In the modern age, we are quite fortunate to have so many quality beverages at our fingertips. Never before have so many single malts, biodynamic wines, and microbrews been available for such easy purchase. In fact, nowadays it is quite common for random dive bars to have a decent selection of quality whiskey and beers by the bottle. Yet, despite the abundance of top-tier refreshments, there remains an allure to drinking something that you know is crap.
... there is no such thing as a universal agreement on quality, nor is quality even a measurement in which enjoyment is intrinsically linked. In spite of what many people in the beverage industry would have you believe, there is no such thing as a universal agreement on quality, nor is quality even a measurement in which enjoyment is intrinsically linked. Just like I have known two star chefs who look forward to a post shift Taco Bell binge, there are many bartenders and spirits professionals who retain a soft spot for drinks and cocktails which bar snobs would generally looked down upon.
I for one, and there are plenty of others like me, completely reject the notion of the "guilty pleasure" altogether. The word guilty somehow implies that we should feel shame for attaining a level of satisfaction from a product (or combination of products) that is viewed as somehow subpar. However, do not be confused, this article is not meant as a treatise written in defense of inferior products—of which there are legions—instead this is simply to state that the subpar nature of a drink alone should not preclude its enjoyment.
From a culinary standpoint, the exact reasons why different people find delight in what they do is still a mystery, despite the best efforts of marketers and advertisers. Every year the food and beverage industry spends billions of dollars trying to directly influence our tastes and preferences, but it's an uphill battle since so much of what impacts our decisions is difficult to identify.
Everything from age to culture to nostalgia can play a part in what we like, and these factors can run deeper than any of us truly understand. This phenomenon largely explains why, even after we have experienced the culinary prowess of some of the best restaurants in the world, we remain eager to bite into a poorly made hot dog at a baseball game. Because of the memories involved, you are somehow not only experiencing the hot dog in your hands, but also every hot dog you have ever had while at the ballpark.
No one is suggesting that you pair a bottle of two buck Chuck with a sixty dollar steak, but let's not pretend that a crappy margarita while vacationing in Mexico is not an amazing thing to behold.Of course, we all know that there is no substitute for a well-crafted spirit or fresh juice in a Whiskey Sour. Yet there is a time and a place for everything, and sometimes these little indulgences remind us that some things never change, and that there is a small amount of reassurance in that predictability.
No one is suggesting that you pair a bottle of Two Buck Chuck with a sixty dollar steak, but let's not pretend that a crappy margarita while vacationing in Mexico is not an amazing thing to behold. Perhaps that is where the bulk of the charm comes from; the fact that we can never specifically articulate why certain novelties brings us so much joy. But who says that we have to? After all, it doesn’t matter what you like, it only matters that you enjoy it.
Apparently, it looks like many of the country's top bartenders and spirits professionals down below feel the same way. And we should all take a little bit of comfort in that. After all, if some of the best trained palates don't feel guilty about drinking something novel, than why should you?
David Stolte, author of Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics): "Look, I’m as fascinated by process and details as much as anyone. But sometimes, I just want to get shitty with a stupid drink. And for me, the Long Island Iced Tea (and its cousin, the Adios Mother F**ker) are about as stupid as they get. Dump a bunch of different white spirits in a tall glass with lemon, Triple Sec or Curaçao, something sweet and fizzy … and the end result is something that doesn’t taste as bad as it should."
Chris Bostick, Half Step, Austin, Texas: For Bostick, the energy drink and amaro combo of a Jägerbomb is as much about resurrecting old memories as it is about the bonding ritual that goes along with it. Plus, the added boost of caffeine surely doesn’t do much to hurt the evening’s prospects. "It really is a nostalgia thing. It's one of the first things I seek out when I get to New Orleans. It's a great communal shot and really helps get the horse out of the gate."
Sam Ross, Attaboy, NYC: As Tales of the Cocktail's American Bartender of the Year for 2011, Ross knows a thing or two about creating memorable cocktails. Indeed several of his originals are featured on cocktail menus around the world, yet on a hot summer day he is not above the attraction of a cheap bottle of wine. "You know they call me Sammy 'The Palate' Ross … However, I might be known to smash some White Zinfandel by the pool if the mood struck..."
Keli Rivers, Whitechapel, San Francisco: For Bay Area Bartender Rivers, the fond memories of youthful curiosity are simply too deeply embedded to pretend that they haven’t influenced her preferences later in life. "I love sweet tea vodka and lemonade: loud and proud! It might have something to do with playing gin rummy with my grandmother and her sister … While they were busy swearing and thinking the other was cheating, I would pour some of their hooch into my Arnold Palmer. I think they knew but didn't say anything."
Tim Cooper, Sweetwater Social, NYC: Despite the fact that, Cooper’s bar offers a wide array of world class beers both by the bottle and on tap, he will often satisfy his beer craving with usually frowned upon by most brew fanatics. "I used to pound Colt 45 as a young man. Billy Dee Williams was the man! For me it was the easiest drinking of the malt liquor category."
Jamie Walsh, Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale, Boston: As a decades-long expert in hospitality, Walsh understands that the combination of Bubblegum vodka and Red Bull might not sound appetizing, but insist that it is profoundly irresistible. "I am not proud of this. I don't understand why I like it. I just do. I will say this, when it's made for other fancy bartenders, they all ask me not to let anyone know that they also like it ... Unless I get paid one million dollars I will start releasing their names."
Pam Wiznitzer, Seamstress, NYC: "I love dessert cocktails and anyone with a palate—and human—naturally gravitates towards fatty flavors (cream, butter, etc.). Our brains are wired this way. Between the Bailey’s, coffee liqueur and vodka [in a Frozen Mudslide] the three ingredients work in tandem to craft an absolutely decadent and delicious concoction that no one can deny … It's akin to a boozier version of a Starbucks Frappuccino..."
Simon Ford, The 86 Co.: "When I first moved to the USA in 2002, the specialties at my local bar were chicken wings with Budweiser and Flaming Dr. Pepper shots. For the next two years, I would proceed to take every English friend who visited there for a taste of Americana ... It slowly but surely became a bonding drink between me and the friends who visited ... The Flaming Dr. Pepper shot holds a dear place in my heart … and let’s face it, they taste pretty damn good ..."
Karin Stanley, Dutch Kills, NYC: "The Red Headed Slut shot for me goes back to dive bar and club bartending, before I had tried a cocktail made with quality ingredients … Fast forward ten years and I'll still order them from time to time. Always with a group of girlfriends. Always at a dive bar, a proper one that doesn't even have citrus garnish. If you order them at Lucy's, on Avenue A, she'll serve them tall in a Collins glass, which is such a hangover nightmare, but at the time seems like a genius idea."