Behind every great cocktail are a few rounds of tests — and perhaps even a few rounds of failure. Rare is the burst of inspiration that comes fully formed and translates as beautifully in the glass as it looks in one’s mind. Any creative person has to be prepared to roll with the punches and learn from mistakes, because they’re around every corner. As bartender and Bols representative Natasha Velez says, “We have a really great job when we can push the boundaries of science, fun and opportunity.” Pushing those boundaries isn’t always easy, but sometimes it can make for a great story. In the spirit of recognizing how necessary these misfires are to creativity, we asked a few great bartenders for their best stories of memorable trial and error.
Natasha Velez, Madam Geneva:
“There was this one time I was having a conversation with a peer and mentioned I was trying to make a mole poblano syrup and wanted to try to clarify it. It seemed simple: agar clarification, cone-strained twice? What could go wrong?” A lot, apparently. “Oily matter was left behind, but it was significantly less black — in fact, it now was light pink. I go ahead and ‘fat wash’ and then clarify, no dice. From there to the point when I gave up, I tried different things but either the flavor didn’t come through enough, the color was not right, or there would be oil still sneaking through. At the end, I ended giving up because it maybe just wasn’t meant to be.”
Nick Bennett, Porchlight:
“The one that I really remember — or that I’m not really allowed to forget — is that I was making a drink for a girl that I was dating when I was working over at Amor y Amargo using a new product that had just come through. It was a sarsaparilla flavored — an interesting flavor — and I wanted to play with it more. It was whiskey, the sarsaparilla root and some other bitter elements. I presented it to the girl, and she hated it — absolutely hated it. She said, ‘This is the worst drink I have ever had.’ That girl is now my fiancée and has never forgotten how bad that cocktail was. When we talk about me testing new cocktails with our friends, it will inevitably come up in conversation.”
Jordan Felix, Multnomah Whiskey Library:
“The one story for me that jumps up for this question was a time I was trying to do something fun for a bar I ran in Melbourne, Australia. After recently visiting PDT in New York, I wanted to recreate Don Lee’s famous Benton’s Old Fashioned, in which you fat wash the bourbon with bacon fat. I decided I wanted to create a pancetta-fat-washed Fanciulli cocktail (bourbon or rye, sweet vermouth and fernet). I cooked off the pancetta, poured the fat into the bottle of bourbon, and then froze it per instructions. The first bottle exploded in the freezer with oily bourbon soaking all the insides of the freezer. I cleaned it out and then, determined, tried it again. Successfully, the fat congealed and I was able to get the final product out of three bottles. What I failed to understand was that pancetta oil is finer than bacon fat. The product ended up tasting like candle wax. Boooo! In an attempt to not waste all the product (and so my owner wouldn’t yell at me), I created a cocktail called The Beast with a lot of honey, sweet vermouth and Amari. We sold five cocktails.”
Richard Woods, SUSHISAMBA:
“I’ve had drinks before, one in particular, that were very much ‘on the fence’ drinks — equally liked and disliked. After a few weeks of trial and error, it was finally decided to remove it from the list. But convinced that there was something in it, I stored the recipe in one of my many notebooks, as I knew this wasn’t the last time this would be seen of. The drink was called the Astoria cocktail and had elements of the Waldorf salad, namely celery, walnut and blue cheese. Three months later I created a Celery & Wasabi Bellini using one of the elements within the original Astoria cocktail. It made the final cut in the Duck & Waffle book and is probably one of the most popular Bellinis we have ever had at Duck. Then later that year, I entered a global competition creating an imaginative collaboration of blue cheese and chocolate, disguised as a dry gin martini. This was inspired by another part of the failed Astoria cocktail, but itself went on to be another popular cocktail.
I believe that you only fail spectacularly if you give up. Giving up is a conscious decision, but failing to achieve the results you want is a side effect of being creative and always wanting to push further. Nothing great that was ever achieved was created through immediate triumph, but through repetitive failure.”