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Testing Cocktails With A Straw


DaRiv18
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The bartender measures, ices, then strains the cocktail. Drop off at the service bar. But a final step before the server picks up: the bartender grabs a black plastic straw, dips the straw into the glass, covers the unsubmerged straw end with her index finger to create suction, lifts the straw to her lips, releases her index finger, and "tastes" the cocktail. The bartender puts on her best thoughtful face, stares off into the distance, and finally nods. The straw is discarded, just like all the others. The server picks up the glass and delivers. Job done.

I've always wondered about this quality control measure. While the process itself isn't invasive (although it does nothing good for our landfills), the timing may be wrong -- why taste-test the cocktail at a stage when there's no real way to properly adjust it? Japanese bartender Hidetugu Ueno talks about tasting his cocktails BEFORE they have been stirred or shaken, so he can make last second adjustments. Otherwise, to stir or shake a second time would cause too much water dilution. The bartender must throw away this cocktail as it cannot be salvaged. So, this quality control measure, as practiced by most American bartenders, may need to be re-thought, or at least defended better than what I've heard so far.

But I've noticed bartenders also straw-taste outside of the quality control context. Now we are in Sillyville. It happens when a staff tries a new menu recipe (make one drink, and pass it around). Or it happens when I order a specific recipe off-menu, an item they haven't experienced before. In both cases, using a straw makes it impossible to "taste" and fully evaluate a cocktail, as a straw-taster does not experience the aromatics as she drinks. I understand that smell is some large percentage of taste, so there it is. Characterize these scenarios as innocently ineffectual.

But the MAIN reason I dislike straw-tasting is that some bartenders use it as a pre-text for quality control, but then disrespect the guest's autonomy. To illustrate: I order a particular drink, the bartender constructs it, pours it, and it's ready to serve. Here comes the straw! The bartender tastes, ponders, nods his head and says some variation of these fatal words: "Now THAT'S a good drink!"

No matter what cocktail you've ordered, the bartender instead has served you the Jedi Mind Trick. There is a difference in wanting a guest to be happy at your bar, and telling the guest what he should like. The Jedi Mind Trick often betrays a lesser bartender, and in any event, puts the guest on the defensive. A breach of duty.

So, to summarize, I can see it being part of a legit cocktail program for quality control, but I wonder if it could be more effectively implemented. But this technique is definitely not effective for educating a staff, and its practice can facilitate abusive relations (although I readily concede that most abuse overwhelmingly comes from the intoxicated guest side -- but still).

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I don't think that tasting before stirring/shaking gives a good indication of quality. The elements have not mixed and if they have differeing specific gravities, they will not unless you apply force to break the surface tension. Thisis the basis of a pousse caffe. So using the straw after makes sure the drink is right and, yes, if it isn't, it needs to be tossed and remade. Just as you can't correct an espresso or a cappuccino, you can't correct a cocktail properly.

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The elements have not mixed and if they have differeing specific gravities, they will not unless you apply force to break the surface tension. Thisis the basis of a pousse caffe.

I should try tasting something before shaking it to see. I hear what you're saying here, but in my experience pousse cafes are a PITA to make. Layering is a circumspect process and you can't just literally dump the spirits in to make one. I am not sure to what extent the liquid mix when a bartender measures into a mixing glass, but I am sure they do mix to a large extent. Maybe not enough to evaluate a cocktail's viability thru a straw-test (or spoon test, as Ueno does it).

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I should try tasting something before shaking it to see. I hear what you're saying here, but in my experience pousse cafes are a PITA to make. Layering is a circumspect process and you can't just literally dump the spirits in to make one. I am not sure to what extent the liquid mix when a bartender measures into a mixing glass, but I am sure they do mix to a large extent. Maybe not enough to evaluate a cocktail's viability thru a straw-test (or spoon test, as Ueno does it).

I'm surprised to see you write that. A lot of liquids really don't mix well just from pouring ingredients. It's not any different than compared to cooking. Depending on the viscosity, some things obviously pool in one spot. Just combining ingredients is insufficient - and obviously much more the case when discussing sweeteners. Even basics like G&Ts benefit from a slight stir with a straw.

If you just think about how there are so many mixing methods from stirring to swizzling to shaking, that's indicative of how well different types of liquids are capable of combining. Some of the methods also introduce oxygen into the drink, which can do a bit to play with it and pump up the aromatics that you mention.

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The bartender measures, ices, then strains the cocktail. Drop off at the service bar. But a final step before the server picks up: the bartender grabs a black plastic straw, dips the straw into the glass, covers the unsubmerged straw end with her index finger to create suction, lifts the straw to her lips, releases her index finger, and "tastes" the cocktail. The bartender puts on her best thoughtful face, stares off into the distance, and finally nods. The straw is discarded, just like all the others. The server picks up the glass and delivers. Job done.

