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Ask A Bartender: What Makes A Cocktail Complex?

Saturday, May 02, 2015


The simple things aren't always the best things. But it's comforting to know that they exist.

Complexity, in a cocktail as well as a person, is not a virtue in and of itself. Some of the best people as well as the best cocktails are complex. But if we regard it as a virtue over, say, balance, then cocktails as well as people will risk becoming a convoluted mess, arbitrarily adding ingredients for the sake of forcing them to be more interesting than they should be. Not all cocktails can be interesting. That’s okay. I’ve had plenty of cocktails that are just simple and I admire their simplicity and their emphasis of function over form. A gin and tonic is a great, and simple, example of symbiosis with both ingredients coming together to make one another palatable. 

The gin and tonic is nothing to write about. It’s a hard drink to mess up. That’s why it’s good everywhere. Your first gin and tonic will probably taste like your last. You could have one in a Tallahassee airport or in an Applewoods in Two Harbors, MN. They’ll taste the same. Sometimes simple things are good things. You need them in life. They are not remarkable things, though. But it is even less remarkable to intentionally make something more complex than it actually should be, or has the right to be. 

Once in a while you’ll come across things that are both complex and great. A Vieux Carre is a better cocktail than the gin and tonic. In my mind it’s a perfect cocktail. The sweet vermouth, rye, and cognac in equal parts make the beginnings of an interesting Manhattan, the dash of Angostura and Peychaud’s finish the sentiment. The addition of Dom Benedictine marks it as something else completely, makes it more sophisticated by tying all the other flavors in and making it one wholesome little mess. The twist of lemon is a defiant garnish. It’s there for a reason and if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be. It’s a marvel of a cocktail. Something to sit and stare at, you feel sad after your first sip because you know, like most complex things, it’ll be gone soon.

Anyway, once is enough. Properly complex drinks are not comforting and they aren’t supposed to be. If anything, like most complex things, they make us feel uneasy and self-aware. We are aware of our own mortality when we imbibe. Time slows down and minds speed up as our senses take inventory of this remarkable being. 

We hope it will last, but it won’t. If we were rich, we could drink them all the time. But, then, would we actually appreciate them?

The most beautiful cocktails in the world don’t even know they exist. To be fair, a gin and tonic doesn’t know it exists either. But it’s here for you. It’s here for everybody. 

It’s the painfully self-aware cocktails that are neither comfortable nor remarkable. They are contrived and arbitrary. Running from obscurity rather than embracing it like a gin and tonic or almost reluctantly defying it like a Vieux Carre. These cocktails are popping up everywhere –I have made a few of them myself before killing them quietly- a lot of them stick around. If anything, these cocktails exercise our critical thinking skills. They try to be interesting but there isn’t a point to that. It’s okay to not be interesting. Sometimes it’s enough to just be there.     

But the most interesting cocktails are like the best people. They are complex out of sheer necessity. They seek anonymity, instinctively hiding the secret that they’re special. When we find out otherwise, we’re floored. 


Related Slideshow: 6 Hangover Cures from Top Portland Bartenders

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Hair O' the Dog.

Jeff Seymour, Interurban (4057 N Mississippi):

"[W]hen the day after can be wasted ... the only cure is to jump back on the train and deal with my hangover the next day. If it's a weekend, I'll head to Radar for a killer brunch and 2 or 3 mimosas and an Irish coffee for dessert. Then it's time to find all the rosé. It can be still or sparkling, I really don't discriminate. A few bottles later I'm right as rain."

You might be prolonging--and amplifying--the inevitable, but Jeff's words offer a tempting solution to a New Year's Day downer. Along with some savory eats, alcohol's beautiful, empty calories level out our post-binge blood sugar crash. Still, you can run but you can't hide--you'll do well to plan for a more permanent salve.

And remember, the folks serving you on a national holiday might well be feeling the hurt themselves. Whether or not the mimosas are bottomless, your bartender's meager savings are not. So tip well and stay happy!

For your hangover-numbing relief, Interurban opens at 3 pm New Year's Day. The rosé will be flowing. 

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Water, Protein, Water. Repeat.

Jordan Felix, Multnomah Whiskey Library (1124 SW Alder):

"My hangover cure often goes in 3 steps:

1) San Pellegrino Sparkling BIG bottle & a Vita Coco coconut water. Both tend not to fail me but if they do, a Campari & soda with no citrus helps immensely.

