In Good Spirits

On “Mixologists” and the Delight of Neighborly Drinking

Fractions, fennel pollen, and the art of a well-made cocktail

I’ve always been a little put off by barkeeps who call themselves mixologists. These days anyone can create their own pretentious -ology to compensate for whatever insecurity attends their chosen profession. Cereologists, for instance. I don’t even want to tell you what they do. Look it up and you’ll see what I mean.

But I have changed my tune vis-à-vis cocktail artists.

illustration: Jonathan Carlson

A couple of months ago, my next-next-next-door neighbor, Cary, had an idea: Once a week, alternating weeks, one of us would make a drink based on a recipe from a book he’d just discovered called The One-Bottle Cocktail. The idea behind the book is pretty basic: delicious cocktails contrived with a single spirit, complemented with an array of stuff you might have around the kitchen or growing in the yard. Add a little simple syrup and voilà! Mixologist, c’est sort of moi.

But the ingredients can get exotic. Fennel pollen, for instance. Green tomatoes, olive brine, cilantro stems—tofu? Two drops of vanilla extract and not a drop more! And when have I ever said the words, “Honey, did you see where I put the coconut cream?”? Never. Not while making a drink, anyway.

It’s a delicious tradition Cary and I have created, and the drinks themselves are beautiful just to look at. But it’s harder than I thought it would be to make them. Squeezing a dozen fresh limes by hand becomes wearying, and capturing fennel pollen—even with my tiny pollen net—is a real challenge. And muddling. Muddling! Until Cary gave me a muddler, I was crushing green tomatoes with a spoon. Not advisable. But it is a good workout for your biceps.

illustration: Jonathan Carlson

Characteristically, my big downfall was the math. The recipes are written for making one drink, but who makes just one drink? What is three-fourths of an ounce times three? I’m still not sure. And precision is important in this line of work: If you’re off by just a little bit, the whole delicate balance can fall apart. That’s why Cary’s drinks are better than mine, I think: He can do fractions.

So I take it all back. I respect the hell out of mixologists now. Cereologists are still on iffy terrain.