The "paradox of choice" is a cognitive fallacy that describes the inability to make a decision when faced with a plethora of options. To the novice drinker in Cleveland -- a beer town -- a cocktail menu goes one level deeper: It's a plethora of options that you don't even understand—a bunch of unfamiliar words describing unfamiliar ingredients that might as well be written in Sanskrit. And those who are conversant in it? They might as well be the dorks in your high school class who voluntarily took Latin.
One drink has bitters in it. That's froo-froo B.S. Another has Mezcal, which the bartender explains is a category of agave-derived spirits that includes Tequila. But you had a bad night with Tequila back in college.
"I'll have a vodka soda, please," you confidently say to the bartender, who stands in front of a wall of 100 spirits that manage to exist despite seemingly imperceptible differences. There's bourbon finished in sauterne barrels next to four different gins next to five different versions of the same scotch.
"I'll have a gin and tonic," you say, flummoxed, when it's time for the next round.
Tonic, of course, being a Peruvian malaria remedy consisting of sweetened water and quinine, originally from chicona bark but now engineered in a lab. Gin, of course, being the botanically infused neutral spirit that the British Navy mixed with tonic water to make tonic water palatable as early as 1825.
Just what you were going for, right?
The truth is, almost everything we drink is deeply rooted in pragmatism, not pretense. Many drinks tell the story of people throughout history trying to get drunk based on the environmental conditions and ingredients available to them at the time. Scotch isn't peaty because someone 400 years ago wanted to one-up a colleague. Scotch is peaty because a distiller needed to start a fire to stop barley from malting and realized he was sitting atop a bog.
"The old fashioned whiskey cocktail -- spirit, sugar, water and bitters -- was created in part because people wanted to mask the poor flavor of substandard spirits," Market Avenue Wine Bar bartender Mike Gulley explained to a recent Culinary Cocktails class.
That's a far cry from the Moscow Mule, arguably the most popular cocktail in Cleveland by a wide margin. The drink was invented in 1946 when the owner of Smirnoff Vodka and the ginger beer-loving owner of the Cock N' Bull Bar in Hollywood needed a novel way to move product. They created what cocktail historian David Wondrich calls "vodka's breakout drink," and set out to convince the general public that an engraved copper mug was the only acceptable vessel from which to drink it.
I first met Gulley when he was working as bar manager at Hodge's. "I bought 64 of these mugs on Amazon at 16 bucks a pop," he told me. "I think I'm down to 17." The rest -- let's call them "the angel's share" -- ended up in ladies' purses.
So I ask you: What's more pretentious, drinks that were created out of necessity that endured based on merit, or drinks that were created to market eminently stealable copper mugs?
The answer, of course, is "Who cares?" Both are delicious. Now stop worrying about why people like what they like and let me buy you a drink.
Ryan Irvine writes about cocktails at Intoxicating Liquors (intoxicatingliquors.com).
1.5 ounces OYO Vodka
3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
Fever Tree Ginger Beer
Shake the vodka and lime juice in a Boston shaker with ice to chill and combine. Strain into a rocks glass or copper mug packed with ice, top off with ginger beer and serve.
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