We at the Speaking Easy Podcast struggled a bit with releasing a post like this. It can be hard to talk about great drinks and the ingredients that make up those great drinks, without sounding a bit like a cocktail snob. We, and many other home bartenders, obsess over the difference between one vermouth or the other one, and talk about the essential oils in a lemon as if we needed to elaborate. Frankly, it’s just hard to say the word “aperitif” without seeming like you’re subtly trying to tell someone “I know a word in Italian, and you don’t.”
So how do you walk that fine line between just being someone who enjoys learning about, trying, and making drinks, and someone who is unpleasant to be around? We think we’ve picked up a few things in our usual manner—trial and error (mostly error)—that can help you stay away from being “that guy.”
Defeating The Cocktail Snob Name
One of the guests on our podcast dropped a line that’s stuck with us about snobbery in cocktails: “The difference between a cocktail snob and an enthusiast is how you make other people feel.” We couldn’t agree more. So how do we actually do that, as home bartenders?
Before we get to that, let’s start with what makes a great professional bartender. In many of the best cocktail bars in the world, a bartender is multiple people simultaneously: they are a host, a server, and a friend (the best conversations are with bartenders). They are there when you’re sad and when you’re celebrating. They are ever-present, making a drink just for you; but they also can leave your presence so that you can contemplate alone or be with your friends. A truly great bartender is many things to many people, and all at the same time.
In a way, the best home bartenders are not the same; the home bartender is your friend, and you want them to be around while they are making drinks—you don’t want them to disappear once you get your order. As a home bartender, it’s your job to both make a party go well, but also to be present at the party. The stakes for the quality of the drinks aren’t as high, because (unless you have weird friends) you’re not charging money for the drinks. As a home bartender, you want to teach your friends about drinks, because that’s who you’re drinking with. And knowing something about Chartreuse or how many kinds of gin there are can be a cool thing to bring up at a party.
So What Do You Do?
First things first, like our very smart guest said—snobbery is based on how you make people feel. We’ve had guests come over and ask for a “sweet vodka drink,” which isn’t something we really would ever want. But we make the drink, and ask for their honest opinion. If you’re lucky, someone will tell you how they really feel about it, and you can use that for later—even if it is negative. This makes you a better host, and that’s really our goal at the Speaking Easy Podcast. We sum this up (in our list of 10 Ways to Be A Better Drinker) as “Trust Your Palette”—people are going to know what they like better than you will.
The flip side of trusting one’s palette is that “…But Trust Needs To Be Built”. This is where you can really shine as a host—expand your repertoire to include most of the major kinds of liquor, and get comfortable with how to create balance in a drink. This helps you avoid being a snob by not talking down about someone’s preferences, but rather, learning how to play on their preferences to a drink you’re more comfortable with. This is why we push the Sours family of drinks on novice home bartenders—because most palettes like some kind of sour, and because a sour is made with roughly the same proportions whether you’re using whiskey, brandy, vodka, gin, or something more exotic, like pisco. If you master that family (or another kind of drink), you can take someone’s preference and turn it into a drink that you reasonably feel will come out pretty well.
Ultimately, the best way you can avoid being a cocktail snob when making your friends drinks–get them involved in making their own drinks. This doesn’t just mean letting your friends go wild on your liquor cabinet*. Take them step-by-step through making the perfect Old Fashioned, or what your preferred ratio for a Martini is. Then have them make it. Sure, you’re making them work, but we all love playing bartender. And you break down the barrier—the bar—that keeps people from asking the pros for a little insight. Just remember that like a great whiskey, this will take time. So we guess you’ll have to have lots of parties. We’re okay with that idea.
(*Not recommended, unless you invite us.)