The Secret World of Cocktail Rituals

Jesse Simon explores why the unseen ingredients and rituals involved in the making of drinks are often the most important factors in our enjoyment of them.

The great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel famously devoted a whole page of his autobiography to the Martini. But what begins as a simple tribute to the American drink made with English gin soon develops into a somewhat bizarre set of instructions on how to achieve perfection when mixing the drink at home.

His directions range from the practical matters of how best to add the vermouth, to the more obsessive step of placing the glasses and shaker in the fridge the day before your guests are scheduled to arrive. At one point, however, he adds an element of mysticism: he writes that those who prefer a very dry Martini “suggest simply allowing a ray of light to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat vermouth before it hits the bottle of gin.” With his characteristic theologian’s humor, he likens the act to Thomas Aquinas’ description of the Immaculate Conception, in which the holy ghost enters the virgin “like a ray of sunlight through a window.”

Buñuel is not the only cocktail lover who has postulated a perfectly dry Martini. Over the years I have encountered friends and bartenders alike who, before pouring the gin over the ice, insist on making a small bow “in the direction of France,” thus maintaining the drink’s essential entente cordiale—the spiritual commingling of English and French ingredients—without actually tarnishing the gin with unwanted sweetness. The English playwright Noël Coward—who obviously preferred Italian vermouth—suggested waving a Martini glass in the general direction of Italy.

Of course, this should come as little surprise. Ritual has always been an essential component of both preparing and enjoying a well-made drink. However, the individual rituals associated with a given drink are far from canonical—they are continually evolving, and often intensely personal.

We may steal them from friends and bartenders, or we may develop and refine them as our own relationship with a particular drink becomes more complex. Some of them, like the bow toward France, may be elaborate intellectual inventions, but others—swirling the shaker around after the last drop, then tilting it again hoping for yet another last drop—may be so ingrained in the process as to pass unnoticed. But the observance of rituals is what distinguishes our own personal recipes from the ones found in books.

A traditional Sidecar may have only three ingredients, but if you were to place twenty people in a room and ask them each to mix one, you would not only end up with 20 different drinks, but 20 very different approaches to the preparation. From the ceremonial pre-washing of the shaker to the reverent observation of the final drop landing in the glass, there is no element too small to become essential; and the body of ritual that develops around a particular drink becomes a series of fables that we use to convince others—and ourselves—that the humble drinks we prepare belong to some much greater tradition.

The presence of ritual in the preparation of cocktails has to do with our search for elusive perfection. A perfect cocktail—that is, an ideal which can be approached but never quite attained—requires considerably more in the way of metaphysical probing. For this reason, the unseen ingredients can be the most important ones of all.

But where do these rituals come from? Often they come simply from sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartenders while watching them work. Perched on a stool, belly to the bar, you may learn not only about the minutiae of taste and technique—why grapefruit peel is better than orange peel in certain drinks, how to correctly “wash” a glass with absinthe—but also about history and tradition. 

The best bartenders are not merely skilled mixers, but libraries of arcane facts, folk wisdom and compelling lore. They can tell you why chartreuse ended up in a Last Word, or which historical figure gave his name to the Brandy Alexander. Their information may not always be accurate, but it is rarely less than plausible.

This willingness to share secret knowledge may be little more than an elaborate confidence game designed to make us trust the person making our drink. But it works. It appeals to our sense of tradition and mythology.

When we see a bartender pouring some viscous liqueur down the long handle of a spoon with utmost concentration, or zesting a grapefruit in circular motion two inches above the rim of the glass as if part of some ancient rite, we may not know the precise reason for these strange actions, but we nonetheless believe them to be contributing to the value of our drink.

In fact, we may become so taken with these actions that we later attempt to emulate them in our own preparation. It is precisely at this moment that technique is transformed into ritual. If we care about a particular drink, we are always looking for new ways to make it better. The incorporation of actions we don’t quite understand appeals to some lingering memory of cocktail mixing as a form of alchemy.

We may eventually learn the true purpose of these actions, or we may devise some elaborate explanation of our own that we can pass on to our friends. But in either case we are contributing our own unique twist to the mythology of the drink.

The role that ritual plays in our perception and enjoyment has, predictably, informed the marketing efforts of many brands. In the reasonably un-ritualistic world of beer, for instance, Guinness has managed to develop a mythology around the proper method of pouring a perfect pint. There isn’t a beer drinker alive who doesn’t know that you fill the glass three-quarters of the way, wait for a minute, then top it up. Whether or not this process affects the taste is irrelevant. While there are numerous pseudo-scientific explanations passed down from publican to patron, the simple fact remains that if the drink is not poured properly, it will be considered inferior by anyone who is in on the secret.

By disseminating the pouring myth, Guinness has managed to transform a simple stout into something like a members club where admittance is based solely on knowing the secret handshake. Stella Artois—a lager of far less distinction—has also jumped onto the pouring ritual bandwagon with a series of detailed instructions on how to serve a perfect glass. While this is almost certainly a marketing strategy designed to elevate a mediocre beer above its peers, it nonetheless acknowledges a fundamental truth: tradition and ritual are an essential part of the drinking experience.

Ultimately, the presence of ritual in the preparation of cocktails has little to do with marketing and everything to do with our search for elusive perfection. An acceptable cocktail can be prepared by throwing some ingredients into a shaker and mixing them around, but a perfect cocktail—that is, an ideal which can be approached but never quite attained—requires considerably more in the way of metaphysical probing. For this reason, the unseen ingredients can be the most important ones of all.

As Buñuel’s anecdote reminds us, perfection cannot be obtained through the earthly assemblage of mere ingredients. To approach perfection we must leave some room for the ineffable.