Episode 115 - Plato & Aristotle Walk into a Bar

What’s shakin, cocktail fans? Welcome to episode 115 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Modern Bar Cart CEO Eric Kozlik.

Thanks for joining me for this slightly off the rails episode -  it’s somewhere between a book review and a little cocktail rabbit hole - where I’m going to take you through one of the most exciting articles I’ve come across recently and how you can use it to advance your thinking about your favorite drinks.

The article in question is called, “Plato & Aristotle Walk into a Bar,” published in the Daily Beast by cocktail historian and author David Wondrich on August 24, 2019. And essentially what this article does is examine two very different cocktail mindsets using the daiquiri, the Caipirinha, and the ‘ti punch: three variations on a rum sour. 

But before we jump into this close reading of Plato and Aristotle by way of Wondrich, let’s do what we always do and give you the chance to make yourself a drink.

Featured Cocktail: The Caipirinha

This episode’s featured cocktail is - fittingly - the Caipirinha. And, before I read this article, if you had walked up to me and asked me to explain a Caipirinha, I would have said - well, it’s basically a rustic daiquiri made with cachaca instead of rum.

Cachaca, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is the pot distilled rum moonshine of Brazil, made from fresh cane juice in the tradition of rhum agricole and clairin. So it’s got a lot of local character and tends to reflect the terroir of the region and the hand of the maker more-so than most industrial or large-production rums.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

The coolest thing about the Caipirinha, as Mr. Wondrich states, is that there’s no ideal Caipirinha recipe - just technique. He begins by describing the unique way in which a lime is prepped before making this drink.

Essentially, what you do is you cut off each end - the arctic and the antarctic, as he puts it. Then you cut the lime in half down the middle the long way and remove the white stem line from the center of each half using a shallow, “V” shaped cut. What you’re left with is two halves of a lime that are just begging for the muddler. We’ll get to that in just a second. 

Now, later on, I’m going to try to avoid plagiarizing Dave’s whole article, but I thought his comments on the Caipirinha were just too good, so here’s his instructions for making one:

Take a big, Double Old-Fashioned glass—a “bucket glass,” as it’s known—and put a heaping teaspoon of plain white sugar into it, and maybe two, depending on how big and juicy your limes look and how much cachaça you think you’re going to pour in there. Grab one of the lime-halves and put it in the glass, skin-side down. Now take your muddler—the only specialized tool you need here—and press the hell out of it. Without the woody stem, you’ll be able to neatly extract all the juice. At the same time, you’ll be grinding the skin into the sugar, flavoring it with some of the bitter lime-oil. You want that. 

Now the cachaça. You want the clear kind. If you can spring for an artisanal one, such as Avuà or Novo Fogo, so much the better. If not, one of the cheap commercial ones will still get you where you need to go. How much do you put in? The answer, I suppose, is, how much do you want to drink? Just make sure you leave room for ice, which you’ll add after stirring the booze in with the lime slurry. How much ice? Up to you.

Now, I want to give us a second to process this, because I’ve spoken and emailed with a lot of listeners who really enjoy our normal fairly structured approach to recipes - and I’m willing to bet that some of you might be feeling slightly triggered because essentially what you were just told is that the process is more important than the ingredients. For most of us - that’s just weird.

It’s like being told to make a cake from a recipe that uses measurements like, “some,” “a bunch,” and a “healthy dose.” 

Normally, we’re taught that what makes a good drink is balance - and balance is achieved by manipulating various tastes and flavors using different proportions of certain ingredients - kinda like baking. And what Mr. Wondrich just told us is that - for the Caipirinha - the way you prepare the lime is more important than how much cachaca you use.

What is that? That flies in the face of pretty much everything we’ve been taught!

Folks - I live for these moments. I love uncomfortable things and ideas.

I was that camp counselor who really enjoyed when kids had little meltdowns because they were teachable moments - and if I could keep my composure and not try to solve whatever immediate little issue was causing the discomfort, we could usually find some way to come out the other side of the tantrum having learned something.

And I’m not accusing you of having a tantrum, dear listener - but if you’re anything like me, that weird - and unquestionably authentic - take on the Caipirinha left you a little uncomfortable, and probably with more questions than you had when we started.

