I tend not to get involved these days in many online discussions around ‘controversial’ topics not because I am not interested and engaged in them but these days its too easy for those with too short an attention span or a tendency to pigeonhole to miss the opportunity to discuss opinions different to their own and to critically examine the whole issue. But I wanted to start a discussion about a topic that I feel needs to be examined – the over fetishization of Creativity.
Can too much Creativity be negative?
So I am big fan of creativity and have been for as long as I remember. My first computer my family had was a Macintosh and I bought Google Glass when it came out. I have championed fashion designers like Maharishi and Bikkemberg and Vexed Generation. I am desperate for the Metaverse to happen (and by that I mean the Neal Stephenson/William Gibson version not the Mark Zuckerberg one). But increasingly what I realise is that I am a bigger fan of Innovation and I am concerned about how Creativity could negatively impact our industry. (Just so we are clear Creativity is the act of conceiving something new, whether a variation on a theme or something wholly new. Innovation is the act of putting new things into practice.)
The Change of Time
Roughly 25 years ago I started educating and training bartenders all over the world. One of the first things I used to do was discuss the “skills” of the Modern Professional Bartender so that my students understood how to get better. I used to explain that there were four areas to study and improve – Knowledge, Efficiency, Style and Service. Over time tho I use to increasingly get asked about Creativity and if it was an essential trait for the MPB. I used the analogy of music in that a great musician could read music, play expertly and understand musical theory but did not have to write new music to be considered great and so it was with bartending. I would discuss the Mr Potatohead school of mixology and David Embury’s theories and Flavour Thesauruses’ and even examined what made a drink a Modern Classic but that rarely led to the creation of the next Cosmopolitan or Green Basil Smash.
I am a fan of creativity but I am also a fan of hard work. But I am not a fan of the fetishization of hard work because it becomes excessive and toxic when unexamined. And nor am I a fan of excessive creativity. It is rapidly becoming the ‘fast fashion’ of our industry and as such needs to be critically scrutinised.
New Tools, new Possibilities
At BCB recently we had the chaps at Crucible in London present on the various pieces of equipment they were seeing in modern bars and bar programs and that they had in their business. From Rotovaps to Centrifuges to Sonic Preps to Freeze Drying Machines and beyond. What I was struck by was how they did not gush about them but instead examined them critically, basically saying that they had such potential but so many people did not understand that potential or use them effectively despite their growing popularity. Yes they opened up new vistas for bartenders (vistas normally reserved for scientists, distillers or chefs) but that from an all round sustainability aspect they were problematic.
Increased Pressure on Bartenders
I mentor a variety of people around the world and increasingly I am faced with bartenders who feel stressed about the pressure of coming up with ‘new drinks’ for a menu or creative presentations for competitions or for Instagram. Or I am dealing with owners who have a clientele who expect NEWNEWNEW on every visit - the old bartender inquiry of “Same again?” seems to be dead and buried. This is leading to long hours and expensive mistakes and general anxiety on many levels.
Is it financially feasible at all?
Financial sustainability – an increasingly significant problem these days – is also a consideration. Firstly to be truly creative these many machines are a must and they don’t come cheap and nor does the training to use them. Secondly each hour used to experiment and then create the required mis en place must be costed into drinks thirdly as all of these run not on passion but on electricity the carbon footprint (or carbon shadow) of these bars is increasing. Throw in the staff shortages of suitably trained and skilled staff and you see why recent articles about the “Return of the Classics in Top Bars” or the renaissance of “Off the Shelf Drinks” are becoming more frequent and make more sense.
Innovation before Quality?
Drinks brands, big and small are also falling into this trap and throwing gasoline on the fire. The last 20 years have seem some amazing liquids come to the market and I have drunk and enjoyed many of them. But for every Compass Box Orangerie or even St Germain there is a Crown Royal Salted Caramel or Liquorists Bubblegum gin. Vodka shot itself in the foot a few years back with its confectionary flavours and the rest of the industry seems intent on putting ‘innovation’ above quality.
Is new always better?
Its not all the industry’s fault tho. The Guest is complicit by seemingly placing the creativity and ’gramability of the product over the service and ambiance of the venue – hence the “fast fashion” comment above. They order and seemingly enjoy a drink and then ask “Whats next?”. They will go to the newest and the latest bars and not go back to bars they merely enjoy. Good bars fail or drop down Top 50 lists not because they aren’t good but because they aren’t new anymore.
Ideas that work not only for the moment
Now as I said I am a fan of creativity and the potential for the human mind to think of new things but I just want to inject a note of caution into making new drinks the be all and end all of our industry. Drinks are just one part of the experience of bars and now perhaps is the time to explore creativity in service as much as the product we serve. And also we need to ensure we have the right mechanisms to make the good ideas work for all and not just for now.