An Interview with Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh
If you don't know the name Ted Haigh, and you love to drink, you've got some catching up to do. Haigh is a giant. Known by most as "Dr. Cocktail", he's the vanguard of the classic and quality cocktail resurgence. Author of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, co-creator of the wonderful Regan's Orange Bitters, curator of the Museum of the American Cocktail, graphic designer for a whole slew of movies, and founder of cocktaildb.com, Ted Haigh is a drinking man's national treasure. DC Drinks recently had a chance to ask him a couple of questions.
DC Drinks: We want to know your favorite watering holes in the northeast U.S.
Dr. Cocktail: Well, for me, a West Coaster for lo these last 16 years, memory runs a little vague. I can speak of great Ethiopian food in Adams Morgan, but for bar experiences, I must turn to New York. I love Milk & Honey, anywhere that Julie Reiner or Audrey Saunders choose to shake their shakers, and the 21 Club. Mainly, be it a dive or a palace, it’s all about the enthusiasm (and cooperation) of the barkeep.
DC Drinks: A lot of folks in our camp have a disdain for vodka because by definition it's colorless, odorless and flavorless. What good things---if any---can you say about vodka?
Dr. Cocktail: Vodka is flavorless not by history but by ATF edict. Czarist vodka would’ve been nice and rough, and likely informed by flavors from the distillate. I really can’t say much good about modern trendy vodka. Smoothness is overrated. The drinks thought up by the massive multinational holding companies that own the brands are sweet and they hide even what tiny alcohol flavor and kick their products still possess. My rule of thumb: If a child would like the drink, it is dangerous and the cocktail promotions these companies do promote is alcoholism, period. Zubrowka is wonderful though.
DC Drinks: In your opinion, what are some essentials for a quality bar?
Dr. Cocktail: An enthusiastic bartender and lots of varied spirits. Really, only the first is very important to me, and the barkeep need not know everything about the craft to win my approval. Work in a dive, work amid the clouds, it doesn’t matter. If they’ll listen and learn, I’ll end up as gratified as if I meet a certified maestro.
DC Drinks: What are some deal-breakers for a bar?
Dr. Cocktail: Bad attitude from the bartender. You might think I walk into a bar with my reputation on my sleeve. I do not. If it looks like cocktails would be a stretch (or a hassle) for the bartender, I can sip Scotch or Bourbon (or gin or rum, or Irish or Mescal) happily. I don’t try to trick the guy or gal behind the stick, and I don’t show off to them. If they are a kindred spirit, we’ll talk. If they are surly from the git-go I’ll try a little harder, and 80% of the time I can win ‘em over. The other 20% are in the wrong profession and are costing their bosses money. My MAIN deal breaker is cheating: charging for more drinks than ordered, serving a drink not ordered and then charging for it, serving a bad pour, serving from the well when call liquor was requested. These are the hallmarks of fraudsters and scam artists. I won’t raise a ruckus but I’ll never go back and I’ll tell everyone I know.
DC Drinks: What's your take on the uber-expensive cocktail trend among some bars like the Reserve Club in Chicago?
Dr. Cocktail: Sucker bait. This technique---same as brandy in a Baccarat bottle---has been around forever. At any given price point, I want my brandy in the plainest bottle possible. That’s why Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges is the equal to Louis the 13th at a tenth of the price. Unless you are a glass collector, skip the fancy stuff. We’re talking high roller plumbing fixture salesmen on expense accounts. The cocktail aspect of it is (mostly) a fad that will pass, and none of the drinks will be remembered. An exception is the Ritz Sidecar as served by Colin Field in Paris. It’s still too damned expensive, though. You all KNOW how to make a great cocktail...now go to it!
DC Drinks: Classic cocktails are making a small resurgence, thanks in part to the work you've done. What suggestions would you have for the average mixology connoisseur to further this resurgence?
Dr. Cocktail: Pick no more than 4 or 5 drinks you want to explore. Search out and buy the ingredients for them. As you expand your selection, you’ll be able to use ingredients you previously acquired thus saving you money and minimizing the acquisition of products you might never use. Always use fresh juices. Buy a really good juicer, a really functional cocktail shaker, an ice bucket (and an ice scoop, not tongs), a set of measuring spoons that show teaspoon and 1/2 tablespoon (1.5 teaspoons or 1/4 oz) measures. Buy restaurant jiggers: 1/2 oz-1 oz, 3/4 oz-1.5 oz, 1 oz-2 oz hourglass jiggers. Buy a proud muddler. Get real cocktail glasses. They don’t have to match, but real glass stemware – even if from your local thrift store makes for better drink presentation than a beer cup or a Ball jar. Invite friends over and you can all end up being cocktail evangelists!
Dr. Cocktail's website can be found here.
The CNN story on the Museum of the American Cocktail can be found here.