In this episode, we’re going to dig into why this take on cocktails is so different from most of what we’ve been taught, and what those two dead Greek dudes, Plato and Aristotle, have to do with it. Enjoy.

Plato & Aristotle Walk into a Bar: A Close Reading

Many of us were initiated into the ranks of the cocktail world by reading David Wondrich’s category defining book, Imbibe! - and it still figures heavily as a recipe and context resource for me when I conduct research on historical drinks and trends to this day.

Wondrich is a history guy - he dives deep into the primary source documents to paint a picture of what drinking was like in time periods that seem distant from the here and now - even if those times were only a few short decades ago.

He’s jovial, presenting serious and potentially dry information in a lighthearted way - and yes, he really digs a good cocktail. Case in point, here’s his quote from the beginning of the article we’re about to examine:

According to David Wondrich:

There are two ways of looking at a Daiquiri.

Okay, three ways, including the one that says “what the hell are you doing looking at that enticing little green pool of sheer refreshment when you could be drinking it?” That, of course, is the sensible way.

I love that - if there’s one thing that immediately puts your mind at ease - it’s that the author has his priorities straight, and those priorities don’t have a pretentious bone in them. And that’s important! Because the stuff we’re about to get into is a little bit heady, and my challenge is to try and present it in as straightforward and logical a format as I can.

To do that - I need you to understand the basic differences between Plato and Aristotle. And I’m not a philosophy professor, nor am I a qualified historian, so this is gonna stay pretty high level. But basically, here’s the gist:

Plato, who was Aristotle’s teacher, believed that the world we live in an imperfect world, and that we’re constrained by the limits of our senses. However, he also believed that a perfect world - the world of forms - lies beyond us, beyond our perception - and we should always be striving toward this perfect world, best exemplified by mathematical proofs and perfect shapes.

Aristotle, diverging from his teacher, took a decidedly different approach to what he thought was the nature of things. 

According to Aristotle, there is no world of forms. What you see is what you get. Everything has qualities, and those qualities build from the ground up to make something that you might call a table, or a tree, or a person.

For Aristotle, we’re not just imperfect gingerbread men who get popped out of that perfect gingerbread mold in the sky. We are as we should be, and our senses are tools rather than impediments.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to picture the difference between Plato and Aristotle is by examining Plato’s Allegory of the Cave - which is hyper-famous, and, despite its distinct biases, it definitely points out one of the key aspects of human experience, which is that our senses are limited. If they weren’t, we would have never invented the microscope or the telescope. Simple as that.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he asks you to picture a group of folks chained to the ground in - you guessed it - a cave. They’re forced to stare at a wall, and behind them is a fire - wavering and flickering and casting wild shadows on the wall of the cave - a la “shadow puppets.” These shadows are meant to represent what our senses tell us about the world. And because our senses are imperfect, it stands to reason that they’re giving us a kind of carnival mirror version of what reality looks like. 

But, outside the cave, we’ve got the beautiful, pure sunlight, which represents the world of forms. And basically, what Plato’s allegory of the cave begs us to do is break free of the dark, misrepresented information we receive in the cave and consider more pure forms as they might be revealed by actual sunlight.

Now, of course, there’s good and bad that comes with this. The good is that we come to grips with our own human limitations. But the bad is that we perhaps come to dismiss or distrust our senses, which is precisely were Aristotle enters the picture.

Aristotle enjoyed the world we live in. He was grounded in it, and a lot of his most influential later works were centered around summarizing or cataloging its contents and energies.

Consider this:

Plato’s school was called, “The Academy,” and the sign out front said, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

But Aristotle’s school was called “The Lyceum,” which was an outdoor place. And his teaching style came to be known as “Peripatetic,” because he often lectured by walking around and speaking to the public - not just to folks who knew geometry.

From this brief, little summary I just gave, you can already start to see some stark differences. Ideals vs. reality. Forms vs. beings. What is vs. what could (or should) be.

For the rest of history, Plato and Aristotle represent what is basically a line in the sand between scientists, philosophers, and historians who take different approaches to interpreting our world. On one side, we’ve got Plato, who has come to be associated with deductive reasoning, rationalism, and (down the road) mind-body dualism, and on the other side, we have Aristotle, who is associated with Inductive reasoning, Empiricism, and monism - the theory that the mind and the body are one.

