Washington D.C. bar owner and bartender Derek Brown ruffled some feathers in the craft cocktail community when he wrote an essay imploring bartenders to stop making so many new drinks.
"People tend bar for six months and then start making muddy, convoluted drinks that aren't that enjoyable," Brown says via phone from Washington D.C. "Instead of reaching out to (customers), it's about them as the artist. ... In the end, you are trying to satisfy people. You are trying to make something great."
Brown advised bartenders to learn nine classic cocktails for every new one they put on a menu. He's not against creativity; he's saying the way to improve bartending is for bartenders to immerse themselves in the traditions and knowledge of the craft in order to better understand what works.
"When chefs start to cook, they don't start with their own recipes," Brown says. "People have to study and practice and learn before they start making cocktails. There might be useful experiments, but it's not something you should make people pay for."
He also puts drinking in perspective. The craft cocktail movement hit broad recognition in the last decade. The word cocktail first appeared in print more than 200 years ago. But mixing drinks has been around for thousands of years, he says. It's a subject he'll discuss at a seminar called "Paleococktails."
"The cocktail, or mixed drinks, were part of the human experience for a long time," Brown says. "When people mix a cocktail, they have to recognize that this was done thousands of years ago. Some say that the oldest profession was prostitution, but I think it must have been bartender."
Brown cites several accounts of ancient imbibing. A drink combining barley water, wine, honey and botanicals is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Scholarship suggests there may have been distillation in Mexico long before the Spanish arrived with stills. University of Pennsylvania biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern has documented alcoholic beverages in China dating to 7,000 B.C.
"Pottery comes in more than 10,000 years ago," Brown says. "Before that they drank out of skins or vessels that were biodegradable."
The consumption of fermented beverages may have gone back much further.
Tales of the Cocktail events typically don't involve experts from the fields of anthropology or archeology, and the more recent history of distillation and bartending is a much more common focus. Unlike other bar and service industry conventions featuring equipment, bar design and promotional strategies, Tales is a conference for craft cocktail bartenders, spirits writers and consultants, and liquor companies introducing and promoting products.
Seminars and events run the gamut from educational to promotional, and there are parties, dinners with paired food and drinks, and competitions. Brown will judge a competition based on the rickey, Washington D.C.'s signature drink (like New Orleans' sazerac).
Based on feedback from the 2012 event, Tales founder and director Ann Tuennerman and the programming committee scheduled more educational events this year. The festival has a four-part series of seminars for bartenders to learn about the distillation of several spirits. There's also a series of seminars and events about vermouth, an aromatic fortified wine used in many craft cocktails. Another commonly requested topic was information on tequila.
Tequila also has roots dating back thousands of years, and there are several seminars on it, inluding a highly anticipated one called "Agave Amigos: A Rare Agave Spirit Tasting," a showcase of experts and spirits.
Tequila and mezcal expert Clayton Szczech lives in Portland, Ore., and spends half the year leading tours or researching agave spirits in Mexico.
"I have learned that tequila and other agave spirits are what many craft bartenders drink when they are off the clock," Szczech says. "It's their interest that's driving interest (in tequila)."
Tequila is a legally defined spirit in Mexico and the only distillate that's exported on a global scale. The U.S. recently overtook Mexico in annual consumption of tequila, and together, the nations consume 90 percent of the annual supply, Szczech says.
But tequila is one of many mezcals, a name that means cooked agave, Szczech says. While there is a legal definition and state regulations for tequila, culturally and historically, it falls in with a wide array of spirits distilled from agave plants, of which there are many varieties, he adds. The American market is showing increased preference for blue agave tequilas, which means those in which all sugar converted to alcohol comes from agave plants. Mixto versions allow for up to 49 percent of converted sugars to come from another source, such as corn or high fructose corn syrup.
Szczech spends much of his time exploring rarer spirits. He estimates that half the annual yield of agave spirits come from certified producers, because most produce very small quantities that are consumed locally. He likens it to European countries populated with many small vineyards. Appreciating the array of spirits is less about bar industry than culture, he says.
"It's a privilege to participate in the consumption of these spirits," he says. "They have centuries-long ritual history; they have a place in the cultural and spiritual life of these communities. They aren't cranked out year after year in industrial fashion. Agave from a 20-year-old plant is gone after you drink it. You wouldn't want to put that in a margarita."