A manatee walks into a bar and asks for the house specialty. The bartender serves him a pineapple-sage daiquiri. "That'll be $16," he says. "You know, we don't get many manatees in this bar." The manatee replies, "At $16 a pop, that's not hard to understand."
Handcrafted cocktails, once a lost art, have resurfaced as absurdist comedy, with top-shelf bartenders—"cocktail consultants" in this brave new world—making thousands of dollars a day peddling the likes of the Earl Grey MarTEAni (tea-infused gin, egg white, lemon juice, and simple syrup) or the "sake martini with lychee puree and muddled cucumbers." The things fetch up to $20 apiece (versus the $5 or $6 cost of ingredients and labor), so it's no wonder restaurants are desperate to sign up anyone who can juice their cocktail menu's overall vibe. No surprise either that hard-liquor sales at bars and restaurants are up about 40% over the past five years, according to industry tracker Adams Beverage Group. There are no losers here really, except maybe the patron overserved with the Dreamy Dorini Smokin' Martini, a strangely popular medley of vodka, scotch, and Pernod.
As restaurateurs demand ever more rarified tipples, master bartenders are themselves morphing into jet-setting creatives. Tony Abou-Ganim has parlayed a successful run at the Bellagio hotel into consulting gigs with three booze brands (Hennessy cognac, Belvedere vodka, and 10 Cane rum) and the Boa Steakhouse in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In search of similar glory, today's mixologists will stop at nothing to generate buzz and raise margins. The bar Little Branch in Manhattan deploys half a dozen cuts of ice for its various recipes; the staff freezes it in sheets (except the crushed ice, which is machine-made), then literally custom-cut it on a drink-by-drink basis. Its bourbon highball, for example, is only made with outsized, hand-hewn chunks, never standard cubes.
And at four-star restaurant Per Se, not even the gin and tonic is sacred. Head mixologist Brian Van Flandern reinvented the venerable summertime draught through a simple—but expensive!—act of inversion: His $20 "tonic with gin" uses artisanal tonic water handmade from imported Brazilian quinine and Ty Nant sparkling water from Wales ("the bubbles are smaller," he says). What's wrong with Canada Dry? Commercial tonic water, says Van Flandern, robs the quinine of its flavor and color. "I try to de-emphasize the alcohol and balance the acid and sugar," he says, "so you have a great-tasting cocktail that doesn't overload your palate."
Having achieved financial parity with the average mid-level stock trader, bartenders are now looking to the final status hurdle: freeing the profession from its failed-actor associations. So next month, five of the nation's leading authorities will launch the Beverage Alcohol Resource, a $3,000, 36-hour course covering spirits history, blind tastings, and a lesson ominously titled "A Special Problem: Mixing With Scotch." Van Flandern actually won a scholarship on the strength of his performance in a sherry cocktail mixing contest. So if you're ever jonesing for a Le Jardin Verde (juiced cucumbers with skins, light fino sherry, simple syrup, lime vodka, and Muscato d'Asti dessert wine), you'll know who to call.
Joseph Manez (email@example.com) is a Fast Company intern. He has also written for Gannett News Service.
E-mail the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.