Consider the Old Pal

Now, I’m not done talking about Plato, Aristotle, and their ideas. BUT, I can feel your eyes starting to glaze over a little. So let’s try looking at these two dead philosophers in the context of boozy drinks.

To do that, I’d encourage you to take a quick look at a cocktail called the “Old Pal.” The formulation for this drink is:

  • 1 oz Rye

  • 1 oz Campari

  • 1 oz dry vermouth

At face value, you might say, “hey - this looks like a riff on a Negroni or a Boulevardier,” which would be correct. It absolutely is. 

And yet - there was a point in time when folks looked at the Negroni and/or the Boulevardier, and said - hey - that’s just a riff on a Martini or a Manhattan - booze, bitters, and vermouth.

And undoubtedly they were also correct.

What you’re seeing here is either a progression or a digression - however you’d care to look at things - between what we might call an “original” cocktail and its downstream derivatives or descendants. And if you do the work of researching cocktails diligently over the course of many years, you may very well come to the conclusion that all drinks can be traced back to a handful of original, indivisible cocktail formats.

This is the overarching thesis of a popular new book called The Cocktail Codex, written by bartender Alex Day of Death & Co. (along with several co-authors also from that establishment).

In truth, The Cocktail Codex is much more nuanced and complex than I’m making it out to be - and Dave Wondrich also tips his cap to these in his article - but you’ve got to admit - this approach to cocktails seems extremely Platonic.

Think about it - you’re essentially boiling the cocktail world down to a few pure shapes or formats - like the sour, or the Old Fashioned, or the Martini - and declaring these holy flavor combinations as the pure, ruling forms around which the people and ingredients of our cocktail universe revolve.

Plato: Patron Saint of Beverage Directors

If the sign above Plato’s academy read, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here,” we might modify it for our purposes to say, “let no one ignorant of the golden sour ratio enter here.”

On thing I should point out is that Plato was not a big fan of chaos. In fact, despite hailing from Athens, he was adamantly against Democracy. In his seminal work, The Republic, he actually advocated for the people to be ruled by a “philosopher king” who would decide what was best for everyone in society.

Like it or not - most bar managers tend to agree with Plato. Think about it: you’re tasked with developing a successful bar program, and you can either let a bunch of hipster bartenders run wild with your menu, or you can teach them a few simple principles that will have them marching in step, making highly accurate and replicable drinks, and consequently, develop a cocktail program that is technically sound and financially profitable.

When you put it like that, Plato sounds like the patron saint of beverage directors. And anyone who’s ever been to a cocktail bar like this can appreciate some of the downstream results: quality drinks, consistent service, and prices that won’t make you faint.

An Aristotelian Approach to Building Drinks

This would be a good time to point out that Dave Wondrich does not come out in full support of this Platonic approach to cocktails in his article. He actually advocates for the Aristotelian “method” or “mindset” when it comes to building drinks.

And when I say “building” drinks, I really do mean just that. See, when you construct or build something, you do it from the ground up. You don’t start with the siding and the shingles and make your way down to the cornerstone. You start very deliberately (and often very humbly) with simple elements that, taken together, become more than the sum of their parts.

What I just described is - essentially - the inductive method, which matches up pretty closely with the scientific method we’re familiar with today. And this is perhaps Aristotle’s greatest departure from Plato when it comes to the way they view the world.

Aristotle is a ground-up kinda guy. He starts by looking at the nuts and bolts of a given subject, and if those nuts happen to add up to some sort of unified whole - that’s great! - but if they happen to veer off in one direction or another, that’s fine too. Remember, Plato is all about perfect forms, but Aristotle is more about looking at what’s right in front of us and trying to understand that as best we can. 

This brings us back to the central thought experiment of Dave Wondrich’s article. Essentially what he does is take the Platonic ideal of a “rum sour” cocktail - what most of us would call a Daiquiri - and puts that general idea through the filter of two seemingly similar iterations: the Caipirinha, and the ‘Ti Punch. 

Now, before I dive into his specific findings, let me explain to you what precisely Mr. Wondrich finds appealing about an Aristotelian approach to cocktails.

He says in the conclusion of his article:

If an Aristotelean approach to bartending, where these unique species are incorporated as they are and not assimilated to larger families and patterns of drinks, might take more preparation and training, it pays off with drinks that are different; that preserve nuances and edges that are otherwise buffed out.

