In Defense of 'Craft'

I started bartending by putting expensive garbage in front of people who didn't care. The craft renaissance was a revelation.
November 4, 2017, 4:00pm
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

The word is unavoidable. There was a time when it was a rallying call, a code word to industry types that someone was trying, even a little, at a time when absolutely no one did. Today craft is omnipresent—on banners hung by the largest liquor conglomerates in the world and splattered in faux-fancy fonts on the tops of thousands of cocktail menus. If you use a jigger for a living, chances are the word's just scenery to you at this point. Like so many things in the fancy cocktail bars today—the fresh juice, the stirred Martinis, the time and attention—it's easy to take craft for granted.

That wasn't always the case. For those of us who started bartending shooting sour mix from a gun, pouring shots red and tall and generally putting expensive garbage in front of people who didn't care, the craft renaissance of the twenty-first century was a revelation. It took a lot of people thousands and thousands of hours behind bars to get anywhere at all, let alone the 2017 American bar landscape, teeming with fancy cocktails and great beer. Fifteen years ago, the rise of craft was a revolution, but like a lot of revolutions, the values that defined it grew murky once they settled into a comfortable, perceived victory. Are we approaching a time when the very concept of craft seems quaint? Is the idea of craft being something worth fighting for laughable now?

"People use the word to use the word, so it lost its meaning because of overuse. It's like saying 'pretty' or 'cool," says Julie Reiner, author of The Craft Cocktail Party and proprietor of New York's Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club and Leyenda.

In 2002, Dale DeGroff, already the most famous living bartender in America after a long career under legendary restaurateur Joe Baum at Aurora and the Rainbow Room, published The Craft of the Cocktail, a book that would help define the next decade of cocktail history. "Dale's book was definitely the first time I heard it used for cocktails," Reiner says. "I think a lot of people used that word from that point on. And from there, 'craft distilling' just a few years later. Then, people were talking about 'craft cocktails.' And all to differentiate their drinks the same way bartenders called themselves mixologists."

DeGroff's book became one of the core texts of the cocktail revival, helping spread the gospel of fresh juice and precise measurement that the author had helped reintroduce to the American bar scene at the Rainbow Room decades before. "Craft really began with [Baum] in a lot of areas," says DeGroff. "When he built the Four Seasons, he hired James Beard. He created an entire audience who was extraordinarily demanding about what went on their plate. When these people go to a fine restaurant and someone brings them a margarita made with green stuff out of a gun, they say, 'what the hell is this?'"

At the Rainbow Room, DeGroff studied old cocktail books like The Bon Vivant's Companion and began to think about the technique necessary to execute the drinks inside. While Baum worked tirelessly to prove that the American post-industrial palate was not doomed by opening some of the most influential restaurants of the century, his young bartender was trying to build the skillset that historically would have been handed down on the job, by older, more experienced tradesmen. That chain of professionalism was broken by the 18th Amendment and the Prohibition that followed, but now bartenders like DeGroff and those that would follow him worked to piece that craft back together.

"I decided I wanted to be a bartender when I was 22, and if you want to do something for the rest of your life it's important for your self-esteem for your work to be meaningful," says Jim Meehan, of New York's famed cocktail bar PDT. "When I first read Dale's book and [David Wondrich's book] Imbibe, I realized that there was a longstanding history, and it was deeply validating. Making those drinks was participating in a communion with history and tradition that I was unaware of and it brought meaning to my work."

The Craft of the Cocktail was joined by books like Wondrich's histories Imbibe and Punch as well as Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology: the Consumate Guide to the Bartender's Craft. Together, they helped many aspiring bartenders gain a foothold in the slow resurrection of what felt like an all-but-dead profession. With it, the mixed drink revival of the early aughts got its first (and longest-lived) buzzword. As the culture spread out of the cities, towns across America filled up with energetic bartenders eager to connect with a craft, even if its definition was at times a bit hazy.

Photo by Flickr user Scott Schiller.

"If you're a master craftsman, you hone your craft," says Reiner. "It implies high quality, whether it's attached to cocktail making, food, spirits, or glassblowing or furniture-making. Craft is something you learn."

