So, the other day I did some writing about the tension between the care and time involved in making craft cocktails and the realities of putting a drink in front of everyone in the room that wants one. I did a lot of talking about how you need to figure out beforehand how you’re going to do that, and I figured an example might be helpful. So let’s talk about the Southside.
The Southside is a classic summer cocktail with gin, mint, lemon, orange, simple syrup and soda. It’s delicious and refreshing, the kind of thing you could kick back quite a few of on a warm afternoon and find yourself in a very convivial headspace. It’s also a tremendous pain in the ass to make. Here, I’ll run you through it:
Pour a half-ounce of simple syrup into a mixing glass. Add eight leaves of mint and press them with the muddler. Add one slice orange and one slice lemon and press again. Pour one and a half ounces of gin and cover with ice. Shake and (micro)strain over fresh ice. Top it with soda and garnish with a fresh mint sprig.
A few months ago, when the place I work redid the house cocktail list for spring and summer, the Beverage Manager for the company put the Southside on it.
Now from a manager’s perspective it’s a winner. People love mint cocktails, especially when it’s nice out, which even here in Seattle it manages to be with not unreasonable regularity, and the Southside is a really approachable drink while retaining that high-mixology cred that’s so hip right now (translation: fancy and non-fancy people alike will drink the shit out of that shit). It’s also a win from ownership’s perspective, because it’s basically a nine dollar shot of well gin (nothing else in the glass costs enough to matter when you buy in the kind of bulk we do). For the bar staff who actually have to make them in large numbers, well, let’s just say it doesn’t make our lives any easier.
(For what it’s worth, said Beverage Manager was also filling a shift at the bar for a while, and lived to rue his misjudgement)
So how do you make that work, aside from sheer badassery in the well? The answer, first and foremost, is prep. You have to set yourself up for success, start your shift with enough ready-to-mix ingredients to get you through til the end. The main problem, prep-wise, since your day person is already cutting citrus, is the mint. You have to pick the leaves off the stem up to a point and leave the top intact for garnish. Now in the restaurant we buy mint by the pound (way cheaper), and we probably turn half a bag to a bag on a busy night. So before I let my day person go, I make sure I have at least two full quart containers each of mint tops and tightly-packed mint leaves. I keep them stashed in the ice to keep them fresh, and they’re right there to hand when an order for a Southside comes in. We also upped the pars on lemon and orange slices, and found places to keep the oranges, which we were not previously worried about prepping. It all seems obvious but I’ve worked in and seen plenty of bars that just have a bag of mint in the reach-in, and every time a mint cocktail comes in the bartender has to actually pick the mint to make it, which is fine if it’s slow but just totally completely sucks when it’s balls-to-the-wall fifth-gear make-shit-happen time.
In terms of making them there’s only so much streamlining you can do. The first thing is doing away with the double-press with the muddler, which is a lovely touch but in my judgement not really necessary. You can throw the mint and citrus in and press them together, and whatever mint oil you lose by not pressing it solo beforehand will come out when you shake it. The next is to skip the microstrainer (a more fine-meshed, basket-shaped version of the strainers you see at bars, which keeps ice chunks and citrus pulp and tiny bits of torn mint leaf from falling into the glass). At the production levels at which we operate, microstraining each Southside (and keeping the microstrainer itself clean) is impracticable, so we don’t do it. People can and do survive drinking a drink with the occasional lemon seed or tiny mint hunk, with nary a negative consequence so far as I can see (then again, I don’t read Yelp).
The rest has to do with some basic practices and principles I use to maximize my productivity in the well, and which deserve (and will eventually get) their own post. There isn’t always a whole lot you can do in these situations. You run into certain hard limits and you just have to live with them. But you have to be proactive, find corners you can cut without sacrificing quality, make sure you have your prep and your well in order. Shaving a few seconds off the process may seem like not such a big deal, but when the rush is on and the place is packed and the people are thirsty, you have to make it happen as expeditiously as possible. You do this because making people happy (or, at least, giving them the tools and environment to be happy with/in) is what you’re there to do. That is the ideal you serve when you’re on the clock, and it’s a worthy ideal. That you also make more money is just a delightful upshot.