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Breaking Bars

June 27, 2013

You are going out with friends for drinks. Say you are in some strange town you don’t know. Maybe you’re even in a hotel bar. But it’s hot, and you are thirsty, and the bar has a crap selection of wine and beer. Plus everyone else is getting cocktails.

It’s just a regular everyday kind of bar. The bartender is quick and efficient, but not terribly chatty. There are other people waiting to order. What are you going to drink? Water isn’t an option.

This is a real question. I want to know. Maybe you should write it down on a piece of paper before you click through. Because bars have been broken. And I argue there are precious few things you can order with any likelihood of receiving a delicious and refreshing cocktail.

Margaritas might be the most popular cocktail, but in this case that’s a recipe for disaster. Mostly because of sour mix. And some places will combine sour mix with margarita mix. Really, any commercial mix is often a concoction of high fructose corn syrup, commingled with artificial colors and flavors, and spiked with citric acid.

All that will get you is a sweet, green, sticky drink that resembles a margarita only insofar as both are made with tequila.

Some might be inclined to go simple, like a Cuba Libre (aka rum and coke). But all of the sodas in the fountain are really just high fructose corn syrup delivery devices. That includes tonic water.

I’m pissed at Campari that they now use an artificial color to brighten their product in America. But even if a bar carried this bottle, it’s unlikely they would have a decent sweet vermouth to make an Americano. Not that they would know how to make an Americano, but you can always order it by its component parts: Campari, sweet vermouth and seltzer.

Forget drinks with fruit juice in them too. Even good commercial orange juice tastes nothing like the real thing squeezed right from the fruit. And many of the juices are juice cocktails which are sweetened with some kind of sugar, or sometimes by sneaking in concentrated grape juice. These make for a drink that’s too sticky, and lacking any of the complexity or deliciousness found in better ingredients.

Rose’s grenadine and lime cordial are industry standards that I have completely abandoned. Which is fair because much of the industry has completely abandoned the practice of stocking cocktail bitters. And if a bar does have bitters on hand, they likely just have the classic Angostura. It’s better than nothing, but that’s like trying to paint using just one pigment.

Honestly, after racking my brain on this problem for days, I could only come up with one solution: Scotch and soda.

Even my favorite and remarkably simple drink, the rickey, requires fresh fruit to be squeezed directly into the glass. It’s also important to leave the lime shell in the cocktail, for flavor.

The trick with Scotch and soda is to call out your poison by name. This isn’t a drink where you can rely on whatever crap Scotch is in the bar’s well. But you’ll need to find a mainstream brand that isn’t terrible. I’ll choose Dewars over Johnny Walker Red ten out of ten times. It’s not good blended Scotch. But diluted with fizzy water and perked up with a squeeze from a lemon wedge garnish (or zest) it’s serviceable and makes for a refreshing and potent cocktail suitable for adults.

If the bar you are in doesn’t even have lemon wedges to garnish your drink, I say abandon all hope and start pounding chilled vodka shots.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Theresa518 permalink
    June 27, 2013 8:25 am

    I actually had this experience at Upstate Concert Hall last week. The liquor was of the quality meant to be mixed with HFC and the beer was $6 for a Dixie cup. My friend suggested adding bitters to one of the bourbon blends….not an option. PBR cans were available for $3.50. In college we drank PBR drafts w/tobasco but tobasco was not an option.

    BTW Airborne Toxic Event was amazing…..

    • albanylandlord permalink
      June 27, 2013 11:15 pm

      I agree that Airborne Toxic Event was amazing, but can’t believe you are complaining about the lack of decent cocktails at Upstate Concert Hall. Thats like complaining about bad burgers at McDonalds…

  2. Debra permalink
    June 27, 2013 9:03 am

    I usually stick with vodka and club soda – although sometimes they still get that wrong by putting in tonic instead. I usually forgo the fruit – not sure where its been or who its been touched by.

  3. June 27, 2013 9:04 am

    Cocktails are for weenies. Booze in a glass (maybe w/splash or a cube or two) will set you free.

    • theresa518 permalink
      June 27, 2013 9:21 am

      I thought so too…..but the quality of the booze was hangover city and not even worth it.

  4. June 27, 2013 9:58 am

    Dewars on the rocks with a twist and water back. I’ve never heard of a bar refusing water to a paying customer.

  5. June 27, 2013 10:23 am

    Obviously you haven’t been to many NYC bars, Pegu Club, Angel’s Share, etc. They have taken cocktails up a couple, no many notches. Plus there are a ton of craft beer bars. Now if you’re talking Corning, NY you may be right.

  6. jazzngas permalink
    June 27, 2013 10:54 am

    My blended Scotch of choice is The Famous Grouse. It stands up well on the rocks when single malts aren’t an option.

  7. June 27, 2013 11:04 am

    Campari, soda, lime, is my go to. If the bar doesn’t have Campari, I’m outta there. Unless they have Balvenie. Preferably Caribbean Cask. In that case I take up residence.

  8. June 27, 2013 11:10 am

    In that situation I usually go gin, soda, lime.

  9. June 27, 2013 11:39 am

    I’m surprised that this hypothetical bar doesn’t have water. I thought anywhere that served beverages had water.

    Barring that (maybe I’m in Mexico or something, where the water’s unsafe), well, it’s a matter of taste — I’d go with a Sprite or perhaps a screwdriver, if I actually felt like drinking. Then again, I don’t like the taste of alcohol, so most of the things you like would make me make my “eww” face if I tried to drink them.

  10. Doug permalink
    June 27, 2013 12:25 pm

    G & T, specifying which gin. But scotch and soda would be better, I have to admit.

  11. -R. permalink
    June 27, 2013 1:01 pm

    In the summer, gin & tonic for me, preferably Plymouth, then Hendricks; a surprisingly good drink is a gold/pale rum (like Barbancourt or Mount Gay) and tonic. Often, a nicer (than Jameson) blended Irish whiskey such as Clontarf, Powers 12 or Kilbeggan 15 makes for a pleasant change of pace – just a cube or two with that please.

  12. albanylandlord permalink
    June 27, 2013 11:17 pm

    Bombay Sapphire & Tonic. It may be crappy tonic with HFCS but I don’t get much of that in my diet so a few times over the summer won’t kill me.

  13. maryonhudson permalink
    June 28, 2013 7:15 am

    Campari & Soda, but light on the Campari. (This has been my default summer drink at home too for years.)

  14. June 30, 2013 9:47 pm

    I would probably try for a mint julep or a mojito. I only order margaritas at Mexican restaurants where I know I can trust the quality.

    The “bar” you describe sounds an awful lot like a wedding open bar. My go-to at weddings is a seabreeze (pineapple + cranberry juice & coconut rum) – it is light, refreshing, hydrating, and unoffensive, and also really hard for the wedding bartender to screw up. C usually has a Scotch on the rocks before dinner and then offers to DD because he simply has no use for the bar selections. :)

    Pro-tip: don’t ask generically “what kind of whiskey” they have at a wedding bar … because when you say, “Oh, I need to regroup, my husband was hoping for Johnny Walker,” the bartender will correct you, snottily, and say, “That’s SCOTCH, not whiskey.” (To which, the obvious response is to glare back and say, “Yes. Scotch WHISKY.” Bonus points if you ask if he doesn’t consider Wild Turkey to be whiskey, either. I wasn’t feeling quite that mean that night.)

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