I've always wondered about this quality control measure. While the process itself isn't invasive (although it does nothing good for our landfills), the timing may be wrong -- why taste-test the cocktail at a stage when there's no real way to properly adjust it? Japanese bartender Hidetugu Ueno talks about tasting his cocktails BEFORE they have been stirred or shaken, so he can make last second adjustments. Otherwise, to stir or shake a second time would cause too much water dilution. The bartender must throw away this cocktail as it cannot be salvaged. So, this quality control measure, as practiced by most American bartenders, may need to be re-thought, or at least defended better than what I've heard so far.

But I've noticed bartenders also straw-taste outside of the quality control context. Now we are in Sillyville. It happens when a staff tries a new menu recipe (make one drink, and pass it around). Or it happens when I order a specific recipe off-menu, an item they haven't experienced before. In both cases, using a straw makes it impossible to "taste" and fully evaluate a cocktail, as a straw-taster does not experience the aromatics as she drinks. I understand that smell is some large percentage of taste, so there it is. Characterize these scenarios as innocently ineffectual.

But the MAIN reason I dislike straw-tasting is that some bartenders use it as a pre-text for quality control, but then disrespect the guest's autonomy. To illustrate: I order a particular drink, the bartender constructs it, pours it, and it's ready to serve. Here comes the straw! The bartender tastes, ponders, nods his head and says some variation of these fatal words: "Now THAT'S a good drink!"

No matter what cocktail you've ordered, the bartender instead has served you the Jedi Mind Trick. There is a difference in wanting a guest to be happy at your bar, and telling the guest what he should like. The Jedi Mind Trick often betrays a lesser bartender, and in any event, puts the guest on the defensive. A breach of duty.

So, to summarize, I can see it being part of a legit cocktail program for quality control, but I wonder if it could be more effectively implemented. But this technique is definitely not effective for educating a staff, and its practice can facilitate abusive relations (although I readily concede that most abuse overwhelmingly comes from the intoxicated guest side -- but still).

You seem to have an agenda here. What is it?

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Depending on the viscosity, some things obviously pool in one spot. . . If you just think about how there are so many mixing methods from stirring to swizzling to shaking, that's indicative of how well different types of liquids are capable of combining.

I haven't thought about viscosity, I am just familiar with specific gravities for pousse cafes. Perhaps viscosity plays a role. In my experience, at home, jiggering different liqueurs and spirits into a mixing glass (which involves a fair amount of splashing), I have never seen any sort of separation. I imagine sticking a straw into such a mixture to taste would further agitate. I guess this is an empirical question and it would be interesting to research.

As for the differences for swizzling, shaking, and stirring, my understanding is that the differences between those techniques are largely cosmetic. Stir non-citrus or non-dairy drinks to ensure clarity, shake for all others. Of course you could shake everything, the myth of easily bruised gin has been dispelled. Even drinks with egg whites (which I imagine is the liquid most likely to separate in an unmixed cocktail) conventionally first use a "dry shake" without ice, so you could taste-test before icing down.

You seem to have an agenda here. What is it?

If you are asking whether I am singling out a certain establishment or bartender for this practice, I don't intend to. This is a GENERALLY ACCEPTED practice throughout the industry, and from what I can tell, not just in DC. My intent to to question the practice. I've linked above to a Japanese bartender who supports a different technique, and I just think it's interesting. I don't think I'm out of line questioning a process in a highly idiosyncratic industry that oftentimes prides itself on pomp and circumstance.

Now, for bartenders who taste my drink beforehand and tell me how great it's going to be, yes I guess ending that practice is part of my agenda. No one in the DC Bartender's Guild has done that to me though. And yes, the waste of extra plastic straws and of perfectly good booze does bother me on a philosophical level.

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Tasting of drinks by most, if not all bartenders in the "higher-end" cocktail lounges here in NYC is done after mixing of the drink. I've seen it done both after the drink is poured and also while it's still in the mixing glass or shaker...where slight adjustments can be made (say, the addition of a bit more bitters) without unduly diluting the drink. I don't know how a drink can be tasted before it has been properly mixed and diluted.

And those bartenders do indeed toss the drinks if they're not up to snuff.

I often wonder whether it's a bit more of a show than a necessity. I mean, sure, the quality of the citrus changes over the course of a 6 or 8 hour shift. But I would also imagine a certain amount of palate fatigue sets in over that time period as well.

And as to the comparison with an espresso drink, I think you're much more likely to get a lousy espresso, due to lack of barista skill and failure to adjust grind, tamp, etc. than you are to get a lousy cocktail due to the quality of citrus changing.

