Robert Hess

30 Nov. 2018
The man who taught the world to mix drinks, one video at a time

Star power was not lacking at this year’s Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix global finals. We had legends, such as Jared Brown, Anistatia Miller and Audrey Saunders; global bar icons such as Sam Ross and Carina Soto; and darlings of hip young kids, such as the Trash Tiki duo. But from what we could see from our all-seeing vantage point was that the competitors attention was mostly caught by the presence of a non-bartender: at some point, most of them seemed to come and thank Robert Hess, who presided over the first sip jury.

Robert didn’t foster this amount of goodwill by creating an iconic cocktail (although his Trident is a fantastic drink that made an impact) or launching an amazing bar. He did it by embracing video-streaming, then a new-ish technology, for his show The Cocktail Spirit. Many of today’s bartenders (and writers, as yours truly will attest) have learned the subtlety of their craft through Robert’s instructive and accessible videos. Add to this that he penned one of the early cocktail bibles of the renaissance and that he was the founder of a key online forum and you have one of the defining figures of the last 20 years.

Sharing knowledge was always part of Robert’s DNA - he is after all ‘technology evangelist’ at Microsoft. In the early days, when good drinks were hard to come by, he would write down on a business card the recipe he wanted and pass it to bartenders. Since the classic he was looking for would often involve (then) arcane bitters, he’d bring his own with him: « A lot of places only had Angostura Bitters and the drinks I wanted might use Orange Bitters or Peychaud’s Bitters… I carried some small dropper bottles with me so I could have my Dry Martini made the proper way, with a couple drops of orange bitters. »

Now you’d expect a man so passionate about cocktails to have drunk them since he was of legal age. Not really: « For the longest time, I almost avoided the cocktail. It was confusing. You’d open a Mr Boston book, with hundreds of recipes, and you didn’t know if they were going to be able to make it at a bar. I didn’t know what to order, it was so much easier to ask for wine or beer. And when I ordered cocktails, they were terrible ». What you can’t get at a bar, you might make at home. Robert told us he had « a strong culinary background » and always loved cooking. This was to prove his gateway into the world of the cocktail. « I realized making cocktails was like cooking. That’s the thing that sparked my interest the most. I’m creating something for you to have, sharing my knowledge and not just enjoying it for myself. » 

As a self-confessed geek, his cocktail interest took an obsessive turn: « I think my secret was that I focused on one cocktail at a time. I bought the ingredients I needed and I made that drink over and over again, looking online for different variations. » This led to a better understanding of how ratios and ingredients change a cocktail. At a time when sour mixes were still common, the process also struck home how fresh juices and quality ingredients would improve a drink. Without this trial and error process, Robert probably wouldn’t have felt confident enough to deliver handwritten recipes to bartenders or to put together such a solid show as The Cocktail Spirit, where he is essentially sharing, straight from his home bar, the result of his research.

A drink that probably benefited from this process is the Daiquiri. « Numerous time when we’re in a bar in America, we’ll ask the bartender for a Daiquiri and he says ‘oh, I’m sorry I can’t make that’. And the reason he is saying that is because he doesn’t have a blender. » As Cuba lovers, we know a blended Daiquiri can be a beautiful thing, but Stateside it tends not to be as well made — « You have to respect it, it’s not a frozen slushy you’re going to get on Bourbon Street in New Orleans », Robert quipped. According to him, the decline of the Daiquiri began in the 50’s. « Cocktails such as the Martini and the Daiquiri were common drinks, and because they were popular, the standard person making them really wasn’t ‘craft-ish’, they didn’t understand the craft very well. They were trying to oversimplify, overcommercialize, make the drinks more stupid. They became a shadow of themselves ».

Thankfully, things have changed. Robert experienced the growth of the cocktail scene up close and he has had more than a hand in it. While a good educator is always proud of the achievement of his pupils, a great one never loses sight of what can still be improved. And Robert definitely thinks some have given a new meaning to the word craft, one not necessarily desirable. « A lot of bartenders now are so intent on trying to be craft bartenders that they’ve created in their mind a definition of what it means and they think it means creating drinks that have a lot of ingredients, a lot of bizarre flavours, a lot of fabulous things associated to them… They’re almost making them too fabulous for their own good, with drinks turning out to be overly complicated. For me, the fewer the ingredients the better. If you can’t make a great cocktail with three ingredients, you can’t make a great cocktail with twelve ingredients. » In other words: master the Daiquiri and then we’ll talk. At Bar News, count us on board.

François Monti