Opinion: Variety is part of the game

Michael Butt

01 June 2016

Variety is part of the game – but some versions need to be sacrosanct, says Michael Butt

In the late 1990s, Giovanni Burdi invented a cocktail called the Mitch Martini – a truly delicious drink: Zubrowka vodka with hints of apple, peach and passion fruit. At its best it was almost a sweet equivalent of the Dry Martini; a drink that was all about the main spirit, that didn’t work as well with anything else. It had a complex yet delicate aroma plus a lingering finish provided by the modifiers.

Perception of a drink can be influenced, and since this drink was created in the supposed halcyon days at the beginning of the modern cocktail revolution, it’s possible that my view is rose-tinted. But even though I’m wary of bestowing ‘modern classic’ status on creations (this is achieved by consensus, not championing), for me, this cocktail should be at a level where the ingredients are set in stone.

When presented with the untitled recipe, many bartenders reach instinctively for citrus, the presence of two sweet ingredients seemingly requiring it. Shake the ingredients with lemon juice and indeed the final concoction is delicious, particularly if the ratios are adjusted. And a splash of dry sparkling wine on top of the original recipe, also to temper the sweetness, makes a wonderful spritz.

But neither is a Mitch Martini.

Cocktail evolution is a fact; one as self-evident (and for the same reasons) as Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I would be the worst kind of Luddite to deny it.

For starters, cocktail consumers have matured, and their requirements for a drink have changed, with sourer, more spirituous and shorter drinks becoming acceptable.

Plus the selection of high-quality available ingredients has expanded, making historical practices such as muddling cherries and oranges to make an Old Fashioned fall out of favour, as there’s no need to mask the spirit quality.

Spirit brands, meanwhile, have realised that they need to obtain ownership of recipes already in the public consciousness and have released huge amounts of information ‘authenticating’ their possession.

The result? As the number of bartenders increasing their historical knowledge and experimenting with recipes from the past has grown, so the number of variations and adaptations that can all be most easily described by a referral to the original drink has mushroomed to almost un-catalogue-able levels.

Soon, like Mr Darwin, we will need to sub-divide our drinks into phylum, class, order and species just to make sense of them.

There are only so many good names, and far fewer than there are combinations of ingredients that deserve them. For instance, I have tasted seven Bitter and Twisteds, all with different ingredients.

There is no issue with this. Cocktail names, like shirt numbers in basketball, are only retired when they have been occupied by greatness. And although the Campari, passion fruit, lime and burnt grapefruit version of the B and T was supreme, unfortunately it hasn’t grabbed the attention of enough people to make it the command recipe. Why, then, the Mitch Martini moan?

Due to the transient nature of our industry and the ephemeral nature of cocktail fashions, a recipe is one of the few chances for anyone to leave a legacy; a stamp denoting the hours polishing and cleaning and unblocking toilets concomitant with a tenure behind the bar.

It might get into a book, be featured as a winner in this magazine or just appear on an old seasonal menu, the last copy of which you keep safely at home, but it means something.

If we all make the effort to do contemporary research as much as we pore over Jerry Thomas, have the courtesy to reference borrowed creations, to explain adaptations – even if it’s just the use of the ‘No 2’ – and take the time to understand the drink in the eyes of the creator, then we can strengthen all our legacies and build a stronger community from them.

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