In part one of our interview with Library Bar and 1886 bartender Brady Weise, we talked a lot about alcohol. We discussed the term “craft cocktail,” the L.A. bar scene, and a little about the cocktail's history in the United States. In part 2, Weise tells about us how Americans learned to eventually make good drinks again after Prohibition, the resurgence of the classic cocktail, and what he hates making above all else.
Weise was also kind enough to pass along his own recipe, for a cocktail called, “Amore de Pemacchia” (check back later for that one). After all, the holidays are coming up, and what better excuse to start drinking than, “I just found this new cocktail recipe and I wanted to see how it turns out.”
SI: So in a way, Prohibition was the catalyst for bad, cover-up cocktails, because we weren't getting all the great spirits anymore.
BW: Let's say you had a modern kitchen today, and you took away their salt, their pepper and all their spices. But you gave them some bacon, maybe an egg and white flour. What would they make? They would come up with breaded bacon with egg. I mean, it wouldn't be anything spectacular, but at least it would be able to feed people. But all of a sudden, that Prohibition dynamic really shifted everything for the next 30, 40 years. And then in the 60s and the 70s, with the Tiki movement really taking off, you had a lot of guys studying sort of traditional recipes and going back, trying to make their own way. Trying to rediscover the very basic elements of making a proper cocktail. What is balance? What is technique? How do you put things together? And that laid the foundation for Dale DeGroff in the 90s, to come across these books like the Trader Vic's book and Don the Beachcomber's book and some of these other guys. To look at their books and their techniques and say, “what were they doing that we don't do today?”
A lot of it was fresh product. A lot of it was making their own mixes. So they would mix their own set of rums together to create their own rum mix number one, rum mix number two, spice mix number three. That was just their own culinary take on the cocktail, which actually is nothing new. If you look at Jerry Thomas in the 1870s, that's what he was doing. He was taking a culinary approach to cocktails. He said, “what if we take proper, fresh ingredients, mix them with good quality spirits and come up with something that we can serve to people, rather than just tapping what's in the keg?” Because there was a time when people were serving things that were absolutely horrible. Methylene with tobacco shavings and opium mixed with rotgut. It was just awful.
SI: Sounds amazing.
BW: It was horrible.
SI: Do you think it's easier to train someone who has no bartending experience or someone has worked for years as a bartender at, say, TGI Fridays?
BW: It's give and take. I think at the end of the day, they have to be creative. They have to live outside the box. If you live in the box, you'll never get anywhere. That's rule number one. I've worked with people who have spent years at places like TGI Fridays. I've worked with people who have, literally, zero bartending experience. They just walk in and say, “Teach me how to bartend.” And the answer is always, “Yes.” I can teach you to do whatever you want. But you have to be creative enough to take it to the next level.
SI: You have to make your own recipes eventually.
BW: Right. If you just copy and regurgitate, that's not a good student. You have to be committed to it. When I go home, I don't just sit there and watch T.V. I read books, I go to all kinds of different ethnic markets and pick up spices and fruits, then think about it and say, “What does this relate to? How would I put this in a drink? How would I utilize this to its best advantage?” That's one of the things that I think a lot of people don't do in the bartending business.
SI: There's been a movement toward classic cocktails lately, it seems. What caused, I guess, the backlash that lead to the resurgence? Had we gone too far down the road of mudslides, and Cabo Cantinas?
BW: If I can wax philosophical for just a minute: We're in an economy that hearkens back to the great depression. When people have certain things taken away from them, they go back to basics. Shelter, food, clothing, these kinds of things.
SI: And pain numbing.
BW: Right. It's not about flashy anymore. It's about value for dollar. I read an article two years ago by Wine and Spirits Daily, and they said that the premium and ultra-premium vodka categories were going through a free-fall. Brown spirits were on the rise. Gin was rising slowly but relatively flat, because it always goes up incrementally with the population, for some strange reason. But brown spirits were on the rise, and one of the reasons, I think, is because it's value for dollar. You know what you're getting. You can taste the difference between bad whiskey and good whiskey. It's very difficult to tell the difference between sort-of-bad vodka and really good vodka.
SI: What are the most annoying cocktails that you get asked to make?
BW: Just for me personally — not speaking for anybody else — anytime somebody wants shots. I think shots are the most annoying to me. Not necessarily because I don't like making them, because I can make pretty interesting shots. I can make the double-layered shots, like you see at Library. I can do the pousse-café, which is more or less a shot, but it's layered, it's got several different quality elements, and there's an effect that happens when you drink it. I think the shot is sort of the fast food of bartending. I don't mind pouring a shot of whiskey, because they're either gonna shoot it back, or they're gonna sip on it, and they just don't want any water in there.
But the term “shots” to me is kind of offensive to me, because what you want is something extremely cheap and extremely sweet, so that you don't know what's going on, or you choose to be intoxicated so that it takes away whatever social morays you might posses. And that's kind of silly, because if you're going to go to a bar like Library Bar, like 1886, and you're going to order a shot, that's kind of an offense to what the bar's all about. Like Matt says, it can be a waste of someone's talent. Because I can do it, and I'll do it well. I'll make a shot that you'll never forget. But you can order a proper cocktail, throw it back as fast as a shot and get the same effect, but get a much better quality product in the end.