Calling Bullshit On The 'Modern' Cocktail

There are only 5 drinks you need, says Sam Parker, and a 'Brain Salad Surgery' isn't one of them

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Drinking, I’ve often thought, is a bit like sex.

When you’re a teenager you’ll take anything, regardless of whether you actually enjoy it. The point is the illicit thrill. Trying your first four pack of beer is likely to end a bit like losing your virginity: prematurely, followed by a flurry of embarrassed apologies.

In early adulthood, it’s all about excess and experimentation – whether it’s with fine wine, exotic spirits or that discount cider from Londis that makes your gums bleed. You try as much as you can, and as often as humanly possible.

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With age, though, you really ought to have figured out what it is you like and become proficient at seeking it out, which is what brings me to the strangely infantilising, utterly ingratiating world of ‘modern’ cocktails.

British cities are awash with bars, restaurants and – worst of all – ‘pop ups’ promising menus of new and exclusive drinks that are, invariably, the ‘brainchild’ of their ‘resident mixologist’ – drinks, in other words, that have been made up, often in the past six months.

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Here is what happens when you visit one of these places.

You show up and are presented with a slim, leather-bound book with a list of drinks either six or sixty entries in length (never anything in between).

All have ridiculous names that sound like prog rock albums from the 1970s, and all include a list of ingredients so numerous and obscure your brain is no more capable of projecting how they might taste than it is of advanced algebra.

Stumped and increasingly anxious, you either pick one based on some vague preference for the name, like it’s the Grand National, or ask the waiter for their recommendation, who dutifully points at random and says “that one is quite nice”.

Some 15-20 minutes later, when the thing finally arrives, you discover your Waterloo Lily (Caravan, ‘72) or Brain Salad Surgery (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, ’73) is four gulps in size and – despite the billowing smoke, prohibition teacup or whatever other presentational gimmick is on offer – just tastes a bit like fruit.

“Mmmm,” you’re obliged to say, eyes widening. “It’s really… fruity”. It’s also £14, thanks very much, and time to move onto the wine.

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In a wider sense, the phenomenon of the over-complicated cocktail menu is of course a microcosm of the great dilemma of our bloated age: that is, to paraphrase the American psychologist Barry Schwartz, the paralysis of choice.

We’ve devised so many options for ourselves that we’re permanently frozen, staring at an empty Spotify search bar, flicking endlessly through films on Netflix or – indeed – gawping dumbly at strange words in a leather-bound book while a waiter stands stiffly by.

There are, in actual fact, only five cocktails a person needs, and they’ve been around forever. A negroni for lunch. A martini before dinner. An old fashioned when you need a stiff drink. A margarita for when you’re on holiday. And a bloody Mary, for the morning after.

Every spirit covered, every occasion catered for. At a push you could throw in a manhattan for when you’ve exhausted the others, or a mojito for when you’re in a place that looks incapable of much else – although the Cuban highball has a lot to answer for in this debate, being the great gateway cocktail of choice for 18-year-olds – but really, that’s it.

Otherwise what we’re really participating in is the charade that the barman is as talented and important as the chef, that ten million years hasn’t been long enough to devise all the ways to drink alcohol that are worth bothering with, and that you, my friend, still haven’t figured out what you want and how to ask for it. Which in drinking, much like sex, is kind of the point.

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