Friday, May 15, 2009

"Masters" of their domains

Like everyone else who writes about wine, spirits and food, I receive plenty of superfluous emails about the latest this, the greatest that, the most interesting other, all in the service of building word of mouth about a product. Fine; I'm not agin publicists, struggling to get their products picked out from the teeming mass, making a mark.

But recently, people are increasingly trying to boost their wares by association with one or another "Master Mixologist," a term thrown around with promiscuous frequency these days. Sometimes the so-called "Master" is someone whose work I know and who may have a legitimate claim to such a lofty title, especially if they have labored long and hard to perfect their craft through thick (the last ten years of the cocktail boom) and thin (well, any other time when knowing the name of more than a handful of bartenders meant you had an overactive drinking life). Other times, it's a neophyte with maybe five or ten years behind the stick. I've been writing about what bartenders do for some time, and was one myself long ago, so when I see people who have been at it for such a short period of time referred to as a "Master Mixologist," it dawns on me that there is NO such a thing.

I mean, there are many bartenders who can legitimately claim to have mastered their corner of the business, but a small m master is not the same as a "Master Mixologist." Who decides that all these people are "Masters?" Masters of what? Creating drinks for a living? No one would ever call someone who only developed food recipes a "Master Culinarian," because clearly, working in a silent and controlled test kitchen to get a dish just right is not the same as managing a kitchen that churns out scores of four star meals night after night. What's the standard? To be considered a master carpenter, one traditionally must put in the time and pass through a series of professional stages and be certified as such. To receive a Masters Degree, again, a generally agreed-upon set of requirements must be satisfied.

To me, a "Master Mixologist" would need to have established not only drink-making skills, but a business track record, including glorious failures and scandalous successes, a history of slinging drinks not only at uber-cool speaks, but also taverns or saloons, nightclubs and fine dining establishments, maybe a hotel or resort thrown in. He or she'd have to know when to call for the bouncer and when they could peel a loser away from the bar on their own, when to buy a drink and when not to pour one, how to cure the hiccups and a sour disposition of a good customer. But today, as far as I can tell, you are a "Master Mixologist" if you say you are, or someone says it for you. Not a very rigorous standard.

This is not to say that there aren't any "MMs." Dale DeGroff, of course, comes by the honor honestly, as do any number of other men and women who have been laboring away, sometimes in the media spotlight but often in obscurity, at resurrecting the craft of bartending in America. I won't start listing names of the people who I think are masters, because it's not my power to say. That's the point; it's not any one person's right to assert such a thing, at least to my way of thinking. The proliferation of "Masters" ought somehow to be curtailed, if only for humility's sake. Maybe the bartending community should assert what standards it has or create some that define what these folks are. Otherwise, the term "Master Mixologist" will become no more than a publicity tool.

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