Innovation V.04: Varientions vs. Innovations

This is part three of an ongoing series on Innovation In The Spirits Industry. 

V.01 was “Innovation In A Brand” about Knob Creek’s single barrel.

V.02, “Age Your Own Whiskey Kit” discussed the art & science in barrel-aging cocktails.

V.03, “Single Tree Project” discussed the a new process to make bourbon that no one’s ever tried before.

variant /ˈve(ə)rēənt/

  1. ‘A form or version of something that differs in some respect from other forms of the same thing or from a standard: “variant of a manhattan“’

[This blog post is less about anything actually interesting as it is about a pet peeve of mine.  So, if you’re one of the many out there who may be sick of hearing me whinge about something – check out this fine blog, or even this one.]

Varients.  ‘A form or version of something that differs in some respect from other forms of the same thing or from a standard.’  So…that means to take something already created and then…change it a bit. Hmm…

There are some great bartenders out there.  These outstanding craftsmen (craftspeople?) are greats in my mind not because they have a PR machine behind them, not just because they know every classic under the sun, but because of their imagination, and this then matched with their unique palate – they create something special from behind their bars.  Off the top of my head, I think of Seattle’s Jay Kuhner who is the man at Sambar, where when sitting at his bar, you see the many squeeze bottles of different color liquids, each of a different density and texture which lead you to wonder, ‘what the hell is in all of those bottles‘…

Jay Kuehner

Undomesticated on his head, Jay’s hair is waving around, he’s reaching for one squeeze jar after another, spilling a little of one or a whole lot of another into a mixing glass, and the drink that he finally puts in front of you –delicious- is the only one like that ever on the planet.  Or, how about LA’s Matt Biancaniello from

Matt Biancaniello

The Library Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel?  I’d bet a dollar that you’ve never had one of his drinks anywhere else in the world except directly from him.  You know why I am rather certain of this?  Because his ingredients, fresh fruits & veggies are all over his bar.  So, unless someone has picked those exact ingredients while running around a local farmer’s market and then made you a drink using his exact and unwritten specs – those drinks are un-recreatable.  Then there’s 1022 South in Tacoma, WA (yes, Tacoma…).  Besides the fact that you probably won’t ever be in Tacoma, you won’t see those drinks anywhere else because on the far-right of Chris’ menu, where it says, ‘Apothocary’, unless you know what tulsi is and then where to get it – where else in the world could you ever get another ‘Holy Word’?

Do you get where I am going with this?  When I walk into bars where I know the bartender, they tend to just pour some bourbon, Old Raj gin or mezcal in a glass and put it in front of me.  But, at the bars that I just mentioned, I look forward to a mixed drink.  I look forward to seeing what crazy ingredients will be combined and turned into a delicious drink – not just a weird drink, but a delicious drink.  BUT!  Before I go any further, don’t think that I am disparaging anyone who does not have a kitchen behind them to make their many unique cocktail additives, or, who does not run to the farmer’s market to get ingredients, or, who does not know what ‘tulsi’ is.  I’m not! I’m not disparaging anyone.  That much.

I’ve been to many of America’s best bars, from sea to shining sea, and I love going to some of these great bars whose very existence is a proud homage to yesteryear & Jerry Thomas.  BUT!  Goddam-Goddam do I appreciate bars like Sambar, or, The Library Bar, or 1022 South, (and Portland’s Teardrop Lounge, or Venice’s Tasting Kitchen) because even though Keith ‘The Elder’ Waldbauer correctly said of classics, “That’s the fulcrum of bartending!”, I just love something wholly unique and interesting, and thanks to all of the creative and great bartenders out there expanding the universe of cocktails, we have the classics, and we have innovation.

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