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Japanese bartender Hidetugu Ueno talks about tasting his cocktails BEFORE they have been stirred or shaken, so he can make last second adjustments.

I just revisited the video (which actually is found here). Forgot that it is over 65 minutes long! So: at 28:00, Mr. Ueno does his spoon tasting. From 44:00 to 47:00, he fields a question about whether to taste before or after icing.

Mr. Ueno is a proponent of the "hard shake" school, which is very influential in the past couple years. I have seen several DC bartenders change their shaking styles actually. So this guy is legit. To see Mr. Ueno's hard shake, go to the 30:00 mark.

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I would say that for me the straw test is most certainly a last second safety valve to insure that the cocktail was properly constructed. It is true that not much can be done post mixing to salvage a beverage without adding dilution so at this point I either taste and send it out or throw it out and start over. In addition to things like palate fatigue there is also a certain amount of general mental fatigue that occurs through the course of a full shift of bartending, with cocktails that we make consistently throughout the course of a night part of the measuring and mixing becomes muscle memory and the bartender is almost always multi tasking. Many of us at one point or another must question... Did I add X ingredient? Though I always take care to pay serious attention while constructing a cocktail it does happen that we get distracted perhaps by another guest making an order on a busy night. So at least for myself I taste just to make sure all the ingredients are present in the correct balance before it leaves my hands. The straw is an effective method for drinks you have made a thousand times at it allows a quick safety check before the drink leaves your realm of control, it is not necessarily effective when you are making up something for the first time but generally those cocktails are served to patrons you have already established some degree of trust with. Just a point of view from the other side of the bar...

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Had a couple of nice drinks just this past week at Bourbon, Owen...I believe Caleb was our bartender. Of course, being the pains in the asses that my wife and I are, we had him making a bunch of off-menu stuff...including Phil Ward's Final Ward, which was delicious.

Totally agree about having trusted patrons try out new cocktails. I've tasted a few cocktails before they hit the menu - and have even seen the bartenders pour those out after they tasted them and decided they weren't just what they were hoping for.

Look forward to meeting you one night in Bourbon.

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So at least for myself I taste just to make sure all the ingredients are present in the correct balance before it leaves my hands.

Would you ever taste a cocktail before icing though? To be clear, I am all for quality control, it just seems that there's a fair amount of waste (both of booze and of a bartender's time of completely starting over) if you taste afterwards.

But you bring up a fair point about volume. I know you guys get 4 deep at your bar. Maybe Ueno's technique is more feasible in a small 20 seat establishment. I'm sure he is more worried about his spill sheet than you guys are, as he probably only rings 100 drinks most nights.

off-menu stuff...including Phil Ward's Final Ward, which was delicious.

Manhattans and Phil Ward drinks . . . we'll have to get you switched over to Gin Rickeys and Adam Bernbach drinks. :(

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I have tasted a cocktail before icing at times to verify the correct ingredients but one of the most important parts of a cocktail is the temperature and dilution achieved through "icing" so I'm not sure how far along this gets you. Though I do agree there is some amount of waste I would much rather have an improperly executed drink end up in the drain than on a customer's table. The same principles hold true when food leaves a kitchen, though it does waste product and a chef's time to put out another plate when a mistake is made it is way more advantageous to stop the problem before it hits the table. Allowing an unbalanced, watery or tepid cocktail to be served is a much greater sin than a loss of time or product. With all that being said I would say that in any professional bar the amount of such mistakes is a negligible amount.

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This practice is perfectly fine with me.

Chefs constantly taste in the kitchen to ensure that standards of quality are high, and I appreciate that a bartender would do the same thing. Dean is right, if the drink is wrong, it can be tossed and remade quickly.

I'm sure that someone, somewhere, will come up with a better system than disposable plastic straws which contribute to plastic waste, but in this age of H1N1 and other contagions, I won't hold it against them for using disposable straws.

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This practice is perfectly fine with me.

Now I sure wish I could edit the byline, namely, "Legit QC technique, or abusive pretext?" I do agree that straw tasting is a legit QC technique. Also, no one has questioned that it can be used as an abusive pretext. So my byline was a poor description (I'd change "legit" to "most effective").

At this pint point though, I still wonder if it is the most effective QC technique. It is certainly the safest. I'm tired of defending Ueno-san's position without backup though, so I'd rather think up a better thread (or respond to one).

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Now I sure wish I could edit the byline, namely, "Legit QC technique, or abusive pretext?" I do agree that straw tasting is a legit QC technique. Also, no one has questioned that it can be used as an abusive pretext. So my byline was a poor description (I'd change "legit" to "most effective").

At this pint point though, I still wonder if it is the most effective QC technique. It is certainly the safest. I'm tired of defending Ueno-san's position without backup though, so I'd rather think up a better thread (or respond to one).