This image he presents of edges being buffed out - blurred and homogenized in our attempt to perfect them - reminds me of what happens when we value clean boundaries over nuance - when we decline to place things under a microscope or examine far-off objects through a telescope. When we do this, we take our time. We acknowledge what Plato identifies as the inadequacies of our senses, and we take measures to correct them. In so doing, we see the microscopic serrations on the blade, we see the massive, and yet somehow beautiful storm warping across the gaseous surface of the planet Jupiter.

I want to call us back now to the discomfort we felt - or which I identified - when I walked you through Dave Wondrich’s Caipirinha recipe at the beginning of this episode. Part of this discomfort has to do with energy over matter - the fact that the way you prepared the lime was more important than the actual measurements of the drink.

Put this formulation in an average cocktail bar, and it will surely implode - or, in the best of worlds, succumb to some standardization that allows the bar to make them quickly and turn a tidy profit.

See the buffing? See the homogenization already beginning to occur?

I need to admit to you that at this point in the writing process, I started to tear up, and I didn’t know why. I was just writing facts - I was pointing out where certain logic patterns broke or began to build.

But I think I realize now that what brought me to the edge of tears was the fact that there is something precious about a great cocktail that is utterly bulldozed by a merely good one. To ground things in the case study of the Caipirinha, there’s something magical and utterly poetic in the way that a flash version of an oleo saccharum is produced by the muddling of the lime skin atop a heaping teaspoon of granulated sugar.

That thing is momentary! It’s about to be clouded and made aqueous by the expressed juice of that expertly prepped lime! And yet - as Dave Wondrich so accurately and humbly puts it - “you want that.” 

Now, when I began writing this, I thought I was going to take you through the Daiquiri, Caipirihna, and Ti Punch formulations in the article and really analyze them - but what I realize now is that would essentially amount to me plagiarizing Dave’s work. And I don’t want to do that - so please head over the ModernBarCart.com/Podcast, and follow the link in the show notes page so that you can give it a read for yourself.

Maybe you’ll agree with me, and with Dave, in thinking that an Aristotelian approach to building drinks is desirable and preserves certain details that can be lost in our attempt to templatize and standardize everything we make. Then again, perhaps you’ll take a different view.

Either way, please feel free to drop us a line at podcast@modernbarcart.com and let us know what you think.

Concluding Remarks

I’d like to round out this little in-between-isode - this audio essay - by offering you a few novel observations. Because I used to teach rhetoric and public discourse to college students, I’m kinda obsessed with extending the conversation and adding new factors to the discussion, so here are a few things that might either enhance - or completely reformulate - what we’ve been talking about in this episode.

My first observation is a slightly ironic one. And it has to do with the Cocktail Codex approach to placing cocktails into families - or taxonomies. In the scientific world, we might compare this to the “Kingdom - Phylum - Class - Order - Family - Genus - Species” approach to naming living things like animals, plants, fungi, and little microscopic stuff. Right? That’s what we call a taxonomy, and it’s kinda similar to the “Old Pal” example I gave earlier where the Old Pal is a member of the “negroni” Phylum, which, in turn, is a member of the Manhattan or Martini Kingdom.

We’ve got this nesting dolls paradigm, which helps us to understand what cocktail is a sub-set of what other more essential cocktail. And that’s useful.

But, if you recall, following Dave Wondrich’s lead, we lumped this under a “Platonic” approach to cocktails because it tried to group things under the “essential forms” from which they derive their characteristics.

But here’s the irony - Aristotle was the dude who spent time trying to organize things into taxonomies. Plato didn’t care about that stuff! He was all like - world of forms, I rest my case, gimme a triangle. Boom - that’s beautiful. Aristotle was the guy who tried to collect basic characteristics and add them up to create larger classes or categories from them. 

Still - I don’ think this wrecks Dave’s argument. The divide is still pretty clear. An Aristotelian bartender gets chained to the rock in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and yet finds ways to take delight in the shadows on the cave wall projected by the fire behind him - even as he strives to classify and understand those shadows.

Plato & Aristotle, Meet Jean-Luc Picard

The other big, complicated point I want to make about this article is how this debate will inform cocktails of the future. And there are two major things I want to point out.

