The Memories of Bartenders

Here is another one of my mini-histories of modern cocktail classics, this one about the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. The more I do these, the more I think about the fleeting nature of cocktail history, both in the past and now. It’s a commonly held notion that cocktail history is so difficult to trace because that history took place in bars, institutions the press took lightly and didn’t write about much, and places where the active participants were drinking much, remembering little, and not thinking overly much about posterity and what future historians might want to know.

I used to think that this set of circumstances belonged to the past; that, in the 21st century, we have dedicated cocktail writers, countless articles about cocktails and bars, and the Internet, where those articles live forever. But lately I’ve begun to think that all that will still not save us from future confusion. More often than not, when I write about recent cocktail history, the bartenders I interview evince difficulty in remembering events that only happened a decade or so ago. They draw a blank and have no recollection, even when it comes to the invention of their own cocktails. Or they misremember the facts. Because of this, we may end up with nearly as incomplete a history of today’s cocktail golden age as we have for any of the eras in the past.

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No slight to your hard work, but it may be best that way…the holes’ll keep moving and folks’ll keep filling them.

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I think the whole process behind those drinks acquire its importance and relevance well after the fact. The drinks’ creators only realize what they’ve done when they’ve already started forgetting. And then and now, self-mythologizing also plays a part. This being said, don’t underplay the value of those pieces. The history may be incomplete, but the details they provide are very valuable and richer than what is available for any other cocktail era.

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I think it’s really valuable for any group that invests a lot of time in any pursuit to get some oral history down before too much of the past grows hazy. I’m super grateful that @RobertSimonson practices so much oral history and that he’s found people to publish it. I am confident others will derive value from these articles in the future.

The haze sets in so fast. I once initiated an oral history project for an ultra-niche computer software topic. At the time (2001), we were 12-16 years past the events in question, and it required a lot of interviews to put the pieces back together. I found it particularly interesting how the right stimulus (story) can unlock obscured memories in others, although sometimes those memories are a bit “corrupted” (including my own). Two or three perspectives offered a lot of triangulation.

I have long suspected Mayahuel deserves deeper attention. I think it’s a shame Phil never documented his unique drinks program with a recipe book. I tried to interest him in at least doing an app, but bad blood at the top was an insurmountable obstacle. I suspect Milk & Honey, Pegu Club and Mayahuel were the three most influential Cocktail Renaissance drinks programs in New York, and none of them published.

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Thanks. You’re right. Most modern classics take a while to achieve the status. Oaxaca Old-Fashioned might be an exception, though. It was an immediate success and sold like hotcakes. It actually appeared in print in the New York Times a mere three months after it was created.

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It is a terrible shame that neither Mayahuel or Pegu Club published cocktail books. Sasha’s posthumous publication “Regarding Cocktails” basically serves as a Milk & Honey book.

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Despite its rough edges and the heavy-handed treatment by the publisher, Regarding Cocktails seemed pretty useful to me. But other people do not seem inclined to take it seriously.

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Based solely on my personal experience, back when these early bars were creating a higher level of offerings, it was still simply serving food and drinks for a living (like it always was). There was no real PR in it or tangible personal gain other than the potential success of your business. I happened to work in a place with a legacy and I certainly don’t ever recall placing posterity in the ledger other than for the place I worked. My goal was that returning guests would make some good noise about the bar menu and keep my staff and I employed.

By 2008 bars and cocktails were getting traction beyond the Sunday newspaper entertainment section but I would say that it really took off about 2010 when books were released from some of these bars and posterity entered the equation. Which bars valued that or had the time or desire to publish was their choice, I guess. In the end, I know one thing. If the original go-round was any indication, there’ll be conflicting recipes and origin stories no matter how many books are published…

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I do like it a lot. But I never actually use it: I just open Sam and Mickey’s app. They have basically the same recipes + a ton more.

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