Episode 044 - Cocktail Snobs vs. Cocktail Slobs

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast.

In this brief episode, we're going to take you through the habits and traits of cocktail snobs and cocktail slobs so that you can avoid being either one at your next cocktail party or trip to the bar.

Here at Modern Bar Cart, we’re really focused on building an inclusive community where people of all different types can feel comfortable experimenting with flavor – regardless of how much they know or what they like.

So this episode is kind of our way of explaining how to behave in a community like that – basically, we’re trying to build the world we want to live in; a place where nobody is a cocktail slob OR a cocktail snob.

Featured Cocktail - The Cuba Libre

Our featured cocktail is a perfect synthesis of so many of the things we talk about in this episode – The Cuba Libre.

Cuba Libre.jpg

A true Cuba Libre is basically a rum and coke made with non-American cola – in other words, cola made with sugar cane instead of corn syrup.

To make one, you need, very simply:

  • 2 oz white rum
  • 4-6 oz cola
  • Lime Wedge

Build this drink in a Collins glass over ice, squeeze the lime, and you’re off to the races.

For cocktail snobs, I think the Cuba Libre is a great reality check. Yeah, you’re not too good for a Rum and coke – and you know what? This is actually damn tasty.

And for cocktail slobs, this is both familiar and a bit challenging. It’s a rum and coke, but it doesn’t taste like what I usually drink. Why is that? And how can I make MY rum and cokes taste more like this?

Cocktail Snobs

These are people who, first and foremost, use their knowledge and their understanding of cocktails – whether that’s the history, or the technique, or the perceived value of certain ingredients – to make others feel bad about their personal preferences or knowledge gaps.

There’s a few different strains of cocktail snobs, to be sure. There’s the kind who sends drinks back if they’re not made to precisely his set of unattainable expectations. There’s the kind who teaches a seminar on every drink to everyone in the room – even if no one is interested. And my all-time favorite: the kind who tries to compete with the bartender and show off her knowledge, at happy hour, on a Friday, when people are lined up three deep at the bar.

The real tragedy of cocktail snobs isn’t that they’re annoying to everyone around them, or even that they take a generally fun situation and suck the life out of it. The tragedy is that they take their enthusiasm for cocktails (which is a good thing) and forget to temper or moderate it before letting it loose everyone in the room.

Think about it this way. You’ve invite some friends over. You make a batch of amazing chocolate chip cookies and place them in the oven just as your guests arrive. If you set the oven to 350, the result is a tantalizing smell that wafts into the room, excitement as the cookies near completion, and joyful lip smacking and praise from your friends when they’re served.

BUT. What happens if you set the oven to 500?

Smoke, the smell of burnt dreams. And now the fire alarm is going off. Your friends are not entertained.

The point is, in many situations where cocktail snobbery is concerned, the problem is the energy or intensity of the person who’s spreading the snobbery. They’ve got their oven set too hot, and they’re burning all our metaphorical cookies.

So, if you suspect that you might tend toward cocktail snobbery and want to avoid setting off people’s social smoke detectors, here’s a few tips for moderating your presence and finding ways to add value to the people around you.

How Not to Be a Cocktail Snob

1.)   Learn to identify when your opinion will and will not enhance a situation

The problem with being the most knowledgeable person in the room is that you’re going to have the most opportunities to correct what you (and other knowledgeable people) understand to be errors, flaws, or misunderstandings when it comes to cocktails. This means that you have the power to either speak or remain silent and that choice is going to radically impact how you’re perceived in that situation.

The best thing to do here is a little perspective taking. Before you explain to your host that a “whiskey negroni” actually has a name and that really called a “Boulevardier,” try and imagine how you would react to that statement if you were the person who thought she invented this new spin on the negroni and couldn’t wait to serve it to her friends. If you can take a minute to do this little exercise, the correct mode of action is usually pretty apparent. 

This leads directly into tip number 2 for avoiding cocktail snobbery, which is:

2.)   Use your knowledge to exercise hospitality and empower others

What does it mean to exercise hospitality? For me, I think of a situation where somebody – whether it’s someone who’s actually hosting me in their home – or perhaps a bartender who’s serving me at a bar – enhances my experience by using their power or expertise to make me feel good. The host took extra time to set out towels for me on the bed? Wow, how nice is that? The bartender noticed what I was drinking and turned me on to a new cocktail that I really love? Awesome.

So, before you offer an opinion or try to enforce a standard, ask yourself:

Am I exercising hospitality, and will this empower the people around me to enjoy themselves or learn something that excites them?

The answer won’t always be clear, but good hosts are always looking for ways to make their guests feel good. So just by asking yourself the question, you’re already ahead of the game, even if you’re not truly the “host” in a given situation. Hospitality can come from anyone.

3.)   Be aware of the economic implications of your good taste

Congratulations, you’ve learned a lot about cocktails. You’ve had the time to study and taste test, and read, and listen to podcasts that all make you a better bartender. You’ve got three types of orange liqueur on the bar. A dozen different bourbons. The correct glassware for every type of drink.

If this sounds even a little bit like you, it’s probably useful to keep in mind that you’re a member of the cocktail elite. And that most people don’t have the same elaborate liquor collection, all the fancy tools, and the understanding of how and when to use them. This is just the way of the world. It’s lonely at the top.

So before you explain to your host that a martini made with vodka isn’t really a martini, take a quick look around and ask yourself if maybe that bottle of vodka is the only bottle of spirits in the house.

Cocktails are a symbol of the good life. If you’ve got the time and resources to pursue them, it means your other needs are covered. But people with all types of incomes and resources enjoy a good cocktail – the big difference is often what they can afford. And this is a really important time to be able to keep your snobbery in check. Because that’s how you avoid looking like a rich asshole.

