In the Drink

Bitter Vs. Sweet

Examining opposite ends of cocktail spectrum


Americans are born extremists, and our drinking habits show it. We swill like inmates sprung from death row, then repent like saintly teetotalers. We birthed Prohibition, and recanted with the three-martini lunch. Nowadays, though, it’s not one extreme that dominates, but a schism between two: People perceive sugar as a drink’s best friend, or anathema to it.

In a cartoonish showdown, the anti-sugar camp is on the attack, and newly so. Curmudgeonly drinkers have long scoffed at sweet drinks, but only lately have tastemakers and bullies championed the cause with vigor. They spurn any drinks even rumored to be sweet, and mock the people who order them. Cocktail menus teem with drinks not just un-sweet but Sahara-dry and obnoxiously bitter.

Consider the poor martini, which has arrived at sad ruination thanks to sugar opposition. An ideal balance of astringency and sweetnessbin its original, 19th-century form, the martini once earned praise from H.L. Mencken as
“the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Crucially, it featured a fair detente between dry, botani cal gin and sweet, heady vermouth, poured in equal parts. (If one had to be excessive about things, three parts gin to one part vermouth was acceptable.) Gradually, though, imbalance crept in and vermouth trickled out. By the 2000s, Winston Churchill’s famously outlandish preference – a glassful of gin, hold the vermouth – had become the new, diminished normal.

Why “diminished,” and not just “different?” To paraphrase cocktail authority Derek Brown, gin absent vermouth is no more a martini than a cow’s leg is a steak. It is unfinished and unbalanced, which are qualities any worthwhile tipple – and not just cocktails – should avoid.

Nonetheless, certain zealots have embraced the bone-dry drink as an empirical ideal, for reasons both defensible and wooly-brained. Bar maven John “J.R.” Richard, the man behind the Avery, has a few explanatory hunches. Partially, he says, an anti-sweet impulse reacts against a dumbing down of American drinkers’ tastes. Rather than embracing alcohol on its own terms, we’ve been conditioned to mask it with colors and flavors more appropriate for juice boxes than adult beverages. As a friend recently wondered aloud in mock-horror, regarding – shudder – a new, Swedish Fish-flavored vodka, “Is there no limit to the depths of human depravity?”

But more than a matter of dumb tastes, sweet booze is associated with – not to mince words – poor judgement, which J.R. neatly sums up in a working theory. “The more TVs in a bar,” he contends, “the sweeter the drinks.” To reject sweet, then, is to reject dumb.

Less defensibly, it’s also to reject femininity, which is unfairly yoked to saccharine drinks. In a masculine affair like boozing, sweetened alcohol is perceived as the thing that non-drinkers sip to play along, while real drinkers, manly drinkers, chug down chest-thumping rotgut. Or so goes the flawed logic, anyhow.

Now, to oppose sugary drinks on grounds of smarts and toughness isn’t thoroughly rotten. Not thoroughly. Those suppositions hold grains of truth, and there’s plenty wrong with treacly booze. Problematically, though, this strategy creates new problems as it fixes others. It forgets that quenching thirst should be about instinct and pleasure, not principle and dogma. Whims happen, no? Or, as someone on a neighboring barstool once slurred to me, “Sometimes I just want a Jack and Coke, minus the stink-eye.”

Opportunities abound to lose dignity at the bar, and a drink choice shouldn’t be one of them. But let’s stop this line before it dissolves in freedom-of-choice pablum, shall we? As history and politics demonstrate – or they would if we paid closer attention – the average sod makes terrible choices with unwarranted confidence. We’re a sorry lot who only think we know what’s best.

Enter the barkeep to save us from ourselves. With a pro behind the bar, we can keep our whims, but make better choices to satisfy them. (This assumes that the barkeep is capable, so choose wisely.) As J.R. explains, a good bartender will talk to customers, and make them a drink based upon their stated tastes. Since most bartenders appreciate balance as key to the best drinks, either/or polarities are handily averted. Want dry? Sure, but you’ll be talked out of a Churchill-style glassful of gin, and be better for it. Want sweet? Fine, but the barkeep will offer something that trounces the candy-colored faux-tini you thought you wanted. Take the Avery’s “Better Alexander,” for example: A riff on the Brandy Alexander, it’s made with good brandy and a sweetened, spiced rum splashed with cream. It’s certainly sweet, but far from dumb or weak.

Uncomfortable with compromise, or placing control in an expert’s hands? Well, then, I can’t help you. Have your drink that tastes as bitter as sorrow, and leave less for the rest of us.