This year's celebration of cocktails and cocktail culture took time out to talk shop about mixing beer and music.
Tales of the Cocktails can be a nearly week-long succession of well-made little drinks. Mine was shortened by travel this year, but I did have a number of tasty, tiny cocktails and only one Tales fail—a muffin made from the component parts of rye whiskey that was unpleasant once I broke through the molasses drizzle on top that solidified to the consistency of girders. A close second was the mixologist who decided the best way to mask Crown Royal's Crown Royalness was to add maple syrup.
Tales is generally a good barometer of what’s happening in the cocktail world. Rum remains hot, vodka’s a liquor in need of rehab ("the tofu of the spirit world," one friend said), and with three panels dedicated to the subject, beer cocktails are the cutting edge. For a long time, beer wasn’t considered fit for mixing because in the 19th century and the start of the 20th, it was unpredictable from brand to brand and batch to batch. Recipes were hard to stabilize when the ale used could be flavorful one day and foul the next. It’s not ironic that one of the first places where beer cocktails first made inroads was Mexico, where the mixers could help to mask deficiencies in the beer. One that involved gin, beer and parmesan cheese likely revealed the deficiencies in the people who would drink it.
Beer cocktails became more probable as beer became a more predictable product in the late 1940s. The development of lagers in America helped, as did the ability to transport beer greater distances. Still, that accounted in large part for beer becoming a home drink, whereas cocktails remained more of a barroom thing. The craft beer revolution led directly to the exploration of beer cocktails as beers have developed more distinctive, more engaging flavor profiles.
The most interesting panel in my foreshortened Tales this year addressed the question of music in the bar, club or restaurant—what you play and why you play it. Panelists wouldn’t say specifically what works and doesn’t, but moderator Jacob Briars shared a Spotify playlist that looks pretty conventional at times, but its mix of the well-known and the merely familiar seemed like sound advice—unless that’s not what you want, of course.
“What’s the experience you’re trying to give your guests?” he asked. If your venue is designed to encourage guests to linger over dinner or drinks, gentler tempos make that more likely. If your business model is to get people in, get drinks in them, and get them out, then something uptempo makes more sense.
“Tempo is the most important part of the music you play,” Briars said. “Disco refuses to die because it’s in the tempo sweet spot, 120 beats per minute”—approximately the tempo of a gentle run or a moderate walk. The best DJs “keep people just below boil”—energetic enough to feel and feed the room’s enthusiasm, but not so energetic that people leave their tables and drinks to actually dance.
The bottom line advice of the panel was that music needs to be part of venue’s design from the planning stages because some good decisions are hard or expensive to make at the last minute. One place where a lack of forethought too often shows up is in the quality of sound. Panelist Vishal Visan quoted audio engineer Kevin Davidson as saying, “I would rather use a mediocre loudspeaker in well treated room than an absolutely amazing loudspeaker in an untreated room. I know which one would give the best result.” Unfortunately, many music-related decisions are made after it’s too late to integrate things that improve the sound into the venue’s design. Rooms end up boomy or noisy, and the music becomes ambient racket or takes over the night with the oppressive volume necessary to make it heard.
The panel discussed the pros and cons of music delivery systems, including the legal issues connected to Spotify and streaming (there are some). A good hint in the right direction came from panelist and DJ Nick Van Tiel, who hit on a basic truth about how important it is that a venue has personality.
“Nobody wakes up thinking, God, that was an awesome night of listening to music on Pandora.”