I’ve been in the bar industry for a while now; the service industry in general for longer than that. When I first began, it was just a paycheck. Something to fill time or make a little extra money on the side. Although serving others was the longest I’d ever really done anything, I never considered it anything more than just a job until a few years ago when I stumbled into The Usual in Fort Worth’s Fairmount district. I was a proud regular of it’s seedy sister dive-bar across the street, The Chat Room (a play on words in an era when chat rooms were actually a thing). The Usual was a bar completely unlike any other in the city. It’s beautiful interior was sleek and simple, covered in beautiful American White Oak (coincidentally what most spirits in the world are barreled in). Every drink was constructed with an array of tools and fresh ingredients, guests were treated as old friends or a favorite relative, and somehow, I got a job there. Throughout my years inside that building, I found myself being transformed by it’s principals and standards of what it meant to serve a cocktail. As I dove deeper, I discovered that The Usual, although unique in its own right, was a part of a bigger and growing movement in bar trend: the craft bar.
Now, I have people ask me all the time, “What is a craft cocktail?” or, “What makes a craft bartender so special?” Although I always try to be a big girl and use my words, so often the most apt response is, “You really have to experience it to understand.” Nothing could be more true.
One key to understanding the philosophy of a craft cocktail is the booze itself. Cocktails are designed to bring out the inherent flavors of their featured spirits, rather than cover them up. Of equal importance is the bartender’s approach with their guests. Picture your favorite bartender at an average bar. What makes them so great? Usually, it’s the way they make you feel. They are attentive. They know exactly what you like and the way you like it. Take that mindset and apply it to making a drink. Instead of powdered mixes and other artificially colored and flavored ingredients, craft bartenders use only fresh fruit juices, herbs, spices, house-made natural sweeteners, and quality spirits. Oh no, folks! That ain’t all! They also have an arsenal of recipes (some dating back hundreds of years) that call for spirits from all over the globe; AND they can tell you where the drink comes from, the relevance of each ingredient, and how those ingredients are made. But most importantly, every ounce of knowledge and every moment carefully constructing each drink was meant for your enjoyment. A large credit for this approach dates back to the 19th century when the leading American bartender, Jerry Thomas was making more money than the vice president. His methods were so pioneering and personality so contagious that at his death he was heralded by every major newspaper from coast to coast. Every drink from his now famous repertoire was about the booze. Heck, the most popular cocktail at the turn of the century preceding his life and career was a healthy pour of whiskey with a tiny little bit of sugar and bitters. But I digress.
What all of this really boils down to is value. If I could assure you of only one thing it would be this: the craft cocktail wouldn’t exist if not for the person serving it. Craft bartenders devote years to not just the art of a well-poured drink, but learning how to make you feel like a million bucks while drinking it. Every tool, ingredient, stir of a spoon, and shake of a tin has been scientifically calculated to yield the best possible product; every book read, and class attended to show you great struggle has been made to keep the history alive; hundreds if not thousands of hours logged behind a bartop to fully understand that special something that makes each individual feel they are of the highest value. This is something you can’t put a price on.
So, you see, I can paint the most vivid picture of what this revolutionary movement is all about, but at the end of the day you may just have to join me for a drink to truly understand.
Until then, cheers.