Our final piece of advice is this:

4.)   Above all else – chill the heck out

Think about the coolest people in the movies, or at the bars you visit. They’re not the loud ones, the opinionated ones, the ones holding court. They’re the subtle people who take in the scene, make eye contact, speak in measured tones. They’re the ones who resist the temptation to drink too much – and yes, to correct other people’s drink choices. So if putting on a bit of a James Bond persona before you enter the room helps to chill you out and prevents you from putting your foot in your mouth, then I say, that’s a great idea.

Cocktail Slobs

The word slob is actually an ancient Celtic word for “mud.” And I think we can all figure out how this came to be. Slobs are the type of people who track mud into the house and don’t notice. Or don’t care. And just like they existed back in the days of the ancient Celts, they still exist today, even in the cocktail world.

The key here is obviously the not noticing and the not caring. And these traits make someone appear either ignorant, uncultured, oblivious, or a mix of all three.

Here in the US, there’s an added geographic and socioeconomic twist on the slob/snob conflict, and you can sum it up as city mice vs. country mice. Red states vs. Blue states. Hipsters vs. Hillbillies.

From the very earliest days of our nation, there’s always been a tension between cities and rural areas, revolving around whose interests are being represented faithfully, who gets to set regulations, who’s in power, and who’s fighting that power. Big business vs. the independent farmer. The bureaucrat vs. the rebel.

Fast forward to today, and all the stereotypes and traits associated with the difference groups of people I just described haven’t really changed. In other words, we haven’t used the past two and a half centuries to become better, more understanding neighbors. We’ve used them to become more set in our ways and to reinforce the stereotypes that were there from the very beginning.

We're bothering to point all this out because one of the biggest reasons for cocktail slobbery is a popular strain of anti-intellectualism that we’re all very familiar with in today’s political and social climate.

A working definition of anti-intellectualism is basically when someone takes pride in being crude, deliberately ignorant, or closed-minded. Add alcohol to this equation, and you’ve got pretty much the perfect picture of a cocktail slob.

Chances are, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re not terribly at risk for this type of behavior. Look at you, you came here to learn about cocktails. You’re already ahead of the game. But the following tips for how to avoid being a cocktail slob are just good to keep in mind, even if you don’t think you’re a cocktail slob.

How Not to Be a Cocktail Slob

1.)   Start asking “Why”

Let’s say you’re at a bar, and you want to educate yourself more about what you’re drinking and what’s going on. Take a quick look at how your drink is made. Why did your bartender stir that drink and shake that drink? Why did she strain that one through a little sieve?

Even if you don’t ask these questions out-loud, a curious mindset is the first step toward learning a thing or two about cocktails. And even if there’s nobody around to answer your questions, chances are you’ll be able to infer some things, especially by tasting your drink.

“Oh wow, I didn’t get why there was a lemon twist in this drink until I tasted it. It really transforms the whole cocktail. Maybe I’ll pick up some lemons next time I’m at the grocery store.”

And this segues nicely into tip number two:

2.)   Train your senses

A lot of us walk around every day using our eyes and ears to make things happen. This makes sense. It’s how we move from place to place, and it’s how we communicate. Unfortunately, the world of smell, taste, and flavor often takes a back seat. And so when it comes time to exercise these senses in a cocktail setting, they’re woefully underdeveloped.

The best way to beef up your sensory perception is to go out of your way to taste and smell new things. And going back to tip number one, this requires curiosity.

One exercise you can do, especially if you’re really timid about trying new things, is to take that one drink you know and love (Maybe for you it’s a rum and coke. Maybe it’s a mojito with store-bought mojito mix) and start adding just a little extra flair when you make it. Tonight, maybe add a squeeze of fresh lime. This weekend, add a sprig of mint. These are the baby steps that will help you get excited about flavor and begin working those atrophied sensory muscles that have fallen into disuse.

3.)   Learn to identify when you’re being marketed to.

This is a big one. One thing about cocktail snobs that you can’t deny is that they tend to know what they’re talking about. They know the difference between an Islay and a Speyside Scotch. They know which style of vermouth to use with which cocktails. And they know a good deal on a bottle when they see one. Basically, they use their knowledge base to cut through a lot of the marketing static that exists in the spirits world.

This is not to say that all major liquor brands make bad stuff, or that great branding doesn’t add something to the experience of a product. But if you’re the kind of person that orders a “jack and coke” at the bar, you’ve already been programmed by the media, and you should probably see what else is out there.

The obvious pitfall here is that big brands that tend to make cheaper products also have the best bar placements and merchandising displays at the liquor store. They use their market power to assert their dominance, which means less variety and more marketing.

If you want to learn more about how you can start to identify better quality spirits, check out Episode 22 of this podcast – Decoding Spirits Labels.

Our last tip for how to avoid being a cocktail slob is:

4.)   Find your “Zone of Proximal Drinking”

What the heck does this mean? Let me explain.

There’s a concept in educational psychology called the Zone of Proximal Development (or ZPD), and this concept explains how people learn most effectively.

If you already know how to do something, you’re not learning. And on the other hand, if you’re presented with a task that’s so far beyond your skillset that you can’t do it, you’re not really learning anything there either.

The sweet spot where learning tends to take place is just beyond your comfort zone. Perhaps in the presence of a more skilled person who can help you along the way. This is the Zone of Proximal Development, and it can applied to all types of learning, even about cocktails.

The two key points here are to push yourself, and to find someone who can be a guide. If that’s a friend, or a bartender, that’s great! But if no one is available, maybe there’s a podcast out there that can help you along your journey. Would that be convenient?