Murder on the Dancefloor

23 September, 2015

Captain of fun, JJ Goodman (more formerly, owner of the London Cocktail Club group), was an early advocate of the retro drink. He likes a West Indian Yellow Bird and says his work with retro drinks involves evolving the taste – such as using absinthe in a Blue Lagoon, which, in his inimitable style, he says “will rock your world”. Indeed, 10 years ago, an absinthe blue lagoon would less have rocked your world, more rocked the boat.

But times change. Arnd Henning Heissen of Ritz Carlton Berlin’s Curtain bar, believes all drinks should be fun “as long as you make your guest happy, like my Sex on the Beach”. The drink Heissen is referring to is served in a shell and has a condom (packaged, thankfully) as a garnish. He says that putting a smile on guests’ faces is the most important thing as “they create the atmosphere in your bar”. Elliot Ball, owner of Cocktail Trading Company in London, which is about to open its second site, says: “An insistence on pretentious obscurity was a natural reaction to coming out of the dark ages, and hopefully we’ll see disco gloriously rise from the ashes of sweet and sour mix.” Joining in is Ryan Chetiyawardana, of White Lyan and Dandelyan, who says there was an element of “making shit drinks because it’s ironic” but agrees that, if made well, disco drinks are a force for good.

Max Warner, global brand ambassador for Chivas Regal and one of the most travelled men in the industry, has watched the trends come and go. “I’m always fascinated about how trends spread across the world. “I can’t help wondering whether we have exhausted flavours and the sense of having fun with drinks again – whether blue (keep up the good work Jacob Briars) or crushed/slushy is thanks to the great inspiration of Coughlin and Flanagan [Tom Cruise’s 1988 film Cocktail].”

Certainly, if the best bars in the world, such as Chicago’s Aviary and London’s Artesian, have slushy machines, then really the dumbing-down argument starts to look flimsy. Over at New York bar Dead Rabbit, which serves high-end cocktails upstairs and more approachable drinks and beer downstairs, Jack McGarry says bartending is not really about the liquid in the glass. “I believe the overall emphasis on hospi- tality is key rather than any specific drinks trend.

“As much as I’ve noticed disco drinks, low-proof options, non-alcoholic options etc, this is all happening to make the guest experience more textured and absolute. I believe drinks can be serious in formula and format but delivered in a hospitable way that takes the seriousness or pretentiousness out of the environment. As with many things in life, it’s all about the delivery.”

Cocktail competitions are always a good indicator. At the recent Chivas Masters, Warner set the challenge to create drinks across four cocktail eras, of which the Disco Years was one. Warner gives us a steer on the thinking behind including the least credible of all eras. “Disco Years gave the contestants the opportunity to research a period which was more about flamboyance and style than substance and consistency. Watching the bartenders of the world recreate their interpretation of Disco based on dated imagery, mostly confused yet colourful combinations of ingredients and com- pletely impractical glass- ware was entertaining on its own. I was even happy to score them well if the drink wasn’t that well balanced, providing it amused me.

“I was brought up and educated in drinks via the Nags Head through Del Trotter and Only Fools and Horses. Does anyone know what’s in a Caribbean Stallion? Does anyone even care? I would order it though...” Perhaps it’s because it’sa whisky competition, but it’s notable that tiki didn’t figure in the Chivas Masters. Is disco the new tiki?

Russell Burgess of London’s Loves Company certainly thinks so. “Disco is fast replacing tiki as the go-to fun and kitsch style of cocktails. Is it a good thing? It’s nice to have the other end of the spectrum catered for.” Indeed, Luca Missaglia, who runs the Aqua bars in Hong Kong and London, thinks all drinks are about context and occasion and says the most important part of designing any cocktail is the balance. “A lot of these [disco] drinks were not designed in a skilled way so you just have to make it a good drink. But it’s the same with drinks from the 1930s – you don’t just repeat classic recipes [without modification].”

All the major eras of cocktail culture have been revisited, so really it was a matter of completing the set. Anyway, there is a redemptive quality to righting the wrongs of the bartending forefathers – even if this is to be a fleeting dalliance with disco. The wider observation is that now no drink is off limits. The only taboo is an unhappy customer.

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