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In the elbow of Chinatown known as Doyers Street, "Bar Chef" Albert Trummer of Apotheke coats two champagne flutes in his homemade absinthe. The light is dim, an opera swells from the speaker system, and Trummer is positioned so that he is backlit by the kitchen window. The contents of the glass in his left hand explode in blue flame, and Trummer transfers the flaming liquid to the flute in his other hand with a dramatic flourish. For the big finish, Trummer uses the burning liquid to ignite a larger pyramid of flutes.
Button-downed businessmen at the bar bark their applause like a pack of seals. That suits Trummer: He brought Apotheke to New York after brewing his absinthe at Hollywood's Fraiche and does not shrink under stage lights. Though we're unsure what it has to do with making drinks, Trummer cites David Bowie as one of his main influences.
Some other members of the city's new breed of "mixologists" give a nod to rock stars as their inspiration. Or to movie bartender Tom Cruise. Or to hip-hop stars.
What about those people who say that "mixologists" are nothing more than self-inflated bartenders who are now able to charge you quadruple for your drinks? Just drink your drink.
New York chefs have long enjoyed the license to experiment with exotic flavors and fresh ingredients. Even a line cook can dream of reality TV fame. Wine, too, enjoys the prestige of rarified, top-dollar product. These esoteric bodies of knowledge determine service industry price points, and stroke the egos of consumers who majored in the humanities in college and give a damn about the origin of their spirits and ingredients.
Bars in New York now depend on their publicists to trumpet the intricacies of their cocktail menus and some news outlets even sort them according to schools of drink-making.
"Think of the booze industry compared to the eating industry in New York. People are so picky about what they eat but they don't care about what they drink," says Phillip Ward of Death & Co, where mixology is practiced and preached. "Too high a percentage of people in the city drink basically swill, and the marketing and stuff is basically teaching people how to drink swill."
It doesn't take much prompting to get Ward to pour out his heart: "A lot of booze companies are making dumbed-down booze for dumbed-down bartenders to make drinks for dumbed-down palates. What we're trying to do is change that and get people to start drinking better booze and drink it in a better way."
In the past, such problems as sexual inhibitions could be cured by a cheap highball, maybe even by a couple of $2 PBR's. But now life is apparently more complicated.
If the liquor's working, and if your eyes are squinty enough, you might just believe that you've been transported into a 16th century opium den, and that there are mysteries to be found at the bottom of your glass. Hopefully that sleepy-eyed mysticism survives your look at the check, and that you're sympathetic to the view that in addition to wetting your throat, you've also been entertained.
Or at least warmed. As the flames die down on Trummer's pyramid, the flutes are distributed. The result is a glass of lukewarm clear liquid that tastes like licorice-infused cane syrup.
You've just been mixologized. Dale DeGroff, author of The Essential Cocktail, claims to be the one to have revived the term "mixologist" from a 19th century book while researching classic American drinks to imitate at the Rainbow Room."I wanted to kind of draw attention to that," he says, "so I called myself a 'mixologist.' "
DeGroff knows that regular bartenders at regular bars scoff at the term, but he doesn't really care. "Now the young guys," he says, "are calling themselves 'bar chefs,' and they're doing the same things that I did, and they want people to know that they are doing culinary-style cocktails that are different from what other people are doing. Some older bartenders get pissed off at that term but hey, get a life. It's not that serious."
Philip Ward takes DeGroff's jab at naysayers one step further: "I basically think that they shouldn't have started calling good bartenders mixologists. They should have started calling regular bartenders something else, like 'drink machines' or—I saw a really good reference to them the other day: It was 'beverage transporter.'"
He contends that "a two-year-old could go back behind a bar and make a Stoli Vanilla and Coke, and a two-year-old could drink it too. There's no skill in that. There's really no reward in that."
Besides, that would be illegal.