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Bartender Todd Thrasher on Borrowing Cocktails and Giving Credit Where It's Due

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Photo: R. Lopez

It's not just chefs debating the importance of crediting sources in cooking and whether intellectual property is a right they can claim in their profession. Bartenders, too, deal with the same phenomenon of competitors taking inspiration from their creations, and sometimes just ripping them off completely. In 2010, New York City bartender Eben Freeman gave a somewhat controversial seminar at the annual Tales of the Cocktail about how the community might protect its intellectual property.

But Virginia bartender/owner Todd Thrasher also credits Tales of the Cocktail for building a community of bartenders who are willing to share their work. Preferably with all due credit, of course. Last summer, Thrasher — who also owns the speakeasy PX — opened TNT Bar in suburban DC, focusing half of the drink menu on cocktails that he borrowed from bartender friends across America, including PDT's Jim Meehan, another man who believes in crediting his sources. Here now, he discusses cocktails as intellectual property and why he likes to share.

My colleague Gabe has done a really great job of looking at the issue of attributing sources in cooking. I know it's also a recurring issue in the cocktail world starting with Eben Freeman's seminar at Tales of the Cocktail.
I have not been back to Tales of the Cocktail in a few years, but I have heard what's going on with all that stuff. For me, I'm kind of torn. Yes, they should give you credit. But let's say it's a Sunday night and you just saw the Avett Brothers in concert and you walk into a bar called Of Love & Regret in Baltimore and they have one of your cocktails on the menu. It's verbatim one of your cocktails, but they don't give you credit? I still look at it as it's kind of flattery because your cocktail was good enough to go on their menu.

Is that a true story?
Yes, maybe so. That recipe they used was directly from the Food & Wine cookbook. At that point, that recipe is out there for anyone in the world to use. So whatever. Would I prefer them to say the inspiration was Todd Thrasher? Probably so. But then let's say they make it really crappy and they use your name. Do you want that? I ordered the cocktail, and it was good.

Did you say anything to them?
No, God no. They did a good job with it. [My wife] Maria and I have gone back to that place to eat twice and we like it. I'm torn on the whole thing. People have called me before and asked me for recipes and they always use my name. I don't think it's a big deal. For some people it may be a big deal.

Why do you think it is a big deal for some people?
You could look at [it as] "I put my heart and my soul into making this cocktail and you just take it and you get recognition for it." That could be a big reason. Sometimes it takes a month or so to develop a recipe, and then they put this great cocktail on their menu without any recognition. I can see why some people would get upset with it. But it's like people with road rage. I can see why people get mad. I'm not going to do it, but I can see why people get mad. I just look at it as, "That's my cocktail." They like what I do enough that they're going to put it on their menu. As long as it's good.

Well, I guess that's part of the trouble, too, is that you can't really enforce it's going to be the quality you would hold it to.
Right. It's like when we opened TNT and I put that email out to a bunch of bartenders, some people said no to me. It could be they don't want their name on something that's not good. [But] when the bartenders at TNT make the recipe, they follow it 100 percent to the T. We don't use any kind of deviation. I would never, ever borrow one of my friends' cocktails and do something different to it. I care a great deal about you as a bartender, and I look up to you, and I like the bar you work at and, I'm going to give you the respect of doing it exactly how you want it.

And backing up, tell me about why you decided to borrow recipes for a portion of the TNT menu.
When I go to other cities, I would like to know where I can drink or eat beforehand. So the whole idea of the road trip part of TNT's menu was kind of a map for people. If they're into the cocktail scene, if they go to another city, they already have an in on where they can go to drink and get a good cocktail. That's when I started thinking about the people that I respect that do what I do around the United States.