2) Grab a Steak & Egg sandwich from Meat Cheese Bread on SE 14th & Stark. I don't know how they do it, but this sandwich is a miracle.

3) A litre of water and a Boylan's ginger ale. It's all about hydration!"

Time-honored advice for a reason--alcohol is well-documented to cause dehydration. And, while many pro drinkers swear by greasy carbs the next day, protein--especially the amino acid cysteine--may hold the key to replenishing your sapped reserves. 

So drink and eat up, Portlandians, and by that we mean agua and steak. And if you're vegan--well, you can still have a protein shake.

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Burn, Baby, Burn.

Lucas Plant, Barlow (737 SW Salmon):

"My hangover cure is heading to Minizo, in the food carts on Mississippi next to Prost. Try the Shoyu Ramen and ask Ken to go all in--his kimchi and garlic paste will sweat out last night's bad decisions, and get you ready for round two."

Savvy bartender at Barlow and co-founder of Bull in China--Portland's premier craft barware shop and recent darling of the NY Times--Luke knows how to spice things up on either side of an epic night out.

You may want to avoid extreme remedies like habaneros or the infamous ghost chili pepper--not to mention Eeyore plushies and a swift kick in the nuts (Seriously, a pretty decent Youtube vid that gets GREAT around 2:30--a hangover helper in itself).

But fermented foods like kimchi replenish your body's "good" bacteria, and garlic, high in the amino acid cysteine, cleanses your rotting gut of all the debris.

No stranger to herbal digestifs--or professionally perfect timing--Luke added, "Totally forgot. After the ramen, a Fernet seals the deal!" Booze out. Booze in. Repeat.

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Grease the Wheels.

Jesse Leo, Nightlight Lounge (2100 SE Clinton):

"Grease, man. Something that'll make me tired. Gravy! You been to Tabor Tavern? They have a breakfast sandwich called the rev, and it will--it'll blow your mind. Crispy fried chicken, bomb-ass pepper gravy, cheese--it's amaaaazing."

While not exactly supported by science--greasy food can clog up an already-taxed liver, and deliver few of the nutrients your body actually needs--Jesse's folk wisdom resonates with what's become a solidified part of Portland's culinary canon. At the very least, a rich, heavy breakfast will stick to the ribs, putting you--and those sudden flashes of last night's drunk texting--right back to bed.

While Jesse can be found most Saturday nights happily spinning up Nightlight's seasonally-rotating specialty cocktails, you don't have to wait for the cure: Nightlight is offering up a special New Year's Day brunch from noon to 3--moderately priced, adults-only (mmmimosas!), and exceptionally crafted. Sure, there're vegan options, but c'mon. You know you want gravy.

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Potassium! Okay, and Maybe a Shot.

Daniel Osborne, Teardrop Lounge (1015 NW Everett):

"For summertime, Teardrop's Piña Colada is all fresh ingredients. Coconut cream, pineapple juice, pineapple gomme. A very good source of potassium!"

But Ptown's chilly winters call for something slightly more...bold.

"My go-to tequila is Olmeca Altos Blanco. It's a very good source of alcohol!"

As for Piña Coladas, I have to admit, as a former bartender, that no matter where I worked, the blender was somehow always broken...just right now...just for you. It's a safe bet that Daniel and the staff at Teardrop are a tad more hospitable.

In contrast to the Piña Colada's sweet, creamy blanket, tequila is not for the faint-of-heart--nor the faint-of-gag-reflex. But it remains, for the faithful, an unstoppable cure--not, we might argue, just for hangovers, but for modern guilt, deep insecurities, and those graceful good manners your friends thought you had. Proceed with caution, young Jedi.

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The Big O.

"Orgasms! I'm being serious. It creates blood flow and oxygen intake." 

This from Beckaly Franks of Clyde Common (1014 SW Stark), whose attractive bar staff and inventive cocktails make for a seductive experience on their own. 

While we might not all be so lucky as to have, um, help with this cure, Beckaly's observations are right on point. A recent study of migraine sufferers by German neurologists found that a majority found relief through sex, with many experiencing "moderate to complete" alleviation of the monster headaches.

Men, too, experience increased brain activity during orgasm. One study even suggested the effects are similar to heroin, which makes sense to those who've experienced major post-coital stupor right after the big moment.

Ah, well. Naptime is good for hangovers, too, right?


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