Over the last week I spent my time between Amsterdam and Paris. Both cities are lovely. Amsterdam has it's canals, bikes, and window shopping for anything you can imagine, while Paris has this perfect mixture of leisure and franticness. While eating and drinking through these two great cities I found myself more than one night at Bar Hemingway in the Hotel Ritz.
This bar has won more awards than you can shake a cocktail at. The man at the helm for the last 25 years, Colin Field, has also been showered with praise from all the magazines that smell good and showcase wrist watches that cost more than my apartment. The room is small. I would say it can hold 34 people but when I am drinking I am only good at counting to 3. The bar seats 7 or 8 patrons and a few tables for couples in the first area. Up a stumble of stairs are a few more tables and chairs. There is no room to stand. If there is not a seat available you can wait or leave. One of the great many tricks of the bar-- there is room for exactly the right amount of people. The bar staff wears impressively white jackets and black ties. Hemingway paraphernalia litters the walls but be sure to note it is not tacky. Nothing is fake. The photos, the typewriters, the guns, the shirt (and the bullet holes) are all real. The lighting is constantly perfect. There is no music whatsoever. No sounds except for conversation and the clinking of ice. All drinks are €30 (that would be $37.09 in USD), unless of course you order the Ritz Sidecar. That rings up to €1,500 or $1,855.60 on your weighty Amex.
Here is where I want to talk about standard recipes and why Bar Hemingway is without a doubt the best bar in the world. A martini: is best given in recipe form as 2oz of Gin, 1oz of dry vermouth, and a few dashes of orange bitters. This will make a standard martini. It looks right, tastes right, and will do the trick. It is okay. Passable. It allows everyone to make a martini and have the same experience. The same way a 1987 Toyota Camry will get you from A to B just as well as a Lamborghini Countach will. But what is the difference? The Toyota has an engine as does the Lamborghini. Four Wheels, check. Windscreen, steering wheel, fuel cap, brakes. Check, check, check. They are identical on paper in that both are vehicles. Is an engineering degree from MIT the same as one from Bunker Hill Community College right down the street? On paper they both say the holder is an engineer with all the usual stamps and signatures.
When I walk into a bar, and that is a thing I do quite often, I don't expect much anymore. Bartenders these days are off the rack retailers, not the fine tailors they used to be. Most places make me the same standard cocktails anywhere I am. The 2-1 Manhattan. The 2-3/4-1/2 Daiquiri. The 2-1/4 Old Fashioned and the so over done whiskey + Amaro + vermouth brown and stirred with Jamie Boudreaus' Golden Ratio. Even Jamie, of the well known Canon in Seattle, believes in his Golden Ratio of 1 1/2-3/4-1/2 for making drinks that will work every time. He calls it the "Mr. Potato Head" of ratios.
I want custom fit drinks, not one size fits all. These are standards and boring. These are easy ratios that work. They get you from A-B the same way your moms old Camry got you to and from high school and to pick up your sister and a gallon of milk on the way home. These drinks are the snap back hats that you get for free at a conference. Boxes of sterile gloves that fit everyone. No thank you. My slacks fit me (on good days) because my tailor made them so. My sunglasses have my prescription in them. My suit jackets have a slightly lower right shoulder because I lean that way for some reason. These articles won't fit everyone, but they fit me like the leather gloves I wear every winter. I want my drinks to fit me the same way. Standard ratios don't actually fit...they just give the illusion of fitting. Small. Medium. Large.
The biggest difference between Jamie and Colin is that one of them is so concerned about the ingredients and the other is so concerned about the people sitting in front of him. That is the only secret you need to know. I never once saw Colin touch a jigger. The drinks happen because he knows the people before they sit down. American bartenders are attached to their measurements and sacred ratios like pacifiers. It may be time to finally grow up.
Same Drinks for Different People
The bartenders at Bar Hemingway believe in a concept that I have preached for years. You could have a full bar of people drinking manhattans and every single one of them could be unique yet still a manhattan. People are unique. Their drinks should be also. How you make a drink should not come from the page of a book. It can't. Only the most basic standardization can be put in print. It should come from knowing that book and many others inside and out and also knowing people. Knowing the temperature outside, and if it is rainy or sunny. Knowing that she is waiting on a man that will never show up. Knowing that he was here last night with another woman. Knowing that most people don't wear that kind of jewelry unless its a special occasion. Knowing the difference between shoes that have been polished by the wearer or by the valet. All these things change how I would make a drink for someone...except for the woman being stood up...she can have the whole bottle and the cab home is on me. It was so refreshing to see this method of tending bar employed. Colin would walk over to new guests at the bar and sum them up quickly. "You look like an old fashioned man to me. Cognac, rum...no it has to be Bourbon for you. Yes yes...Bourbon will do just the trick. I'll be right back I promise."
The Price of Perfection
It is a problem with the industry here in the States. Laziness and cheapness. I have paid a quarter for a martini in New Orleans at happy hour. Do you know how many martinis I could have there for $37.09? It is never about the martini. It is never about the price. It is about the whole thing. I don't have time for the standard anything anymore except maybe a pair of Chucks and the Levis to go with them. Neither of those things look right until they get dirty though. Until they are personalized to you. Customized. I also wouldn't recommend wearing those articles to the Hemingway. Mixology isn't "whats good here" and it surely isn't off the cuff fruity cocktails with dry ice and other gimmicks. Mixology is making a drink for one person. Making their drink. Knowing their drink before they say it. Knowing it's been a long day or a day off. Knowing they have a long way to go or that they are staying in the hotel just upstairs. While I was sitting at the Hemingway for my third time in a week I overheard Colin ask how far a woman needed to travel to get back to her hotel after her last drink. "Oh that's about a 10 minute ride...I know just the thing to finish the night for you."
My drink costs an international plane ticket, a cab ride from the airport, a hotel for the night, a cab back to the airport, the return ticket AND then €30...and that is if I can get a seat at the bar. Will I settle for less...rarely, but I also luckily know how to make my drink. If I get the urge for a martini out I should just put the $15 in a coffee can for my Paris fund and make one myself. The Bartenders at Bar Hemingway are the first in my life that got it right from the start. So when I am in Paris it is worth the price for me to take the night off. They are on duty and it felt so nice to finally relax in a bar again.
On my second and third nights I had the pleasure of sitting in front of a bartender named Joris. If you have the pleasure of visiting Bar Hemingway I hope you have the pleasure of Joris making your drinks. He is soft spoken but swift. Sharp yet kind. His drinks are perfect. He reminded me of an old friend from the start. Order his Champagne Cocktail. It is far better than mine. The jealousy of his skill only made me like it more. I hope to have one again soon and I will be trying to recreate it until that day comes. Cheers to you Joris and thank you for the true hospitality Colin.
Bar To Home
A simple translation from bar to home.