Imbibe editor Paul Clarke on cocktail culture and the value of competition
Paul Clarke, author and executive editor of Imbibe magazine, has been immersed in cocktail culture for the last twelve years as a journalist specializing in spirits, cocktails, and the culture of drink. This year, he will be an honored guest and judge at Philbrook MIX (alongside the Humble Garnish’s Andrew Saliga and yours truly). Having judged dozens of bartender competitions before, Clarke gives us some insight into what’s-the-big-deal about Philbrook MIX (besides fundraising) and other competitions, and what at-home enthusiasts can do to improve their cocktail lives.
The Tulsa Voice: We’ve witnessed the craft cocktail movement blossom and boom over the last ten years. What is the next wave? Are we in it?
Paul Clarke: We’re seeing the craft cocktail is becoming normal. Ten or 12 years ago the craft cocktail was isolated, only in places like New York City, London, or San Francisco. For the rest of the world it was pretty nonexistent. Now we see them all over, in places like Tulsa. Imbibe receives recipes from bars all across the country—almost every state has something going on. Likewise internationally, all through Europe, deep in Asia, and Australia has been leading the way for years. In the next ten years we’ll see it continue to become normalized, in all kinds of restaurants, bars, and scenarios.
TTV: That’s good news!
PC: Absolutely. It’s kind of following the same pattern as craft beer and, really, our whole culinary movement over the last 20 years. You don’t have to live in New York or San Francisco to have good food and drink. And as people travel extensively and read about craft cocktails, they want these kinds of experiences. Increasingly they’re getting them in all kinds of communities.
TTV: Many people are still wary of trying to make craft cocktails at home. Can you give a word of advice to this?
PC: It can be intimidating, kind of a mystery train—you don’t know what you’re doing, afraid to venture in too far. But, as we’ve seen with food with the growth of television cooking shows and networks—they brought those kinds of kitchen experiences into the home. People watched chefs make a meal on TV or online and realized it’s not impossible, it looks fun, it’s cool, you can get special tools, bring it into your home. That is the same direction the craft cocktail will follow. The mystery is being taken out of this. You can go out and see someone make an excellent Negroni or daiquiri and realize that it’s not rocket science; it’s not that difficult. Also, the kinds of bar tools you need—those are increasingly available in kitchen and housewares stores—and online, of course, at places like Cocktail Kingdom. They’ve realized this need exists for the play-at-home crowd.
TTV: Speaking of a home bar—what are the essential tools?
PC: It’s easier than you think. You want a cocktail shaker of some sort, something you like. A dedicated bar spoon. You need a professional-gauge strainer—you can get a good one online. You need a jigger or some sort of measuring device. I like the OXO 2 oz. measurer you can get in a kitchen store. Those are the basic elements. And if you get into it, there are more advanced tools you can bring in to play with, but chances are most people have most of the things they need to make cocktails or can easily get them.
TTV: How about your desert island bar book?
PC: Oh, man. That’s rough. Just one? You know, Gary Reagan’s “Joy of Mixology” got a lot of people into this. It came along at a perfect time as bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts were getting into the game. The essential thing it does is break drinks down into families, so you understand how to begin to play and do these things yourself. It’s a little bit older, but it’s the kind of thing that still speaks to a beginner and is easy to grasp. With my book (“The Cocktail Chronicles”), I was trying to fill Gary’s niche 10 years later. It’s still designed for the beginner, but an updated version where we no longer have to explain what a daiquiri is. We have a more educated cocktail public, but this gives them new information to get into it themselves.
TTV: What’s the value in a competition like Philbrook MIX, both for the patron and the bartender?
PC: The competitions are an interesting phenomenon. As an outsider, you might look at it as you go into a room for three hours and see some people make cocktails. That, on the face, sounds pretty dull. But the competitions highlight people nearing the peak of their profession, or pursuing the peak, and showing what they can do. That may be something with the utmost simplicity and doing it perfectly or a bartender reaching for innovation and doing something new and dazzling. These competitions give bartenders a chance to flex their skills and the consumers to see how these creative professionals do their best.
TTV: What are you looking for in a great cocktail?
PC: My answer is going to be maddening. I’m looking for something that’s good. And “good” is going to vary. Ultimately it has to be a satisfying cocktail. After I take the first few sips, I’m asking myself, “Am I willing to drink the rest? Willing to pay 10 or 15 dollars for this? Willing to come back and order it again?” Sometimes in competitions you see bartenders pull out the stops, coming up with something new and innovative, but often it’s not the cocktail you really want. It may be gorgeous, but it’s not very good. It’s got to taste good, look good, be enjoyable. As much as we get excited about new cocktails and enjoy events like this, the cocktail has to be something you want to drink.
TTV: What’s the weirdest beverage you’ve ever had at one of these competitions?
PC: I was at a competition a few years ago at Tales of the Cocktail and a bartender from L.A. who had very long hair shaved the sides of his head and spiked his hair into a Mohawk. To garnish the cocktail, he tied a lock of his hair that had been shaved off around the cocktail stem. At another competition in New York, a bartender from the U.K. used an Italian stovetop espresso-maker top and jerry-rigged it into a tiny still. He custom made gin for the competition using that device.
TTV: Are you looking forward to judging MIX?
PC: I am looking forward to it. I’ve been curious to see what’s going on in the cocktail scene in Tulsa. I grew up in Oklahoma, in Tahlequah, and haven’t been to Tulsa in over 20 years. When I got the invitation I thought, “Oh, it’s kind of a homecoming.” I’m excited to come to town.
with Philbrook MIX 2016 Co-Chairs Sarah & Craig Buchan
TTV: Tell us about the inception of MIX.
CRAIG: MIX was an idea that came about from some of the Young Masters members of yesteryear, this was five or six years ago. The idea was to put on an event that was different, that would appeal not only to young people, but all kinds of people, with the idea of raising funds for the museum.
TTV: $125 a ticket isn’t cheap, but it’s obviously for a good cause. Can you tell us a little bit about where the money goes?
SARAH: The proceeds from your ticket goes to helping the museum operations and the Philbrook children’s educational programs. It also goes to Any Given Child, which is a great partnership Philbrook has done with Tulsa Public Schools. The ticket is money out of the pocket that we don’t take lightly, but it goes to such a great cause. You also have what I feel is an awesome bang for your buck—you have 15 different cocktails crafted by the best bartenders in the city, plus food from Justin Thompson Restaurant Group and macarons from Antoinette bakery.
CRAIG: One of the things Philbrook is trying to do, of course, is to open its doors to reach every corner of the city and the community and this part of the state. One of the ways they’re trying to do that is to increase the educational programming. That’s where this money goes.
TTV: How do you feel MIX has contributed to Tulsa’s growing cocktail movement?
CRAIG: You have, quite frankly, an explosion in this city of the cocktails, bars and eateries, and a lot of that is based in downtown Tulsa. This event has taken off hand-in-hand with that explosion. … The event is only successful because of the contributions from the very talented bartenders and their establishments. We attribute the success of the event to them.
TTV: Have you guys found that the out-of-town judges are surprised by the level of talent and seriousness in Tulsa?
SARAH: They are. And it’s a pleasant surprise. I love that they can help turn that perspective when they leave here to say “Wow, this might be a small town in Oklahoma, but man do they pack a punch with their cocktails.”
TTV: 15 cocktails is a lot to drink in one night, even if they’re small pours. Any advice on how to make it to the end of the night still standing?
CRAIG: Pace yourself and drink water.
SARAH: And nibble on the good food. The event starts at 7:30 and ends at 11; it’s not a race. Taste it all and enjoy yourself.
CRAIG: And Uber home!