Under the influence
how 'Cocktail' inspired a generation
The film Cocktail is 20 years young this year, and with so many kids now wearing clothes straight out of the 80s, it seemed the perfect time for Tom Sandham to re-visit the movie that has inspired a generation of bartenders
It could have been Tom Cruise’s wet-look hair, or the filthy soundtrack featuring 80s-tastic hits such as Starship’s Wild Again and Brian Palmer’s Addicted to Love. But the reason Cocktail is still talked about two decades on probably has far more to do with the drinks – and some killer lines.
Walk into a bar and you’re still likely to hear an idiot punter saying: ‘Who do you think you are: Tom Cruise?’ Or a bartender declare: ‘The bartender is the aristocrat of the working classes’ – a quote taken from an arsenal of mesmerising quotes by Doug Coughlin, the movie’s cocktail guru.
Another exchange has the hero, Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise), bemoaning: ‘The waitresses hate me.’ Coughlin comes back: ‘Wait until you give them crabs, then you’ll really know what hatred is.’
So there’s still a lot of affection for the movie and pretty much every bartender out there will have seen it.
To discuss its merits, I made for west London’s Portobello Star, where the team are always ready to fire up the relevant 80s anthems and bang out a Three Toed Sloth or two (or three).
It came as no surprise to hear that the Star’s owner, Jake Burger, knows the Last Bartender poem by rote – he’s clearly a worshipper of the moment when Cruise belts out an ‘impromptu rhyme’ at the Cell Block bar.
‘Cell Block wasn’t a real bar, you know,’ Burger informs me. He’s satisfyingly wealthy in his Cocktail knowledge. ‘The first place he works with Doug – Baker Street, that is – was the original TGI Friday’s.’
I knew this, having visited it with Burger and three other Cocktail fans, bar consultants Alex Turner, Nidal Ramini and Beau Myers, courtesy of Woodford Reserve.
‘I first saw the film when I was 16,’ Burger recalls, wistfully. ‘I was working in a kitchen at the time at Ike’s Bistro, where there was a separate bar – the only cocktail bar in Leeds at the time. I used to sneak into the bar as it was a bit more glamorous than the kitchen and seemed to attract the good-looking women.
‘Cocktail made young bartenders
realise a career in bartending can
be very fruitful’ Wayne Collins
‘The beach bar is possibly every bartender’s dream; I still plan to open Jake’s Bar in Hawaii. But I’d never teach my staff to short pour for the customer… And Flanagan has a fight behind the bar – grounds for instant dismissal under the charge of gross misconduct. Plus he’s constantly trying to shag the customers, which is a bad idea – if it doesn’t work out they won’t come back.’
He adds: ‘There should be a sequel – Shia LaBeouf would play Brian Flanagan.’
As Burger points out, Cruise’s bar skills leave a lot to be desired. Watch closely and you’ll notice his desperate attempts to flair fall flat, while the blue drink he makes in Cell Block includes a fair amount of ice in a cocktail glass and half a pint of booze left in the shaker.
‘It’s funny that so many people after that would say they were trained by “the bloke who trained Tom Cruise in the film” – the training must have been shit,’ says Burger.
Maxxium mixologist Wayne Collins also feels passionately about the film’s role.
‘I’d just started working at a relative’s pub, which had uncanny parallels with Brian Flanagan’s situation,’ he says. ‘But Cocktail made me realise there was more to bartending than pulling pints and suddenly I had ambitions to travel. A job came up in Ayia Napa, Cyprus – not quite the Caribbean, but after a year I met Lee Chapel, a Coughlin-type character. Under his guidance I took a role at the Roadhouse in Covent Garden, famed for its flair bartending and cocktail making.
‘So I guess it made a lot of young bartenders of my generation sit up and realise that a career in bartending, if taken seriously, can be very fruitful.’
Collins’ Maxxium compatriot, Andy Gemmell, is another champion of the scene and has been hosting celebrations of the film in Glasgow and Leeds bars.
‘We run a course for young bartenders every year and we make sure we give everyone a copy to watch because, like it or not, it’s part of bartending history,’ says Gemmell.
Myers used some of the influences in the film for his latest menu at Manchester cocktail lounge Socio Rehab, and recognises a lot of the themes in his neighbour Mojo.
‘The film is tacky 80s cheese whizz at its best,’ says Myers. ‘It’s inspirational and full of banter but the novel (by Heywood Gould) had a deeper impact on me – a gritty, hilarious, tragic story with plenty of anecdotes, recipes and quips for your repertoire.’
Ramini also recognised the movie’s influence when he came into the industry. That was five years on from the release of the film, but its themes were still there.
‘I started at a Friday’s in Mill Hill and it was still all about Cocktail,’ says Nidal. ‘Not the drinks so much, more the flair, the chat and the birds.
‘When it comes to drinks, Tom Cruise makes something rank with Brian Brown – the Turquoise Blue at the Cell Block. Does someone want to tell me how two bartenders serve 700 people and still have time to fuck about making rubbish blue drinks?
