There's a tremendous amount of pressure from the marketplace pushing owners toward fancy, colorful, interesting drinks," Mr. DeGroff said. "Any owner worth his salt can't neglect that part of the business." The role of the bar chef differs considerably from that of the standard bartender. Bar chefs are likely to spend as much time in an office as behind a bar, researching new infusions, calling around town for the freshest limes or trying to track down some obscure liqueur. Some carry the lofty title of "beverage director." They obsess over things like the size and shape of ice (large cubes are preferred, because they melt slowly) and the tartness of mint leaves. Where conventional bartenders concern themselves with simple issues like "Shaken or stirred?" and "Up or on the rocks?" the bar chef frets over the proper melting temperature of brown sugar. And where bartenders cater to customers by listening to their tales and by recalling their regulars' favorite drinks, bar chefs make their names by concocting ever bolder - some would say simply weirder - cocktails.
Indeed, many cocktail-making stars are using shock value to set themselves apart. As part of a makeover of its venerated Bemelmans Bar, which reopens on Friday, the Carlyle hotel has hired a 40-year-old cocktail-making star named Audrey Saunders to oversee a revamped drinks menu that will feature homemade ginger beer and a rum cocktail called the Jamaican Firefly. "People are crying out for new flavors," Miss Saunders said. In point of fact, people have been crying out for new cocktails for several years now. The martini revival of the 1980's gave way to the Cosmopolitan craze of the 1990's, and so on. But it's only now - after emerging from years of training in the fine art of mixology - that a younger generation of innovative bartenders, many of them taking their cue from chefs and pastry chefs, is taking command of the many bars and restaurants hoping to exploit their craft.
"I thought I knew everything I needed to know in six months, and five years later I realized I knew nothing," said Mr. DeGroff, who teaches a 20-hour mixology course at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York. A proper bartending education, he said, can take years. Miss Saunders got her education working free for Mr. DeGroff. "A chef can go to culinary school, but there's no academy where bartenders can get their training," Mr. DeGroff said. "If you're a bartender, you're on your own." He is a kind of Wynton Marsalis of cocktails, insisting that before trying anything too newfangled, an aspiring bar chef must first master the classics. Mr. DeGroff's disciples, like Miss Saunders, tend to use the familiar drinks as the jumping-off point for their innovations. One of Miss Saunders's signature creations, the Old Cuban, is an improvised riff on the classic mojito. She replaces the white rum called for in the original with the more potent aņejo rum and bitters, and finishes the drink not with soda, but with Champagne. I like to take a classic drink and turn it into a modern cocktail," she said.
With Bar Chefs,
Happy Hour Goes Haute
By Warren St. John