Discover more from From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
and the significance of expertise.
When the video of actor Stanley Tucci making a cocktail kept passing through my Twitter timeline yesterday, I was at first reluctant to click “play.” Then someone said he told people not to buy Martini-brand vermouth, and I was in—because Martini-brand vermouth is terrible, and, as a martini drinker, I appreciate those who understand such distinctions. But then Mr. Tucci lost me.
It began with the odd note that people could replace gin with vodka in… a Negroni, a drink with many variations that all have their own name (apparently a vodka Negroni is a Negroski), and which has seen a popular resurgence thanks to Campari’s big spending to ensure it (ok, it’s also very good). Then the sweet vermouth he used did not appear to be chilled. Then he didn’t use equal proportions of anything in this famously equal-parts cocktail. Then he shook it!!! That was when I bailed, but others told me they were more offended by his use of an un-chilled glass to serve the beverage as well as his squeezing an orange into it rather than expressing the oil of an orange peel over the drink before using it as a garnish.
I’m sure it tastes perfectly fine, but this was no longer a Negroni, which is—as an all-booze cocktail—supposed to be stirred. (There are times when a shaken Negroni works, apparently, according to Jeffrey Morgenthaler, but to break rules well one must know them in the first place.)
Whether because he’s Stanley Tucci or because no one likes a stickler, immediately people were aghast that anyone would care that this video with millions of views was telling people the completely wrong way to make a classic beverage without any notes on that fact. This kind of behavior sends people to bars with odd expectations and makes them likely to question the bartender’s expertise. People love the show of the shake, of the throw, and don’t enjoy the subtlety of a nice stir, but all of these are done for technical reasons, not performance. (I, on the other hand, have a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of a drink being stirred.)
While I truly don’t care what people find delicious inside their own houses (except maybe meat, of course, but we can talk about that on Monday), I do find it fascinating how hostile people can be to the idea that there is any standardized way of doing things at the bar. Preferences are one thing; the devaluing of certain kinds of knowledge is another.
To better understand how people perceive the Negroni as well as consider the ways in which these kinds of incorrect depictions affect guests’ expectations, I turned to the in-house bartender, also known as my boyfriend, Israel Ayala, who used to work at La Factoria here in Old San Juan. See the full proper Negroni process on my Instagram.
Why do you think the Negroni is an entry point for people into bitter cocktails?
It’s a classic, dating back to 1919. People drink it for the bittersweet taste, and also because it’s fancy—the name itself, and bars like Dante have entire Negroni variation menus. It’s well-balanced; it’s not too bitter, not too sweet, and you have the herbal notes from the gin.
People who order them in Puerto Rico are aficionados, adults—they know what they’re getting.
When you were bartending, did people sometimes express disappointment when they ordered a drink that is stirred rather than shaken?
Yes, they’d ask why. People like the shake because of movies, and during the time of vodka cocktails in the ’80s, it was all about shaking. It lets people feel like they’re having an experience and getting a show; going to a bar for them isn’t just about having a drink. They’d sometimes cheer us on when we would do a double shake, and that always feels good. They’re only impressed with a stir when someone does two or four at once. Shaking also—for some customers or many of them—is something sexy which again comes from movies and the mentality of fun in a bar, and therefore bartenders develop their own style. When you asked me one day if it’s sexy to see a woman shake, I said yes.
Did anyone ever ask you to shake a cocktail that usually isn’t shaken?
Yes, mojitos. If you shake a mojito, you kill the notes of the mint. It’s going to taste more like sugar, lime, and rum; the mint will disappear.
What’s your preferred Negroni?
Classic: A London Dry Gin, like Tanqueray, with Punt e Mes vermouth, and Campari. My preferred variation is a Boulevardier with Rye whiskey rather than Bourbon.
I usually send out essays on Monday, and in May, I’ll be introducing weekly Q&As with culture workers as a paid subscriber benefit. Expect more random responses to viral items with insight from experts, too.