How cold do we need em?
Shortly after last week’s post regarding the use and misuses of beverage napkins, I was approached by a friend who called bullshit. “So I wanna know where all this ‘no bevnaps under coupes’ business came from….” We soon discovered, over glasses of Havana Club, that her cocktail bartending experience and mine had differed in one significant way. While bartending at some of most respected, revered, or as we say down here, ‘high falutin Yankee assed’ bars in the country, she had always used pre-chilled cocktail glasses. I on the other hand had used chilled glasses while working at steak houses and fine dining restaurants to serve dirty Grey Goose “martini’s” with blue cheese stuffed olives, but never in craft cocktails. I had a mental divide; that part of my career seems so far away to me at the moment, that I forgot that a sub-frozen, smoking cocktail glass can be cold enough to create ample condensation to warrant a napkin or coaster. My bad!
But that got me thinking, do we really need chilled cocktail glasses? The idea that a chilled cocktail glass could require a bevnap seems suspicious since stemware should never get one (that’s my story and I’m stickin to it). Assuming there is a benefit from slightly chilling a glass, do we need them to be colder than a flagpole in a blizzard? Furthermore, are we serving cocktails too cold in general? I’m inclined to say maybe…, yea…, quite possibly. There is lots of information and plenty of opinions out there on what the ideal temperature is for serving spirits, liqueurs and wine products. Likewise, there is also a plethora of data regarding ideal cocktail temperatures, unfortunately the two sets contradict one another. Most of the recommended serving temperatures for cocktails hover in the –5o to –15o C range while spirits guru Paul Pacult suggest we serve brandies and whisk(e)ys between 12o and 17o C, ports and sherries 9o to 13o C . Wine temperature recommendations adhere to a broader spectrum, but bottom out for sparklers like Champagne and Cava at 6o C, and it is generally understood that as wines and spirits warm up from a chill, their aromas and flavors become more readily identifiable. In fact the only spirit that is generally recommended to be served out of the freezer, is vodka which just so happens to be flavorless, therefore not adversely affected by over chilling.
Now, for the sake of this argument, allow me to primarily focus on cocktails served “up,” and more specifically those of the stirred “aromatic” category. (No one can refute the refreshing attributes of a frosty Rum Swizzle, Mint Julep or a Pimm’s Cup over ice on a balmy Summer day, and I wouldn’t dare). The Manhattan is the perfect representative for this exercise. By now, proper cocktail making technique is widely accepted and we can generally agree that the Manhattan consists of Rye Whiskey, Sweet or Italian Vermouth and Aromatic (Angostura) Bitters in the neighborhood of a 2:1:2dashes ratio and that it is a stirred cocktail served up. Right? Ok good.
So the big question is: Do you enjoy and appreciate all of the ingredients listed or would you rather their flavors be hidden and disguised by their temperature? If you answered yes to the former, why then would we take a list of excellent, properly stored ingredients that we happen to like, put them together because we think they may react well to one another, then choose the latter? It kinda defeats its own purpose.
One of the first steps I took when I decided to actually take the job of bartending a little more seriously and start viewing it as a profession, was to study wine. One of the first things I learned about wine, is that in America we often get the temperature dead wrong. Much of this has changed, at least at the places I hang out at, but ten years ago we were serving whites blisteringly cold and reds at room temp., (Shut it wine geek peanut gallery! I know none of you ever did this, just bear with me, I’m trying to make a point here) but as we all got more savvy-guests, waiters, bartenders, floor managers, chefs, somms.- we began letting the whites come up a little in temp and conversely adding appropriate chill to reds, because we began to understand that there are ideal temperatures that our alcoholic beverages should be served at.
Unfortunately, we are still, in my opinion, in an ice age when it comes to cocktails. The top minds in this business continue to insist that we must serve our cocktails as cold as possible, in vessels that preserve that frigidity. If that were the case, why then don’t progressive bars store all of their inventory in freezers, add the desired water dilution and skip the whole ice thing altogether? I think its because that would be an improper way to treat my friend Mr. Rittenhouse Bonded Rye Whiskey (he doesn’t like to be oppressed). Or why don’t we just build bars inside giant walk-in freezers? Oh yea they did that and it was stupid. Now back to my big question, if you happened to have chosen the latter, and prefer the flavors lay dormant, I would just suggest you find another cocktail whose ingredients you do actually enjoy.
Yes, there is something to be said about the tactile sensation of a bitingly cold beverage, but as long as the primary focus is flavor, I think that a great cocktail actually does improve dramatically as it warms up a bit and the flavors begin to awaken. And since I do prefer my Manhattan just a bit warmer than when it was first poured, I don’t need a chilled glass preventing this action. Now that isn’t to say that I don’t think we shouldn’t chill in the first place, I don’t want most of my drinks at room temperature (although one of the best cocktails in Houston is a “scaffa” or non chilled cocktail), and thankfully, it doesn’t seem like Ill be having that problem any time soon as good cocktails never seem to linger around long enough to die when they’re in my possession. Some historians would likewise argue that the entire purpose of a cocktail is to be a somewhat rapidly consumed drink, again negating the need for the chilled glass. Anyway, that’s all I got for now, I think its about time for that Manhattan.
Photos and post by Alex Gregg
…for any photo geeks out there, here’s a setup shot from this post.