Changing of the times: Michael Butt

Michael Butt

28 June 2017

An impending Significant Birthday sees our columnist reflecting on changes in taste and fashion

Sometime between the inevitably late submission of this column and its publication I will enter my fourth decade.

This horrendous milestone will undoubtedly be accompanied by much gnashing of teeth, along with a probable never-to-be-used gym membership and possible (lottery-dependent) purchase of an unsuitable sports car or motorbike.

This reminder of tragically inevitable progress towards dribbling incoherence, physical infirmity and often uncontrolled emissions – a set of conditions I can fairly accurately model now with just a couple of pints – got me thinking about both the changes that have happened to the drinks industry during my two decades of active participation and also the changes that have occurred to my palate during those brilliant years.

A famous tincture tailor put me in the ‘first generation’ of modern bartending. And although his assertion that we are now in the fifth and my relevance is, therefore, similar to that of the calcified bones of a parasaurolophus is debatable (I would hope for at least a coelacanth), it is undeniable that the progression through generations has been remarkably rapid.

That these stages pass so quickly is a reflection on the (still unfortunately) transient nature of careers in the industry. But it’s also true that bartending skills have grown at an almost exponential rate over my career. Obviously the internet has played a part, but technological advances in manufacturing on
a small scale and the now-cemented primacy of the requirement of ‘brand’ have been important factors too.

We have an industry where ideas built on sand have deservedly been washed away

First generationers like myself rediscovered freshness. Number two’s realised the importance of sourcing the best possible version of an ingredient, and started the brand ball rolling. Thirds couldn’t wait and made ingredients themselves, a satisfyingly large number of which are now available for everyone to buy. 4G was all about theatrics, both in personal and drink presentation, while our current generation understand that PR of both their own skills and, more importantly, recipes will start to really add to the contemporary classic cocktail canon.

Each step has been built on the foundations of the last, and like any good construction, these foundations have been checked to make sure they are sound. We have an industry where ideas built on sand have deservedly been washed away.

I am proud that my small contribution down the bottom of the knowledge pyramid allows the current crop to stand on the shoulders of giants. I am hopeful, too, that the quest for knowledge and improvement that has driven the evolution of the industry so far is strong enough to prevent a politics-like U-turn into ‘Fake bartending’ but we must be vigilant.

If I have learnt one thing about taste and flavour in my time in the industry, it is that personalisation is a requirement for perfection, and, significantly, that what makes a perfect drink
for me has changed down the years.

My ‘sweet tooth’, like the real ones, has eroded, changing my personal recipe for every sour drink, although, thanks to my dentist, cold drinks are not yet painful. My enjoyment of the taste of neat alcohol, like capsaicin, has increased, due to tolerance and a dulling of my senses. The flavour of peat smoke has become almost retch-inducingly unpleasant due to a single instance of massive overconsumption, which has made the fact that I can now, finally, actually enjoy coffee – most convenient.

None of these changes could I have predicted, nor, I now believe, even comprehended during earlier years, and I hope for people less decrepit than me that my revelations will encourage consideration of where a customer is on their particular taste journey and more patience to help them on the way.

Oh, and I now like bitter. I just hope that I don’t become it.

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