Cocktail - Let's Pay a Little Respect to this 1988 Camp Classic that Inspired Generations of Bar
On Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, while I was watching the polling results with rising panic and nausea, I staggered up to my little den and turned on my computer, hoping to find something, anything, to watch to take me away from the abject horrors of our real world.
I found Cocktail.
If you’re like me, an adorable heavy drinker born in the '80s, you may have owned the soundtrack to Cocktail. You’d do your little kid dance all through “Hippy Hippy Shake” until your Walkman clicked and you’d eagerly flip the cassette over to side two. Then the blissful harmonies of the Beach Boys would start naming Caribbean isles until finally, you arrived at Kokomo, which actually exists in Indiana, by the way. Imagine a sobbing little boy with tears rolling into his dimples because a surly Carnival cruise employee told him his dream place wasn’t en route. Oh, the summer of ‘98.
For 103 glorious minutes, I was transported back to the '80s on NYC’s Upper East Side where I hung out at TGI Friday’s with my two favorite bartenders, young Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) and snake oil salesman Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown) as they entertained us with flipping bottles, terrible bartender jokes, and heartfelt renditions of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”. We escaped to the Caribbean; fell in love with a sexy artist named Jordan (the always wonderful Elisabeth Shue, in a role diametrically opposite from that other booze-soaked movie, Leaving Las Vegas), then threw her over for a Sugar Mama, breaking Jordan’s adorable ingénue heart. And when Brian and Jordan finally have their reunion and open a bar with the awkward name of Cocktails & Dreams I was near tears. It may have been the tequila.
I didn’t actually end up seeing Cocktail, until very recently, nearly a decade into my bartending career, so up until then, I only knew it as the “Kokomo” movie with the poster of Tom Cruise’s sweaty intensity highlighted in neon pink.
I have come to love this terrible little gem from the '80s and now apply it to my everyday life like it was cocoa butter. So grab a stool, I’ll pour you a shot and tell you all about bartending in the real world and how Cocktail inspires me to up my game.
1. It’s about Showmanship
Being a modern craft bartender today is all about presentation. Now for some of us, it’s wearing a low-cut shirt, or committing to full sleeve tattoos, or wielding a pornographically gravel voice aged in whiskey and Newports. It’s part of the modern bar experience: We all want to put on a show.
I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat forgetting my choreography to that scene.
Flair bartending is inarguably a bit tacky, but it’s like a magic trick when done properly. An audience is powerless against giggles and wonder, no matter how jaded or committed to they are to sitting quietly with their whiskey. At the very least, flair makes a bad drink amusing. You’re getting a show if nothing else!
Now we can only assume that young Brian and Doug’s cocktails taste as good as the show they put on. I think they’re making Long Island Ice Teas in that video, which is only a step-up from a Jersey Turnpike in terms of drinks we serve out of spite and/or laziness. But in real life, usually your drinks have to drink as smooth as they look. It’s why we garnish your frosted coupes with a lime wheel and brandied cherries and consider sinking the Crème Yvette versus shaking in the Grenadine.
Craft cocktails are serious business. I use this term to describe well-thought out and precisely executed cocktails using quality ingredients and liquors to achieve a higher level of presentation and drinking. No matter how many complicated steps are involved, we put serious time, thought, and experimentation into creating your magical happy juice. All while tossing metal tins and glasses in the air. When you see how far we go to do it, it makes the journey even better.
Cocktail is all that filtered into a movie. It’s obvious Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown took the time to learn not only flair bartending, but also an entire choreographed routine to The Georgia Satellites. Do they look ridiculous? Yes. Are you almost a little embarrassed for them? Of course. But is it fun? Does it bring a smile to your face? If so, then it worked. It’s a little night music, it’s presentation, it’s a way to show you we like you.
2. It’s About The Hustle
At the start of the film, Brian’s goal is to make his million dollars and fulfill the American dream. After a monument of white collar rejections later, Brian ends up under the wing of Doug Coughlin, your quintessential raconteur/huckster bartender at TGI Friday’s (The original hard-partying 20-something-hot-spot Upper East Side Friday’s). There, he discovers our plucky and magical world of howling customers, furious waitresses at the service bar, and actively unhelpful coworkers happy to let you sink rather than help you swim. Thankfully, Brian also discovers the genuine magic of closing time, when all animosities are shaken off, money is handed out, shots are downed, and he’s hired.