Alternative procedure: Bartender makes the drink in a shaker cup, pours drink over ice, leaves small amount in shaker cup. Bartender tastes from cup. Problem solved.

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I don't think that tasting before stirring/shaking gives a good indication of quality. The elements have not mixed and if they have differeing specific gravities, they will not unless you apply force to break the surface tension. Thisis the basis of a pousse caffe. So using the straw after makes sure the drink is right and, yes, if it isn't, it needs to be tossed and remade. Just as you can't correct an espresso or a cappuccino, you can't correct a cocktail properly.

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I don't think that tasting before stirring/shaking gives a good indication of quality. The elements have not mixed and if they have differeing specific gravities, they will not unless you apply force to break the surface tension. Thisis the basis of a pousse caffe. So using the straw after makes sure the drink is right and, yes, if it isn't, it needs to be tossed and remade. Just as you can't correct an espresso or a cappuccino, you can't correct a cocktail properly.

Last year, I made a Bijou cocktail in the pousse cafe style. Equal parts sweet vermouth, Plymouth gin, and Green Chartreuse. I researched their specific gravities, I bought special tall, thin pousse cafe glasses that maximize a liquid's surface tension, and I layered using the back of my bar spoon.

post-4702-12557830794_thumb.jpg

I just now made the Bijou again, but didn't layer it as carefully. Rather, I just dumped it in from a jigger. I did pour in order of decreasing specific gravities, and you can see that the sweet vermouth didn't mix completely.

post-4702-125578305459_thumb.jpg

Finally, I did what I suspect the vast vast majority of bartenders do: pour with no regard to the recipe's relative specific gravities. I poured in the gin first, then the green chartreuse, and then the sweet vermouth. Here's that hot mess:

post-4702-125578388333_thumb.jpg

Now, let's imagine a regular mixing glass: pouring these liquids into a wide vessel that lessen a liquid's surface tension? From a greater drop than a 2 oz pousse cafe glass? To imply that the forces needed to break the surface tension of these liquids are not present (even giving you the benefit of the doubt that the liquids were poured in the correct order relative to their specific gravities) is just an amazing assertion.

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I've been guilty of both tasting during and after, they certainly reveal different things. The balance of the drink (i.e. sweetness, bitter and acidity) can be reasonably measured before adding ice but texture and dilution are equally important. I think understanding most cocktails means counting water as an ingredient. This is sometimes overlooked. The drink you have prepared in the tin or glass before shaking or stirring is often as much a cocktail as a raw egg is an omelet. When do you taste the omelet?

The straw is not perfect but generally readily available. As for the Jedi Mind Trick, I think you're reading too far into that one. Sometimes it's just a good cocktail.

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I was at one of the area's so-called fancy cocktail lounges, and I saw them sample my drink with a straw too. I was disgusted!!! I headed straight out of there and headed to TGI Fridays, where, I'm happy to report, they mixed my appletini right the first time!!!

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If this thread continues, I'd like to change the focus away from professional QCing to home mixology QCing. Obviously, I don't have a spill sheet at home, so I am very interested in "salvaging" a cocktail before I serve it to a guest. It was poor judgment on my part to frame this issue as that of an industry standard, when I am really just interested in an issue Ueno-san brings up.

Which is: he claims that at some point you "just know" that you have a viable cocktail. If you watch the video, once Ueno-san tastes the un-iced cocktail and confirms it's the right mix, he's confident that all his subsequent steps will be the right ones. He has confidence in his own craft. He "just knows", he says.

While I now have been convinced that Ueno-san probably could not successfully apply this standard behind the stick Saturday nights at Bourbon, Dino, or The Gibson, it is interesting that he has this QC standard at all. What is equally interesting is that this same standard is being dismissed out-of-hand here, as if it couldn't work in a relaxed home environment.

As for the Jedi Mind Trick, I think you're reading too far into that one.

My friend tells me the same thing. Whenever we go out for dinner, and he's QCing the bottle of wine ordered, he always makes a big production of checking the dregs, exploring the nose, and savoring the finish. All while the server hovers over, waiting for confirmation of the wine's identity and integrity. Presently I'll remind my friend that the captive audience is thirsty, and he proceeds to inform us exactly what a GREAT wine we'll soon taste. Clearly, I am scarred (not unlike my liver) from these continuing events.

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Unfortunatly tasting a cocktail before you add ice is a bit like tasting cookie dough before you bake it. Yes it can reveal some things but, until the mixing and dillution occur, you just don't know. Making a smaller version first might be the trick for the home mixologist or, drink the mistakes to learn from them :(

PS I have declared cocktails as tasty when delivering but, only sincerly

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