‘There’s a shot of Jim Beam at the end of the bartender poem and something tropical on Doug’s boat in Jamaica. So, not exactly inspiring, booze-wise, but it did make us all want to try to be him.’
As Ramini points out, the parts that focus on drinks run to about a quarter of the film. In the early scenes, Flanagan is asked to make a Sex on the Beach, an Alabama Slammer, a Pink Squirrel and a Friar Tuck. Meanwhile, his Last Bartender poem lists an Iced Tea, Kamikaze, Orgasm, Death Spasm, Singapore Sling and Ding-a-ling, among others. ‘To my knowledge Ding-a-ling didn’t exist; it was added for the rhyme,’ says Burger, who made his own version for the Jake’s Bar menu in Leeds (see below).
‘Doug emphasises the pitfalls
of our industry. You don’t want
to be the master, you want to
be Cruise’ Phil Jeffries
But after the first third, the film is largely made up of a tawdry love story, complete with shotgun wedding (a non-starter, frankly – if she didn’t go for dreamy Tom she clearly batted for the other side), and a rather distressing suicide.
The bits to cling to beyond the drinks, then, are Coughlin’s unforgettable quotes.
Asked if they should let a newly opened bottle of Louis XIII breathe, he says: ‘If it hasn’t breathed in 50 years it’s dead. Let’s just drink it.’
Many also revere Coughlin’s inimitable guidance on women: ‘When you see the colour of their panties, you know you’ve got talent.’
Yep, Coughlin is a bit of a legend. Of all his drink suggestions, the Red Eye certainly made its mark, and many bartenders continue to groan when it’s requested. But perhaps more notable is what he represents for those not wise to the ways of booze.
‘Flanagan is similar to us in that he acts like a free spirit and messes up his studies,’ says Bex Almqvist, bar manager at Notting Hill’s Lonsdale, who joined us at the Star along with Phil Jeffries, general manager at Lonsdale. ‘But he still works it out and does well with a career in a bar. Doug gives you the other side of things.’
Jeffries agrees: ‘Doug emphasises the pitfalls of our industry. In the end you know you don’t want to be the master, you want to be Cruise.’
‘I was three when the film came out,’ says Tom Vernon, general manager at the Portobello Star. ‘When I first started bartending I thought it was naff, but you start to hear a lot of people talk about it, watch it a few more times and you realise it’s iconic.
He sums it up nicely: ‘There are two types of people: those who love it, and those who say they hate it and are lying.’
Sounds like a Coughlin-ism to me – and amen to that.
THE BLUE MALIBU DAIQUIRI
by Tom Vernon
Garnish: Lime twist
Method: Shake with ice and strain
- 52.3ml Malibu
- 23.8ml blue curaçao
- 24ml lime juice
- 0.1ml dilution
(measures adapted for millennial mixologists)
by Jake Burger
Garnish: Apple fan
Method: Shake with ice and strain
- 1.5 shots El Jimador tequila
- 3/4 shot Giffard crème de mûres
- 0.5 shot Giffard grenadine
- 0.5 shot lemon juice
- 3/4 shot Eager apple juice
So what 80s drinks have stood the test of time?
Phil Jeffries, GM, Lonsdale
‘The Iced Tea is probably the only one to stay the test over the years, though I remember a lot of Grasshoppers when I worked with Blanch House’s Chris Edwardes.’
Wayne Collins, mixologist, Maxxium
‘The Red Eye was a new one to me, although it wasn’t to my taste! It intrigued me more than anything at the time… Making cocktails with eggs!?’
Andy Gemmell, mixologist, Maxxium
‘The movie gave way to a trend in disco drinks, which at the time was great. Things have moved on, although they’re still being enjoyed the world over.’
Nidal Ramini, director, PM Bars
‘All of the Friday’s stuff that we made was sours mix and Malibu! But I’d like to see the FBI (Frozen Black Irish) make a comeback – vodka, kahlua, Baileys and vanilla ice cream.’
Beau Myers, owner, Socio Rehab and Keko Moku
‘For so long, I used the recipe and method described in the book, to the letter, for my Zombies – it won me a cult following. It’s a layered affair and well worth looking up.’
‘I am the second Last Bartender poet’
A variation on the theme by Jake Burger
(ably assisted by Bex Almqvist)
I see bartenders drinking all the agave syrup I got
They’re getting ruined on Soco and peach schnapps shots
On the Mojito and Sloth with Three Toes
The Bramble and the Vodka Red Bull
I make them Westbourne Grove Negronis
And anything deconstructed and foamy
A bottle of gomme, And a Jäger Bomb
The Tommy’s Margarita
Followed by an eight litre Mo-he-ta
A Daiquiri Nuclear
And a Breakfast Beer
Drinkers of Portobello Road you’re off your face
But if you want a fancy drink then go to Montgomery Place
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - September / October 2009