Annals of the Bar: A Shot from the Dark Ages
“Stan Jones in 1977, From His Book.”
For the discriminating cocktail drinker, most of the late twentieth century represents mixology’s Dark Ages. From the dawn of color television to the rise of the internet, the classic American cocktail was a species in peril (I draw no correlations here, although I suspect they could be drawn). As booze-business commentator Frank Kane put it in 1965, “the art of mixing drinks is a lost cause in most bars.” Kane’s summary of the symptoms: “Not one local tavern in fifty serves a Martini or a Manhattan in a properly chilled glass. Not one in fifty asks the customer if he likes bitters in his cocktails or not. Not one in fifty will use fresh juices or take the trouble to make the drink look appetizing.” Things would only get worse: by the 1970s, bedrock classics like the Martini and the Manhattan were fighting desperate rearguard actions as on-the-rocks drinks, while mutant highballs, charged with canned juices, cheap vodka and fruity, candy-sweet liqueurs, stalked the land. As for the bartenders responsible—well, here’s Kane again: “In too many taverns, the bartender is a transient . . . . He has no training, is incapable of doing anything more than sloshing a thimbleful of whisky over tired ice and drowning it with a cheap mixer.” The ancient craft tradition, wherein a bartender was a professional who took pride in his expertise, was by and large a thing of the past. By the late 1970s, this dire state of affairs had only become more deeply entrenched. Bartenders had become customer-service representatives with bottle openers. If you, the patron, were lucky enough to get so much as a properly-made Gin & Tonic, odds are it was one of the rapidly-dwindling cadre of old-time professionals who made it for you.
Not every young bartender, however, was so slack. Take Stan Jones, of Canoga Park, California. In 1977, the 34-year-old bar manager did something nobody had done in 30-odd years, and put out an accurate, comprehensive bartender’s guide, one aimed not at transients or home hobbyists, but at real bartenders who wanted to master their job. With a history of cocktails, detailed historical and production notes on all the major spirits categories (and not a few of the minor ones) and a whopping 4000 cocktail recipes, all wrapped in a quintessential slab of 1970s design, Jones’ Complete Bar Guide is a testament to the power of hope.
By 1977, you see, the damage had been done, and Jones knew it. A generation and more of bad bartending had fatally dumbed the customers down (or perhaps it was the other way around; it scarcely matters). “The new generation of drinkers have inexperienced palates and do not like the taste of liquor,” Jones told the local paper when his book came out. “They want it to taste like soda pop, malts, you name it, anything so it doesn’t taste like liquor.” Nothing daunted, Jones had hopes for his book. “There’s talk he may write a spirit column for a popular magazine,” the reporter noted, and even of “a guest appearance on the Johnny Carson show.”
That didn’t happen. Today, Jones’ book, which saw but a single edition, is a collector’s item. But if the times weren’t right for a full-scale restoration of the classic art of the bar, by the early 1980s there was at least a little creative spirit in the air. You could find it, for instance, at P. L. Cahoots, in Frederick, Maryland. Sure, the name was corny. But spiritual cousin to the Simpsons’ Tipsy McStaggers or not, when the bar opened in 1981 it was as a temple to mixology. The standard Rum & Cokes, 7 & 7s, Screwdrivers and Tequila Sunrises to which the mixed-drink vernacular had been reduced were not sufficient for head bartender Larry Cutsail. An on-beyond-zebra man to the core, Cutsail came up with a list of 170 drinks that his bar was prepared to serve, almost all of them his own creations.
Some names: Accupressure, Fredneck, Fat Rat’s Ass, Neutron Bomb, Gangreen, Porgy Tirebiter, Enema, Horny Moose, Crotch Rot, Agent Orange, U235, Body Odor, Rubber Duck, South Bronx, Death Wish, Training Bra, Henry’s Hooch, Ooh Baby.
Some ingredients: Yukon Jack, crème de noyeaux, crème de banana, Chambord, Midori, Jack Daniels, Cream.
Okay. So Cutsail was no retro revivalist, such as we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. And his drinks were—put it this way: he was known as Frederick’s “Shooter King.” Now, to be King of Shooters in Frederick, Maryland in 2009 would be, well, pathetic. But in 1981, when most people drank the same tired highball in every bar because they knew anything more complicated would be butchered, the fact that there was a bartender who cared enough to come up with that many combinations of ingredients, each with its own little name, is nothing short of heroic. Who cares if the drinks themselves are little more than typing-monkey combinations of whatever was trendy at the time? That would change. As the 1980s wore into the 1990s, the shooter kings would become vodka-infusion kings, then fresh-juice kings, and then, as their restless spirits continued to explore, experiment, expand, classic cocktail kings. I’m sure Dale DeGroff, Murray Stenson and Gary Regan, the three pioneers of modern mixology who were behind the stick back in the 1980s, shook up many a shooter. (Hell, I bet Gary still does.) So here’s to Stan Jones and Larry Cutsail and everybody who gave a shit when nobody else did.
Shake well with ice:
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