"And there's that Mr. Miyagi thing. Wax on. Wax off," says Meehan. "Its amazing, that repetition—creating something iconic again and again and again. That's the hallmark of a great craftsperson. Once you've made a million Manhattans you can totally turn your mind off and not think about the Manhattan you're making, or you can stay totally engaged. That's when you see a bartender or a barista who is just nailing it."

It's a long road from apprentice to master craftsman, filled with hours of repetitive tasks. And those repetitive tasks aren't terribly exciting to hear about, which is why media narratives tend to drift towards the novel instead. And it's not just the media who's to blame here; the repetition inherent to craft can be off-putting to chefs and bartenders who'd rather see their role as an artistic one.

"In a place like Portland where so many chefs and bartenders view themselves at artists instead of trade- or craftspeople, they find serving food and drink beneath them because they view their work as art. It's a craft and not an art," says Meehan. "Most artists create art first and then their gallery tries to sell it afterward. The art is either an expression of themselves or of the moment," Meehan continues. "Craftspeople have a different set of constraints. Yes, they create new things, but the things they create are for a known audience. What the market needs—or wants—plays a great role."

That said, it's not that there's no room for art in the restaurant world. DeGroff lays it out nicely: "There is an art form in our business, but it's about being the impresario, choosing and creating the experience. That's art. The chef and bartender enact that experience. That's craft."

Photo by Flickr user Marc Thiele

In the last twenty years, the word craft has taken on a life of its own in the cocktail world, transitioning from insider shibboleth to overhyped buzzword. It's worth taking a look at where it came from in the first place. While fancy bartending was making its way back towards the mainstream, another stateside beverage culture had also been rapidly evolving and engaging in a revolt against industrially-produced, mass-market standards. By the time DeGroff's book was published, discussion in the beer world about what constituted craft had already begun.

"The original word was 'micro-breweries,'" says Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery. "And because that word needed a definition, the industry put the limit of a micro-brewery at 15,000 US barrels. Of course, as the industry grew, 15,000 barrels went from sounding pretty huge to still being seen as small. So instead of completely abandoning or redefining 'micro-brewery,' a new word was devised: 'craft.' And everybody liked it. But once the big brewers figured out that people wanted craft beer, they said, 'Well, what if we make beers like yours? Those are craft beers too, right?'"

READ MORE: How a Vietnamese Strip Mall Restaurant Launched One of America's Coolest Craft Beer Scenes

For beer (as well as wine and spirits), scale of production is one of the fundamental underlying principles of craft. Beers, unlike cocktails, are transportable commodities, ones that can be sold wherever, alongside their competitors' brands, regardless of their own scale of production. (Oliver makes the good point that this is an American-specific definition of "craft;" many European breweries, regardless of size, still brew according to the kind of age-old traditions that "craft" implies.)

"And so the Brewers Association, which has as its raison d'être 'the promotion and defense of craft beer' was forced to define what 'craft beer' actually was," says Oliver. "Discord over the meaning of craft allowed cracks in our defenses, and those cracks have been deftly exploited. From the pages of All About Beer to BeerAdvocate, editors have proclaimed the word 'craft' meaningless. Which handed over to our adversaries our own power to communicate who we are. Those who don't understand what happened ought to watch Game of Thrones."

In the end, definitions are not static. They evolve over time and remain different in different eyes. There will never be a closed case for what craft is and isn't.

No matter how diluted the word becomes, the concept of craft remains valuable—especially in a world of short attention spans, novel distractions, and dropping standards. The irony here is that the more throwaway the word becomes, the more we need it. Our current concept of craft exists because of a few stalwart folks focused on delivering quality despite all odds. Today, more people then ever can enjoy the labors those few have handed down. Those of us in the position of delivering that enjoyment owe them at least a little thanks. You can roll your eyes at "craft cocktails." You can scoff at "craft beer." But you should still give a shit about craft.

Al Sotack has been a bartender and writer in New York and Philadelphia for thirteen years. He's currently a partner at Jupiter Disco, Bushwick's premier cocktail bar and dance party.