It's amazing how much marketing plays into what people drink. No matter how hard you try to introduce folks to quality drinks--classics like the Aviation, Manhattan, Mint Julep; or new-school culinary cocktails like the Basil and Kaffir Lime Gimlet or Lemongrass Mojito--you will always have someone ordering those Grey Goose & Red Bulls, Jager Bombs, and Apple-Tinis. Sigh. Certain liquor companies advertise in just about every major magazine, at sporting events, on billboards in every major city. This mass marketing doesn't always mean it's a quality product, even if they try and position themselves as a "luxury" or "premium" brand. But hey, it obviously works.
This is my take on it: as long as I can get one or two people a day to try something new, or re-introduce them to a wonderful classic and create a great overall experience for them, then I feel like I'm doing my part. When I can get somebody to switch from a mass-produced rum that's mediocre at best (but they advertise in magazines and have catchy Mojito commercials on TV so it MUST be good, right?) to a spectacular rum made by a small, local, artisan distiller, it's a beautiful thing.
Chef's scour the area looking for the freshest ingredients to use in their kitchens so they can create amazing dishes made from scratch, dishes that highlight what's fresh and in-season. So why do they scoff when it comes to their bars? I have been to several fine-dining restaurants where the food was superb. The service? Excellent. The wine list? Amazing. The cocktails? Horrible!! The bar was almost an after-thought, and their approach to the bar, the drinks, the lounge area...well it was as if they were appealing to the lowest common denominator. I'm having this amazing meal with fresh ingredients, expertly made by the artists in the kitchen. But my Margarita? It was made with pre-fab sweet and sour mix, or if it was made with fresh lime juice, they drowned it in sugar syrup. If I ordered a Mojito, the bartender looked at me like I was crazy for making him muddle mint. If I ordered a Negroni (which I did recently at an upscale, classic Italian restaurant with a very impressive back-bar), I got a blank stare from the cocktail server, and then was told by the bartender "we don't carry that beer" (a Negroni is a classic Italian cocktail consisting of Campari, Gin, and Sweet Vermouth).
I have talked with several restaurant owners and chefs who say "our clientele just doesn't care. So we use pre-mixes and cheaper ingredients." Or I'll hear "they just want a super-strong drink made super-fast. The only reason they're drinking cocktails is to get drunk." That's like saying "the only reason they're eating is because they're hungry." If that was the case, we'd always eat at home. We go out to restaurants for the experience, the creativity, and for the quality. When I hear comments like the ones above coming from the owner of a fine-dining restaurant, I realize just how out-of-touch some folks in the industry are when it comes to the beverage side of the business, cocktails and spirits in particular. We need to step-up our game and give our guests more credit.
You don't have to offer far-out culinary cocktails that call for exotic fruits, fresh herbs and edible flowers. Simply offering classic and contemporary cocktails made with fresh fruit juices and quality spirits--prepared correctly--would be a huge improvement. Getting people behind the bar that are happy to be there...people who are as passionate about their craft as the folks in the kitchen are about THEIR craft is also a step in the right direction. Get people behind the bar with some product knowledge, with a desire to give their guests a great experience. You don't need to offer a hundred different cocktails...just a few classics done correctly, and maybe a few contemporary favorites, all made with fresh ingredients by somebody who cares. Find out what spirits are distilled in your area, and look into carrying and promoting local, artisan spirits in your drinks. A big part of this equation is giving the bar staff the tools to succeed and investing in on-going training behind the bar. It's not rocket science, and the end result is certainly worth it.
Now I understand that this approach to cocktails doesn't work everywhere. In a high-volume, large-capacity nightclub, drinks (and often times service) don't take center stage. It's a different environment, and it just doesn't work. And then there is the small, neighborhood beer and shot joint. I LOVE little dives, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a beer and a shot. (I do that quite often, and I love a good beer and whiskey joint). But when I go to a nice restaurant, and it's obvious they are committed to quality & interested in taking things to the next level (amazing food, superb customer service, a nice wine list, fresh ingredients, and a well-stocked bar), don't tell me your guests could care less about getting a good drink, and don't tell me that they will not know the difference.