As a sommelier, I have an interior battle with the fact that I don’t actually create the product I most frequently work with. I don’t assemble the flavors in the bottle. I’m not saying I wish I were a winemaker. I create, but at more of a meta-level than the chef in the kitchen or a cocktail bartender. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting this way is better; perhaps I’m even suggesting it’s (if anything) slightly less noble. I am always one degree removed from the product that I deliver. At the very least, it’s something I find myself pondering in the essential nature of the sommelier.
My expertise is curatorial, not generative. I know wine (to the degree that I know it), and where wines fit relative to other wines, and how wines a, b, and c fit with foods x, y, and z. I can pair these with (hopefully) success. My talent is not creative in the classic sense. I don’t make an object. I make experiences. I assemble, advocate, usher, evaluate, discern. I am a repository of knowledge first and foremost. My passion and enthusiasm for wine lead me to want to dispense that in a helpful way in order to induce novel experiences.
Intelligences are particular to individuals though, and there’s a reason why I don’t work in the kitchen or attempt to dissolve myself into a whirl of flying jiggers and custom-cut ice cubes. I love my job, but I am so curious about people who practice in the more alchemical side of our sensory experience.
To that end, I am continuously asking my kitchen questions about how they cook and on a recent night, I went with a few colleagues to a local high-quality cocktail joint to do some “research”. As part of my journey through the Court of Master Sommeliers I’m expected to familiarize myself with the classic cocktail oeuvre, a task which I’m more than happy to complete. In my time as a sommelier, I’ve found out a lot about how I process information and learn, and I’ve found that one of the most powerful ways to internalize knowledge is by tying it to a memory or a narrative.
I also found out that there are some powerfully delicious classic cocktails. Two of my favorites from this weekend were:
1/2 oz. Gin
1/2 oz. Lime Juice
1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse
1/2 oz. Maraschino Liqueur
To me, balance in cocktails is much like balance in wine. You want a harmony between alcohol, acid/sweetness, and fruit/herbal/mineral flavor. The gin provides a boozy base as well as delicious herbal aromatics. The lime’s juicy tartness tempers perfectly the maraschino’s sweetness and cherry flavors. Lastly, the Chartreuse, arguably the world’s greatest amari (yes, I know it’s not technically an amari, this is just as suggested by Levi Dalton* and I tend to understand and agree) adds enviable depth of flavor to drink that’s already packed with it. Mix it all, shake, serve in a coupe. I could drink these all day.
Also, Blood and Sand:
1 oz. Blended Scotch Whisky
3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth
3/4 oz. Cherry Heering
1 oz. Orange Juice
These are shaken, and served in a rocks glass, preferably with a fastidiously carved large ice cube and orange rind. Again, same principles of the balance are present in this drink. Mine was made with the very delicious Antica Formula vermouth. I missed which scotch was used though. The bartender was nice enough to pour me a taste of the Heering next to the Marachino (Luxardo). The Heering is much darker and sweeter, whereas the Marachino is more off-dry and clear. I would be interesting to see this cocktail with various types of Scotch, for instance, could the drink handle the intense smokiness of an Islay? Or would one need to adjust the recipe somehow?
Both of these exploit the essential geometry of good cocktails (some might say of all good alcoholic beverages) to such a successful degree. The work that these bartenders do is enviable, inspiring, and humbling to me. I love uncovering these time-tested recipes, carefully recorded and then adjusted to be any given bartender’s interpretation of a classic.
Or, for that matter, the Boccioni at top. So, I say to you, that yes, a sommelier is a salesmen, but hopefully, if you meet the right one, his most important priority and the goal at the top his mind is that he wants to give you the most brilliant, revelatory, and human experience he can provide. He would like give you a wine that will show you something new, allow you discover, and provide you with a new and beautiful dimension in your sensory experience. I mean, that’s why I show up to work every day. Come play with me sometime?
*He did say this at some point. I agreed with it. However, I can’t place my interweb-paws on the citation at the moment.