One has been rattling around my head since our recent interview with Derek Brown and Bob Yule, where we spoke about the Star Trek model of cocktails for the future.

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, you know that there’s one phrase that Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, utters more than almost any other phrase besides “make it so, number one.” And that phrase is simply: “Tea, Early Grey, Hot.”

He speaks this phrase to the Amazon Alexa of his day - the ship’s computer that’s always listening and capable of spitting out pretty much any pre-programmed food or drink from a device they call a “replicator.” 

You can already see the arc of science fiction bending in Plato’s direction here.

The tension I want to identify is that, if you lean toward the “replicator” approach to flavor, you’re at risk for losing all of the terroir and regional charm that Wondrich identifies in his article as he carefully and lovingly describes the different methods for making 3 takes on a rum sour.

For him, and - I’ll be honest - for me, that nuance, that charm and character is everything. And I’m happy to abandon consistency in its pursuit. Because if we end up receiving identical cocktails from a computer algorithm that optimizes for purity over character, I’m just not interested. We already live in that world - and if that’s what you want, there are lots of cans and bottles with twist tops and pull tabs just waiting for you to open them next time you take a trip to CostCo or the corner store. 

Future Cocktail Forms

The last thing I’ll address here is where this conversation might be headed. After all, we’re still talking about two philosophers who have been dead for millennia. So, I think I can extrapolate out maybe ten years.

Given what we’ve talked about on this episode so far, one interesting corollary to our Aristotle/Plato argument comes from Paul MacDonald, an excellent bartender in Philadelphia, whom we spoke to about his innovative “Fibonacci Sequence” cocktails. 

He’s been formulating cocktails based on the Fibonacci sequence for the past several years. And, although he’s the first to admit that most of his boozy, intellectual attempts at this paradigm are somehow modeled on classic cocktails if you break em down, there’s still something novel about the approach.

It says - hey: here’s a thing that’s not a classic cocktail ratio, but we can still use it to innovate, riff on, and modify what we already know in the cocktail world. 

If this sounds familiar, well, it is. It’s jazz. This is the jazz version of what we’re talking about, which relies equally on technical skill and improvisational spontaneity.

If you haven’t listened to our interview with Paul, head over to episode 081 of this podcast, and check out all the awesome insights he has to offer.

Embodied Drinking

The last thing I’ll leave you with here is an area of inquiry and experimentation that I’ve been kinda obsessed with recently. And that area is embodied or embodiment psychology and biology.

This topic jumps Plato and Aristotle and veers really deep into the various sub-disciplines that developed after them. But there is one really compelling sentence that hooked me on the idea, and that sentence is:

You don’t need a brain to have a mind.

What? You don’t need a brain to have a mind? This is crazy. But, stay with me here.

This assertion follows Aristotle’s bottom-up principle of analysis, and basically what it means is that all those little proto-organisms that are our distant ancestors are linked to us by something that’s not a brain. We developed that particular organ pretty deep into the game. But they were still able to sense, adapt to their surroundings, and react to stimuli based on various inputs from their environment.

Now, most of you would be correct in wondering what this has anything to do with cocktails. So, I’m not gonna play coy. I’ll just come out and tell ya.

Remember back when we called Plato a mind-body dualist, and Aristotle a Monist? Well, if you believe in the statement, you don’t need a brain to have a mind, what you’re saying is definitively that Aristotle is right. Everything is built from the bottom-up using our senses, and even animals without our capacities - those little bugs and bacteria from which we evolved - still have some sense of experience, even though it’s not what we would call an experience, per se.

This is a deep cut, so I’ll save most of it for a future episode where we can have an expert on, but the upshot is this:

Especially in this hyper health-conscious time that we live in, it’s easy to criticize cocktails in particular and alcohol in general as a bad thing. It’s not healthy, they say. But, if we’re to believe in bottom-up principles and to subscribe to the Aristotelian version of things, there’s some value in letting our body consume a substance and communicate the value to us. 

It doesn’t all need to be dictated from the top down, as Plato would have it. Sometimes, you have a great drink, and it changes your life for the better.

I’m Modern Bar Cart CEO, Eric Kozlik - this has been a strange episode of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast. We’ll be back next time with more great interview content to thrill and educate you, but until then - just think about Plato and Aristotle walking into a bar.