I do not love cocktails. I'm probably a bigger fan of cocktails today than ever, but that's not saying much. I prefer my drinks neat and I prefer that drink to be bourbon. Why mess with a good thing?
When presented with a cocktail, let's a say a trio, you are presented with an opportunity to enjoy and identify 3 or less flavors. If the cocktail is designed to be perfectly mingled you may only get one flavor, "mmm that tastes like a Brandy Alexander." The end. Perhaps the drink is designed for each ingredient to hit you in layers, "vodka first, then the cream, and that sweet coffee finish, what a lovely White Russian that was, The Dude abides."
Oh my lucky stars! The cavalcade of flavors has left me in a tizzy. How did I even identify all three ingredients with my super refined palate? Yawn. A cocktail is the perfect example of the whole being less than the sum of it's parts. Whereas bourbon, neat, is the consummate example of the whole far exceeding the sum of its parts! Allow Mr. Seth P. Brown of The Firewater Review to prove my point. Below are his tasting notes for Brent Elliot's Four Roses Elliot's Select:
Distillery: Four Roses
Proof: 52.4% / 104.8
Nose: Ripe, sweet fruits, oak, a bit of barrel char, black pepper, dill, nutmeg and light almond notes. Very balanced nose between sweet and spice. After revisiting the nose after my first sip, I pick up cinnamon and a touch of clove.
Palate: Pretty spicy up front but settles down quickly revealing more sweet flavors — nice caramel flavors balance out the black pepper and cinnamon spices. It’s very rich and full-bodied. Like the nose, there is a really nice balance here.
Finish: Really long. Nice sugary hot candy flavors early on. Those give way to some salted caramel and dark chocolate. It gets a tad syrupy about mid-way through. After my second sip, I get mint and almonds and a little oak toward the very end. Almost 10 minutes after my last sip I’m still picking up a light peppermint flavor. Amazing!
I think you're probably picking up what I'm laying down. Cocktails came to prominence when the booze was so bad you needed to add something to take the edge off. Today, bourbon is so spectacular, that by adding anything, no matter how welcome and delicious, you are diminishing a work of art. Don't do it!
Now, is there a place for cocktails? Maybe. I have been accused recently of photographing and imbibing a few too many frou frou cocktails as it were. I agree. A friend of mine owns several bars in downtown Grand Rapids, and they are a great place to sit down with friends and enjoy a drink. But I can't drink bourbon there. I'm not going to pay $8 for a pour of Buffalo Trace that I have at home, and I'm not going to pay $50 for a pour of Whistle Pig 15yo that I passed on paying $149.99 for the entire bottle. So what am I going to drink? A PBR? I wish.
Here's why I'll order a cocktail. Bartenders work incredibly hard at their craft. Their minds are encyclopedias of drinks, and ingredients and techniques. They can be very good at making cocktails. Despite the fact that I think even the very best bourbon cocktail ever concocted is a step back from a neat pour, I do believe that out of 15 bartenders crafting the same drink one of them likely does it better than the other 14, and I'd like to commend that bartender by enjoying their superior expression of an inferior drink.