Spring Pugilists

By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel

If you’ve picked up a cooking or lifestyle magazine in the last few years, you’re probably aware that apparently we’re in the middle of a “cocktail revolution.” Food and Wine magazine declared 2006 the “year of the cocktail,” and numerous other publications have made similar, if less official, declarations. However, if you look around, the heads of bad cocktails are not rolling in the streets.   Alas, mediocrity reigns supreme in the drinking temples of downtown Austin, from the college bars of Sixth Street to the overpriced lounges of the warehouse district.

In the home, the situation is equally bleak. How many parties have we attended where lovingly prepared food was accompanied by blah-in-a-glass? Therefore I remain unconvinced that we have undergone this supposed cocktail revolution. What I would argue instead is that we are witnessing a great battle, a prizefight—not quite between good and evil—but at least between the sublime and the substandard. It’s a close match, and the winner has yet to be determined.

In this corner I present the cocktail—invented in 19th-century New Orleans. This contender has a rich and uniquely American history, so much so that the cocktail glass could be counted among the nation’s great patriotic symbols. And in the other corner, the yucktail —slung by the gallon in booze dens from Deep Ellum to South Padre Island. The yucktail is inferior, yet ubiquitous; the fast food of drink.

Though the yucktail represents an assault on taste and tradition, it is so commonplace that well-meaning, peace-loving people are not offended by its presence. Lacking as much in creativity as in quality, the yucktail is constructed either of inferior ingredients or of quality ingredients, inexpertly arranged. In a tequila town like Austin, the most prominent yucktail is the house margarita, when made with cheap tequila, non-alcoholic triple sec and margarita mix (fake lime flavor, fake green color and sickly sweet).

While the yucktail may be winning the battle, the resurgent cocktail is putting up a helluva fight—even gaining ground in a beer-and-wine-soaked market. The giant shaker drinks served in downtown bars certainly don’t represent the pinnacle of the mixological arts, but they’re a good start. Then there are the first-rate cocktail bars making waves on the coasts: Little Branch and the Pegu Club in New York, and Zig Zag Café in Seattle are a few places taking no shortcuts in returning the cocktail to its revered status. Even in laid-back Austin, which is often a few seasons behind the trends, the “cocktail lounge” is on the rise (I say this with trepidation, because there is a big difference between a bar that is marketed as a “cocktail lounge” and a bar that is staffed with bar chefs who are thoroughly trained in classical techniques, recipes and history).
I won’t go so far as to say mix is the new cook, or bartender is the new chef, but here are a few general trends that you can expect to see more of with regard to adult refreshment.

  • An overall emphasis on quality, focusing on fresh, seasonal, local and organic ingredients. (Before this dark era of powdered mixes, high-fructose corn syrup and canned or soda-gun juices, everything was fresh-squeezed. None of the classic cocktail manuals refers to “sweet and sour” or “margarita mix”)
  • “Bringing the Kitchen behind the Bar.” Integrating more culinary flavors into cocktails like savory herbs, spices, vegetables
  • An emphasis on the classics and modern twists on classics
  • A wider variety of spirits, specifically South American spirits like pisco and cachaça, as well as an expansion of high-end rums and tequilas

So fight on, proud cocktail. The yucktail is a punch-drunk poser who hits below the belt, but your dignity and prestige will see you declared victor in the end.