Michael Butt: Playing the name game

Michael Butt

16 September 2016

You owe it to your creations, your cocktail legacy and your menu readers not to play the stupid name game, says Michael Butt

It genuinely pains me to say it, but I once came second in a cocktail competition. To a drink with a silly name. A drink that won because of the silly name.

The 'Melondramatic' involved Woodford Reserve and Midori in the same glass, and although not as disgusting as it sounds, it was never destined to be anything more than a publisher's mark on the cocktail roll of honour.

Mel, the creator of the Melondramatic, had, about 10 years before it became a trend, deployed a genuine double pun, with both her name and the fruit modifier shoehorned on to the title line, but aside from a mild (slightly forced, if I am honest) titter, the drink was not destined to become a great seller.

Like many reverse-engineered drinks, from either a title or a specific role to be filled, the result was disappointing. With the tenuous-but-required connection hampering creativity, it was almost impossible to produce a work of genius.

Then the world went mental (in cocktail names fun da' mental) with some of the worst, most forced puns and plays on words employed to describe drinks that had almost certainly not reached their full potential. This is because someone wanted to call them Quince Charming or the 42 Below Job.

Menus read like the track listing of a navel-gazing teenage indie band

Cocktail menus read like the track listing of a navel-gazing teenage indie band from public school, trying to replace musical talent with a preening display of intellect.

A name is meant to be evocative, building anticipation of an experience deeper and more meaningful than the mere consumption of a beverage. Like the first soliloquy in a play setting the scene, or the action sequence at the beginning of a Bond movie whetting the appetite for the explosions to follow, the name is the first part of the appreciation of the libation.

Pressures from supporting brands have compounded the problem. The motivation of money to sacrifice title space often has the same effect on the credibility of your bar as Mike Ashley does on football – St James' Park rolls off the tongue so much better than the Sports Direct Arena.

The unseemly rush for brands to 'take ownership' of well-named classic cocktails leads inevitably to the Painkiller™ and the Dark 'n' Stormy™.

This creates a situation where customers end up having less choice, and more difficulty deciphering which of the renamed drinks on the menu is the classic made with off reservation spirit. The pettiness of even thinking of enforcing these trademarks does the brand, and brands in general, no favours.

Is there any coincidence in the fact that the Cosmopolitan, Bramble and Penicillin are some of the most famous drinks in the world, even though the first two have some obvious failings? (Fans of the late, great Dick Bradsell would be well advised to drink a Wibble instead.)

The Cosmopolitan appeals to the urban sophisticate wannabe in all of us, in a secret-lover-of-Sex-in-the-City sort of way. Meanwhile the Bramble transports us to a halcyon dream of late summer hedgerows, and the Penicillin projects an idea of hedge medicine, with honey, ginger and lemon, and the preparation of something medicinal with the scotch.

Although most would be pushed to describe a Sangaree, the Swizzle, Crush, Fizz and Julep are known enough to give both the unimaginative customer and bartender a hand. A dull, descriptive name fulfils at least one half of its purpose: to aid ordering.

If the drink is good enough we forgive the lack of linguistic sizzle – and from a man saddled with an 'interesting' name, you owe it to your creations, your cocktail legacy and your menu readers not to play the stupid name game.

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