Hey Bartender! Give Me that Secret Recipe

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Hey Bartender! Give Me that Secret Recipe

Hey Bartender! Can you give me the recipe for that cocktail?

Cocktail recipes are meant to be shared. From the early days, trailblazers like Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, and Harry MacElhone published books full of recipes as well as tips, tricks, and general advice for recreating your favorite cocktails at home. But such generosity is not universal. Over the years, fear of competitors replicating signature drinks and stealing business has compelled some establishments to take extreme measures to keep their recipes secret.

The most famous example is Donn Beach, owner of the legendary Don the Beachcomber tiki bars. Beach was fiercely protective of his recipes — and with good reason. Competitors allegedly would send spies into his bar to gather intel and even bribe bartenders. Beach was so paranoid he had his bartenders mix cocktails in the back of the house away from view. Not even the bartenders knew what was in the drinks. Beach would personally pre-mix batches of his proprietary juice blends so his staff would essentially be mixing by numbers. “Combine one ounce from bottle A and two ounces from bottle B,” a recipe might read.

Today, however, most bartenders are fine with sharing recipes. I’m a firm believer in it. As cocktail culture has become more popular, and more guests are wanting to learn about the spirits, modifiers, and techniques we employ, it makes no sense to keep secrets. We’re bartenders, not alchemists. I want to make cocktails accessible and demystify them as much as possible. If I have time behind the bar, I will always engage curious guests — I’ll give them background on oddball ingredients I’m using, explain the technique, and maybe even give them a little taste. And if a guest requests a recipe, I’m happy to comply. I take it as a compliment.

But don’t take my word for it. I reached out to several bartenders from around the US to see how they feel about sharing recipes. Here’s what they said.

“I always share mine. I take it as a compliment that someone likes it so much they want to duplicate it at home. Chances are they come back saying, ‘it just didn’t taste the same,’ or ‘I tried, I’d rather come back and have you make it.’ I admit if it was another bartender and it showed up exactly the same at a nearby restaurant, that might make me pissy!”
— Karri Barrett, bar manager, Roots the Restaurant, Rutland, VT

“I am a proponent of offering my recipes to guests if they ask. Cocktails are meant to be shared, and I encourage someone to go home and make one for themselves. A lot of the cocktails we make are based off of classic recipes of spirit, sugar, and either bitter or citrus. It’s really no secret how to make a daiquiri, but rather how you prefer to make yours. If someone really enjoys the one I have made them, then I would like to pass that forward. The only rule I have is my Bloody Mary recipe stays with me and my team. Those are like snowflakes, and everyone’s is different. When you find a killer recipe, you hold on tight!”
— Cody Goldstein, founder, Muddling Memories

“I love helping to perpetuate the interest in the progression and innovation in cocktails. Guests have become more and more interested in all that goes into food and cocktails, particularly the artistic and obscure elements. If I have the opportunity to share recipes, and guests become more passionate about what goes into cocktails, that’s what allows us as bartenders to continue being artistic and innovative. The chance that people will go home and go to the lengths to recreate what we can do behind a bar with a whole team of people prepping is reserved for the truly passionate, and those few are usually great people to ask if they want a career as a professional bartender!”
— Nick Meyer, director of bar and beverage development, S3, Los Angeles

“I am all for sharing cocktail recipes, as long as credit is given where credit is due. If people never shared cocktail recipes, then famous classics like the Negroni or Manhattan would not exist. Modern classics wouldn’t be a thing either; such as the Penicillin and Paper Plane, both created by Sam Ross in NYC. On my cocktail menu, no matter how old the drink is, I always include three things underneath the description: who created it, when, and where it was created.”
— Sam Nelis, beverage director, Waterworks Food + Drink, Winooski, VT

“I am a huge believer in sharing recipes with guests or colleagues. I don’t mind sharing our secrets and recipes, it helps keep our industry relevant and allows us the opportunity to grow together.”
— Gabe Orta, founder, Bar-Lab & Broken Shaker, Chicago and Miami

Jim Sabataso is a writer, cocktail enthusiast, and bar director for The Palms Restaurant in Rutland, VT. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @JimSabataso.