, or any wine for that matter.
On syrups. While sugar is a known preservative, syrups don't have an infinite shelf life. Label, date, rotate and refrigerate all syrups. Remember, the more perishable the flavor component of a syrup, the more perishable it is; i.e., that pumpkin syrup on a fall cocktail menu will require a steady and watchful gaze. As with the other ingredients, be sure to taste each syrup at the beginning of a shift and periodically throughout the night, and immediately get rid of anything that doesn't taste the way it should. Again, no marrying or cross contaminating. Additionally, whatever one uses to dispense syrups, whether plastic squeeze bottles or recycled glass liquor bottles, needs to be completely emptied, cleaned and sanitized before being refilled and rotated back into service.
If professional bartenders, bar managers or home bartenders exercise the diligence to approach bar perishables with the same gravitas the beginner cook treats his meat or produce cooler, we can all achieve new heights with liquid offerings. While it may be tough to resist putting that pour spout in your new bottle of vermouth and it will definitely hurt to pour that full liter of lemon juice down the drain at the end of a slow night, the guests will definitely notice. Don't be surprised if they ask, "What do you do differently here? The drinks are amazing!" Cheers!