We see Brian flourish as he dedicates himself to the game, making big plans, reading motivational self-help books, and constantly honing his craft at the bar. Across the next hour, Brian learns the ropes and earns his bones, and he eventually becomes the roguish '80s bartender for the ages. The same can’t be said for Doug, unfortunately, who (SPOILER ALERT) kills himself (SLITS HIS OWN THROAT. METAL. WITH A BOTTLE OF LOUIS XIII de REMY MARTIN. Notably less metal. Gothic romantic?) when he discovers his get-rich-quick gold-digging con artist ways have led him to his ruin. It’s The Ant & The Grasshopper musically scored by Jefferson Starship.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the story of the hustle. And the only thing the world loves more than stories about people good at their jobs (cooking meth in Breaking Bad, advertising in Mad Men, popping pills and dealing sass in Nurse Jackie) are stories about how people got to be so good at their jobs.
We’re all drawn to underdogs because we all want to think we too could unlock our full potential, especially if we start at a disadvantage. It’s the greatest thing in the world to think that with enough gumption, application of effort, and Hollywood editing, you TOO can master bar flair or boxing or cooking French cuisine or whatever you like. Even if your job is aggressively unglamorous, look back to the beginning when you were a rookie. Now compare that to your job now as head of cardiothoracic surgery at Seattle’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. Wasn’t that some ride? Aren’t you fucking awesome now by comparison? Now imagine it as a montage! It’s the '80s!
It’s weird to think that a movie like Cocktail can push you to become better at your job, but that’s the goal to these stories. We grow by never settling in a comfort zone and by pushing yourself to the limit. It’s what makes Cocktail a well-crafted popcorn movie. It didn’t win anything at Cannes but it’s not actively terrible like Attack of the Clones or Glitter. It’s a personable, charming and competent film, even if it’s an utterly vapid one. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing though. Cocktail puts in a lot of work to win you over, much like a few bartenders you may know. We keep you entertained for the better part of an hour or so, don’t we?
3. The Kokomo
Ryan, my compatriot and fellow bartender at The Bookstore Speakeasy (Bethlehem, PA) and I created this variation on a Rum Swizzle in honor of Cocktail, which, fun fact, was one of 1988’s biggest hits (it made $171 million dollars, nearly 9 times its budget). While your normal Bermuda Rum Swizzle is made with rum, obviously (gold and dark for the uninitiated), we decided a metropolitan sheen would take the classic combination of the sweet tropical syrup Falernum and fresh squeezed juice (obviously, you don’t have to fresh squeeze pineapple, but we can’t stress enough how much fresh squeezing your juices completely overhauls a cocktail) to a new direction.
Enter Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. Admittedly, the initial idea came from matching the name Tom to a Caribbean cocktail, but the rounded citrusy sweetness of the Old Tom Gin surprised us when matched with the juices and Falernum. My personal sipping gin is Tanqueray, but for those who have never had a chance to try Old Tom Gin, it completely transforms a Tom Collins or any gin-based cocktail that flirts with sour. The dry kick of lime in a Tanqueray or the hard almost-grainy bite of a Plymouth is exchanged for a mellow shine that entices sweet and complicated flavors.
Add Allspice Dram to reinforce a rough texture into the clovey lightness of the Falernum then a little bit of cinnamon bark syrup for an additional layer of spiced sweetness. Shake, top with a lime wheel and brandied cherries, sip, and you are off to Bermuda and Bahama, pretty mama. Enjoy this summery cocktail in the coming cold months, nestled on the warm couch. Pop in your old VHS of Cocktail, taste the sneaky Christmas spice of the Dram hidden in the Caribbean sweetness, and have your cocktails and dreams of millions.
2 oz. Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
0.5 oz. Orange Juice
0.5 oz. Lime Juice
0.5 oz. Pineapple Juice
0.5 oz. Grenadine
0.5 oz. Cinnamon Bark Syrup
0.25 oz. John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum
0.25 oz. St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
Dash Angostura Bitters
Combine ingredients in shaker with ice. Flip bottles and glasses if necessary. Hippy hippy shake. Pour into chilled Coupe glass. Garnish with Lime Wheel and Brandied Cherries.
Then stand on bar and recite the following cheese-filled poem from this camp classic flick:
Poster via imdb. Disclaimer: the movies, the characters and such are the properties of their respective studios and this blog is making no particular claims about them.