[Photos: R. Lopez]

How did you go about deciding which drinks to use? Did you ask people for any drink or did you have a specific drink in mind?
Any drink. This is an email I sent out. It says, [reading]:

Hello my friends. Hope all is well. I'm writing to ask you a favor. I'm about to open a new bar called TNT on or about August 1, 2012. It's going to be a small little bar in the back of Eamonn's. It's about the same size as PX. The concept is not going to be a speakeasy, just a small bar where you can get a quality cocktail. It's going to be very casual, loud music and people able to stand and mill around. The menu idea is I have a two-sided menu. One side is going to be original cocktails made by us, but loosely based on the rock 'n roll lifestyle (favorite spirits of rock-n-rollers cocktails, example cold gin time again, if that makes sense.) The other side is going to be a roadmap to bars and restaurants across the United States. (If all of y'all are down with it.) The idea is to use one of your cocktails and tell people about the bar where you work and a small sentence or two about yourself and your cocktail. So it would create a buzz when they go to your town so they know where they can get a good cocktail." That was the email I sent out. Everyone said back, "Do you have a style?" I said, "No. I just want it to be a cocktail that you're proud of."

Did you have to tell any of them specifically you were giving credit?
I told them all. Everyone gets credit.

I've seen other bars where they do credit drinks from other bartenders. How widespread is that or is it still pretty rare?
I think probably in the last five years it was super-duper rare to see something like that because most people want to be remembered for something. They want to be remembered for creating a Manhattan or creating a Sidecar or something like that. So I think a lot of people probably weren't so apt to use someone else's recipes as they are now.

Honestly, for me, Tales of the Cocktail was eye-opening because I had read about these people. I had never met them, and I got a chance to hang out with them and get to know them. I think these days, because of Tales of the Cocktail, there's such more of a camaraderie with bartenders. Now it's really paying them the ultimate respect that, "I dig you, I dig what you're doing, I respect you, and I respect you so much I want to put you on my menu." I think you're starting to see more of that now and you'll really begin to see more in the future.

How often do you get asked for your cocktail recipes?
Not so very often, but like once a month or so something will call and say, "Do you have anything we can use?" I'm more apt to [say yes]. If you want to use my name great, if not, whatever. But the fact that you called and asked means more to me than anything.

I had a conversation with an intellectual property lawyer who said there's not much legal recourse here, but it's the community norms that can keep others from outright stealing. Does anyone enforce those community norms in the cocktail world?
I don't think anyone ever really enforces it. Probably the only time I would get upset about it is if it was someone that worked for me and took stuff, using it elsewhere and not giving me the credit. That's the only time I'd really be upset. We do have all the bartenders sign a confidentiality agreement. That's only bartenders that make some of the stuff. We make them sign a confidentiality agreement that says you can't use this property, and if you do, you have to state where it came from.

Is that common?
I don't know. We started doing it a few years back because we had a bartender that worked for us and he left us and then he started going to places saying that he was responsible for making all the bitters and making all the syrups. So we just put it in place because of that.

He was saying he made up all the recipes?
Yes. That did not make me so happy.

TNT Menu

I can imagine. And what about the innovation aspect? Do you think allowing those ideas to move freely helps drive further creativity?
When you look at chefs over the last 50 years, how many chefs have really invented a new technique? I can think of one. I think Ferran Adrià is the one that has created all these different techniques. New techniques, you really need to use them. But I don't know if new techniques are such intellectual property. Ferran Adrià is so unbelievably smart. He basically made a food revolution, in my opinion. And allowing those ideas to flow freely really allows the whole culinary world to explode.

And it's the same in cocktails?
I think it's the same in cocktails. I have not invented anything. I was lucky, I was kind of on the forefront of this whole cocktail revolution. I was lucky enough to be a bartender, manager, and sommelier at Cafe Atlantico starting in 1996. Working with José Andrés, you know, he was a cook back then. He wasn't José Andrés of today. I got very lucky because I watched what he did, and I said, "Wow, if he does that with food, why can't I do that with cocktails?" If it wasn't for working there and knowing who Ferran Adrià was and knowing José and having José push, I don't know where I'd be at this point.

I think it's awesome that people have tried to do different techniques rather than just mixing three spirits together and calling it a day. People are using food in different ways, they're using herbs, they're using savory things, they're using powders and chemicals and things like that. I think it just helps everybody move forward. I've always been the one that if someone calls me and asks me how to do it, I'm going to tell them how to do it. It just helps build a community.

· All Todd Thrasher Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Intellectual Property Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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