Passion, Chemistry and Bliss
Cocktail expert Josh Goldman says the secret to taste is technique
By Richard Foss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Even if you haven’t had a drink personally crafted by Josh Goldman, chances are you may have tasted one of his creations without knowing it while exploring the bar menu at a top L.A.-area restaurant.
Goldman is a co-founder of the Soigné Group, a hospitality consulting company that creates and operates ambitious restaurant bar programs, including for Belcampo in Santa Monica.
Unlike many in the industry who focus exclusively on the cocktail craft, Goldman is a trained sommelier who has also been a restaurant manager, and his experience with food and drink informs his passionate yet practical approach to inventing cocktails.
I spoke to Goldman after he’d trained a class of professionals seeking to reach new heights in the field, but decided to start our conversation with the basics.
What exactly is a cocktail? The definition seems to be expanding to encompass just about anything that includes alcohol.
Any drink with alcohol can be called a cocktail, but by the technical definition it must include a spirit, sweetener and a bittering agent. In a shaken cocktail, citrus will come into play. If you have all those components, you have a cocktail, though not necessarily a good one.
So a good cocktail contains something bitter? Don’t most people dislike bitter flavors?
Most people start drinking sweet things that don’t taste like booze or bitters, but once we have done that for a while we want something more complex. As any pastry chef will tell you, you need a balance of sweet and bitter. Drinks made with alcohol and bitter herbs started out as medicine in the medieval era, by doctors and alchemists who were the equivalent of snake oil salesmen. It turned out that they were on to something, because many of those herbs had actual medical benefits, particularly for the digestive system. Things like gentian bark are the same that are used in herbal teas, and even if there was no health benefit it’s still a fresh, bracing flavor that is incredibly versatile.
Martinis have as few as two ingredients. Some contemporary cocktails have seven or eight. Do you need to be more sophisticated to appreciate one or the other?
It’s not mutually exclusive. Consider multiple-component tiki cocktails, like the zombie — it’s a relatively complex build, and it’s not going anywhere. On the other end of the spectrum, who doesn’t love a classic three-ingredient cocktail like a Negroni or Boulevardier when made well? The simple cocktails demand perfect execution. Just like with cooking, you can do riffs and variations, but if you don’t have a firm understanding of technique and good ingredients, you won’t have a good product.
When you’re watching a bartender making a drink it looks like they’re just pouring and mixing, but I heard you say that someone can taste the difference between a cocktail that is properly shaken and one that isn’t, and that there are different kinds of shakes to mix a drink. What is it that we aren’t seeing?
I was teaching a class today, and I wanted to demonstrate the importance of technique. I threw all the ingredients for a Tipperary in a mixing glass and had them taste it. It didn’t taste like a good, balanced cocktail. Then I added ice and stirred it a little and had them taste it again, and it still wasn’t right. Then I properly diluted it, strained it into a cocktail glass and garnished it and had them try it, and they could all see that it was so much better than the sum of its parts. There’s dilution, emulsification, aeration … you want to minimize these when it’s a stirred cocktail, maximize it in a shaken cocktail. Whether it’s a 12-component or a two-component drink, knowing how to treat your ingredients is what makes it good.
You trained as a sommelier but are known for your mixed drinks. Do you prefer drinking cocktails to wine when you’re at dinner? Have you stopped drinking wines?
No, not at all. I hate it when bartenders won’t learn about wine or somms won’t try cocktails. We’re in a service industry, and the ultimate reason we gain our knowledge is to be a better resource for the guests we’re there to serve. The guest shouldn’t have to learn who we are or what we are before knowing whether to trust us for one thing or another. We need to learn everything about how to help them enjoy their experience more.
You seem to regard crafting drinks as a high calling, and I don’t think most people see it that way.
I memorize my cocktails, I practice my technique, so that when you walk in and sit in front of me the experience will be memorable. I remind every student and employee that we’re there to serve our guests, not our cocktails and definitely not ourselves. There’s an unwritten agreement between guests and the establishment, and their part is fulfilled when they show up and sit in those seats. Now we owe them everything within reason to show them how grateful we are that out of the thousands of bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, they chose ours.
Is that the same whether it’s a neighborhood bar or someplace serving top-shelf drinks at top-shelf prices?
At heart, every bar and restaurant in the world is trying to be a neighborhood hangout. That’s true whether you’re talking about a place with three stars from Travelodge or three stars from Michelin. Whatever you’re trying for, the people who come in throughout the evening have a good time and then go away. We’re very much like Blanche Dubois — we rely on the kindness of strangers.