I’m often asked to recommend a good bartender’s guide for the home mixer, and among the books I always cite is The Craft of the Cocktail, by Dale DeGroff, a drinks guru whom I have often turned to for expertise. With some 500 recipes, his book is comprehensive enough to cover the basics, the classics, delightful old obscurities, and a good number of the less-preposterous drinks of the past few decades. But now DeGroff has a new book coming out, and it aims to edit out all but the drinks that fit comfortably under the title “The Essential Cocktail”. There may have been room for Sex on the Beach in the last book, but no more: DeGroff has cut his core list of cocktails down to about 100, with another 100 variations on the basic themes. So what the heck, you might wonder, is the Long Island Iced Tea doing in there?
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
DeGroff is an indefatigable promoter of good drinks and no slouch in advocating his own role in bringing classic cocktails back into vogue. His campaign to eliminate prefab sour mix in drinks meant to be made with fresh-squeezed citrus would be enough to secure his place as a Defender of the Classic Cocktail. But for all his emphasis on high-end cocktail craft, his approach is practical, born of experience behind the stick. He spent a couple of decades tending bar. And he learnt that a good bartender respects the preferences of his patrons.
DeGroff quotes Harry Johnson, author of a 19th century bar manual: “The greatest accomplishment of a bartender lies in his ability to exactly suit his customer.” And when it comes to drinks, customers not only have opinions but are wont to express them. In his youth, DeGroff worked as a waiter, and he writes: “I was never instructed by a customer on how the chef should prepare his hollandaise sauce.” By contrast, “with very few exceptions, people have a lot to say about the preparation of their Bloody Mary, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, and even the ultimate classic cocktail, a Dry Martini.”
DeGroff is quite right about this, though I might quibble that people are opinionated especially about their Martinis. And, I would suggest, they are often wrong in their opinions. The challenge for the bartender, as DeGroff is the first to recognize, isn’t just to give the customer what he wants, but to help him discover that he wants something better than what he’s had before. Many are the Martini-drinkers adamant that vermouth is an abomination who have never actually tasted the stuff in their Martinis. They just might find they like a proper Dry Martini (a drink of about four parts gin to one part dry vermouth) if only a mixological Sam-I-Am could be found to give them the encouragement to try it.
But what does a good bartender do when he is presented with an order for a drink notorious for being, well, junk? At the Rainbow Room, DeGroff would get regular requests for Long Island Iced Tea: “For some reason it was particularly popular with the European tourists, especially Germans, who were a large part of our crowd” (something to remember the next time you’re tempted to think of America as culturally inferior to the old country). And so he did his best to figure out how to make the drink worthy of the venue. This involved avoiding, as DeGroff puts it, “the sure road to disaster — a bad drink and a badly drunk customer.”
The standard sort of Long Island Iced Tea is a pretty sure road to disaster. As originally conceived, the drink gets an ounce each of vodka, gin, rum, tequila and triple sec, a dangerous amount of alcohol to be camouflaged by sour mix and Coca-Cola. DeGroff’s first strategy to fix the Long Island Iced Tea is to cut the liquor bill in half, using only half an ounce of each of the spirits. And then, in keeping with his commitment to fresh juice at all times, he replaces the canned sour mix with freshly squeezed lemon juice, balanced with a little simple (sugar) syrup. It’s not bad at all — though given the drink’s boozy baggage, I can’t say I could bring myself to order one, even if I could expect it to be made to DeGroff’s specifications.
Is the Long Island Iced Tea, as DeGroff asserts, a modern classic? I guess so, at least when “classic” doesn’t necessarily imply approbation. I don’t like brutalist architecture, but that doesn’t mean the FBI headquarters in Washington isn’t a classic of that particular modern style. You could say that the Long Island Iced Tea is a classic of alcohol-brutalized frat-boy style. But there is no doubt that many outside the US regard it as an iconically American quaff. When the Washington Post did an article on the young call centre workers of Gurgaon a few years ago, it found the 20-somethings liked to relax at the local TGI Friday’s, dressed in Levi’s and ordering Long Island Iced Teas by calling for “LIT”.
If something is going to be a symbol of American taste and style, then the only thing to do is to make the best of it. In a strange way, making the Long Island Iced Tea drinkable may be one of DeGroff’s more valuable contributions to the cocktail bar.
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