London authour and bartending expert Darcy O’Neil spoke with Indulge Magazine to discuss our current state of drink culture.
INDULGE MAGAZINE: For those who are not familiar with your story, what is your background as a “mixologist” or bartender, and what prompted your interest in getting started in the trade?
Many years ago I thought about becoming a chef but opted to study chemistry instead. About 10 years ago I decided to take up a bartending job and discovered that I enjoyed it. From there I started writing about it and it gained traction and have been doing it ever since.
IM: What fascinates you most about pre-Prohibition bartending? What do you see as the reason for its resurgence in popularity? What are the lessons that we can learn from using older recipes and ingredients? Is it a trend, or what will be the long-term effect on bartending?
The fascinations comes from the idea of tasting history. What did these old drinks taste like and what can we learn from them? There’s only one way to answer that question, and that’s by delving into the topic and doing the research.
I think the resurgence of classic cocktails happened because there was a trend towards quality, be it food, wine or beer. After prohibition the quality of cocktails declined extremely rapidly, as there were very few bartenders left who knew how to make a good drinks.
Bartenders who have embraced the idea of quality cocktails have had to look back to the pre-prohibition era to see how good cocktails we made.
I suspect that classic cocktails are here to stay. Once people taste a great cocktail, it is hard to go backwards.
IM: How can historical flavours and ingredients be used with more modern liqueurs and other techniques and/or technology to improve tasting pleasure for today’s drinker? What is the direction modern bartending is taking?
For decades there was basically a top 50 list of familiar cocktails that people would order (Cosmopolitan, Amaretto Sour, Killer Koolaid, etc.). In the world of wine and even beer, that seems to be a very small sample of drinks, and that is true for cocktails as well. The use of new or historical ingredients expands the flavour spectrum of cocktails and gives people an opportunity to experience something new and usually much better.
A lot of bartenders have embraced bartending as a viable profession. Because of this, they are putting the effort into creating interesting cocktails and taking the idea of customer service to a much higher level.
IM: How do you perceive the state of the drinks trade and bartending in London? Any good stories? How are we different than other cities?
O’NEIL: London’s cocktail scene is pretty much unchanged from the 1990s. Obviously students play a role, as their budgets are geared more for the lower end of the price spectrum, but eventually things will get better. Many cities through North America have at least one bar that is working on classic cocktails, or at least not specializing in candy flavoured martini’s.
IM: Tell us about your experience at Tales of the Cocktail and how you first got started with the festival. You have presented at Tales of the Cocktail before; what did you speak about this year and what about previously?
Tales of the Cocktail is an annual 5 day event held in New Orleans that brings bartenders and industry people from around the globe to celebrate and learn about cocktails and everything drink related. I have been going since 2007 and have presented at least one session every year, but usually 2 or 3.
This year I co-presented one session on Taste & Aging that explained how taste changes as we get older. Some of it is the physiological effects of aging, while other parts are psychological. For example, our ability to taste does decline as we age, so we seek out stronger flavours. However, we also get bored of drinking the same things so we look for new experiences. These types of sessions help bartenders size up guests before they sit at the bar, and knowing about your guests can only improve customer service.
Most of my presentations are either scientific (science of taste) and I also do a fair amount of historical research, mostly on old soda fountain drinks from the 1800s.
IM: Why is Tales of the Cocktail so well regarded with bartenders? What do enthusiasts get out of attending besides a splitting headache the morning after?
Tales is an event that first started off with a handful of bartenders and drink writers talking about cocktails. Every year it has grown, and in the last few years substantially. The core part of Tales is still about learning, whether it’s about new spirits, old cocktails or new techniques. The other aspect is that it gives bartenders or writers a chance to mingle and talk to the people who’ve inspired them and share their knowledge that way. Since many of the speakers are, or have been, bartenders they tend not to sequester themselves in their hotel room and are very comfortable spending time talking with anyone and everyone. It is part of the bartender job description.
This social attitude creates a unique opportunity for new bartenders and writers as they get a chance to talk to the people that are driving the industry.
IM: What other projects do you have on the go at the moment?
O’NEIL: I’ve just started writing my second book. It’s cocktail related, but not necessarily a recipe book, nor is it historical, it’s something new. It should be interesting. Besides that I’ve been working on a long lost aromatic bitters recipe, the one believed to be used in the original Manhattan cocktail, as well as promoting and selling old soda fountain ingredients like Acid Phosphate. I also have a few other ideas in the pipeline. I’m never short on ideas, just short on time.
Interview by A.Paul Mitchell