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What’s in a Dash, Anyway?

Seven years ago, bartender Don Lee set out to quantify one of the cocktail's immeasurable components, the dash—leading to his design for a standardized dasher top. Lizzie Munro on what deconstructing a cocktail down to its tiniest components can teach us about modern drink-making.

Angostura Bitters

Drink-making has always been a somewhat exacting science, and yet one of the most commonly called-upon units of measurement—the dash—isn’t really a measurement at all.

“It’s like making a soup and saying that you’re going to add a pinch of salt,” says Cocktail Kingdom’s Director of Product Development, Don Lee. “A dash is this elusive thing that really doesn’t exist—much like the pinch, [it’s] something you actually kind of do to taste.”

It was about seven years ago that Lee—who is no stranger to at-home science projects—began questioning why the dash, despite its numerous references in cocktail recipes dating back over a century, had never been properly defined. After setting up a camera and a scale, he proceeded to empty three full bottles of Angostura bitters, one by one, documenting the weight of each dash to the tenth of a gram and logging the results in a spreadsheet.

“I had what I considered a fairly good sample size,” says Lee, who went on to determine that 41 dashes of Angostura bitters equaled one ounce of liquid. From there, he used the measurement to inform his next project: a precise dasher top that fits on just about any bottle (Angostura, Peychaud’s or Regan’s) to ensure consistency between dashes—and drinks.

But some bartenders, like Pietro Collina of New York’s NoMad Bar, suggest that opting for a proper dasher is just the beginning. “It is very hard to standardize the dash because bartenders have different styles,” says Collina. “Some bartenders like to do long, slow dashes, which results in a higher volume, while others prefer short, aggressive jabs.” That’s why, in addition to transferring bitters into Japanese-style dasher bottles, the bar pays careful attention to the training of their staff to assure that everyone uses a similar technique.

Those dasher bottles, especially the Japanese-style ones, have also opened up a new line of creativity and flexibility in drink-making, says Alex Day, who’s behind a number of bars in New York and LA, including Death & Co. and Honeycut. “They actually, when you turn it upside down, [yield] … about a third of a dash,” he says, which allows for even smaller percentages of bitters, highly concentrated tinctures and the like to be carefully worked into cocktails.

But that level of attention begs the question of how much of an effect one-third of a dash—which, by safe estimate would equate to far less than one percent of any cocktail—actually has on a drink’s flavor profile. While many bartenders will assert a perceptible difference in taste, at what point does that level of exactness become inconsequential? Or, perhaps more importantly, what does this kind of pursuit say about current cocktail culture?

It’s no coincidence that the introduction of Japanese-style dashers to the New York market came at a time when bartenders were rewriting the rules of what it meant to make a drink (and, for that matter, what it meant to be a craft cocktail bar). Exploring the mechanics of bartending by delving deep into these very minor details was just a step in a larger evolution, wherein bartenders were looking to gain a more complete understanding of what a cocktail could be.

Fast forward to today. In very evolved markets, where the renaissance has spurred everything from precise bitters dashers to highly molecular takes on the cocktail, there’s often a backlash, says Lee, whose most recent project, Boilermaker, tellingly offers a high-quality take on its lowbrow namesake, a beer and a shot.

“When you get to where New York and London are, at least within the bartending community, you get to this point where there’s this general consensus that there is no ‘cocktails,’” he says. It’s there, perhaps, that the concept of the dash as a measureable, standardized unit, isn’t all that important. But until a bartender can answer the initial question—What is this thing, the dash, and can it be standardized?—it’s impossible to know where, and how, that knowledge fits into the modern bar, if at all.

“It’s like the last level of kung fu where you realize there is no kung fu,” says Lee. “Everything is kung fu.”

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