I was at Downtown LA’s neo-speakeasy The Varnish a few days ago and marveled at the impressive way in which this bar which, while admittedly making excellent cocktails, has come up with impressive ways to milk every last penny out of its customers all while making them feel privileged to wait 15 minutes for a damn John Collins and honored to feel like you’re putting your cocktail waitress out by ordering from her.
The most annoying thing about The Varnish wasn’t the fact that they’ve taken to automatically adding a 20% gratuity to a tab of $100 or more, thereby ensuring that any party of four that buys two rounds of $13 cocktails ends up tipping $2.60 per drink. Nor was it the drinks themselves which were well-made but boring, packing little kick and served in piddling portions. No, the most annoying thing was their fetish for giant ice cubes of every shape. Instead of doing what bars have been doing for decades: serving drinks over a glass of good old fashioned ice cubes, The Varnish has taken to serving seemingly every iced drink over a mammoth single ice cube or elongated rectangular prism. The argument for their use, of course, is to prevent dilution of your drink from excessive ice melt.
I was a bartender for a number of years. I’ve read over a dozen books on the topic and I’m confused as to where this “ice is the enemy” idea comes from. Ice is an integral part of the cocktail experience and there’s a reason why certain drinks are served up versus on the rocks or in a tumbler versus a highball glass. The gradual introduction of cold water from the melting ice is an ingredient in the drink. It extends and tempers the cocktail, facilitating the integration of disparate ingredients into a cohesive whole, making the drink more than just the sum of its parts. If you don’t want that then go drink your whiskey neat and be on your way.
(Not to mention, these giant ice cubes make it quite the endeavor to procure your brandied cherry from the bottom of an empty glass.)
Now, to be fair, the fast-melting wafer-sized ice cubes produced by most commercial ice making machines are too small and do melt too quickly for classic cocktails. These drinks are meant to use ice cubes like grandma used to make, nice big one and a half inch square cubes that had to be violently wrenched out of metal trays. They actually melt, but they do so just slow enough to last, plus they make that lovely clattering sound as they fall into a tumbler. Three or four of those and you’ve got an Old Fashioned that will really sing.
(And three or four Old Fashioned will probably get you singing.)
I admire the current cocktail revolution in America. Bartenders are doing great things with ingredients of the highest quality and pulling us out of the Jack & Coke doldrums of the late 90s. But I don’t admire this eschewing of tradition (and physics) for the sake of a novelty of dubious merit, designed more to catch the oohs & aahs and camera flashes of mixed drink dilettantes and glossy nightlife blogs, than for any improvement to the quality of the cocktail. It’s slick and eye-catching but in the end just a big, cold, hard block of nothing.
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