Can Michael Pollan’s Food Rules Work at the Bar?


Drink cocktails. Not too many. Mostly spirits.

It may not be as simple as Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” The omnivorous author’s bestselling books In Defense of Food and Food Rules offer plenty of excellent advice about how to eat better without hating what’s in your fridge. He barely mentions drinking except for the divine commandment “Have a Glass of Wine with Dinner.” Until he writes a follow-up bartending guide, we’ve rejiggered some of his most important rules so that they apply to what goes in our glass as well as our plate.

Don’t Drink Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize. There’s no better rule to start with than this one, as it allows you to swim only in pre-Prohibition cocktails. Try a Jack Rose, created in Jersey City sometime before 1905: 2 oz Applejack, ½ oz Grenadine Syrup, juice of half a lime. Shake well with ice and strain.

Avoid Products Containing Ingredients That Are A) Unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More Than Five In Number, Or That Include High-Fructose Corn Syrup. The solution here is to never buy another pre-made mix — Sour Mix, Bloody Mary, Pina Colada or otherwise. To really understand why, make yourself a real Whiskey Sour: shake 1 oz lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and 1 ½ oz of whiskey with ice and strain into a glass.

There are many other variations on this recipe because the list of ingredients is quite short. So why, then, does the ingredient list for “Instant Whiskey Sour Mix” run so long? “Sugar, Citric Acid, Lemon Juice Powder (Lemon Juice Dehydrated With Corn Syrup Solids), Sodium Citrate, Dried Egg Whites, Calcium Phosphate, Lemon Oil, BHA.” If a drink is going to be bad for your health, it should be because of the alcohol content, not the corn syrup solids.

Pay More, Drink Less. There’s a reason cocktails cost more: each glass is filled with a few cold shots of hard liquor. The price per drink many seem unfair compared to that four-dollar pint, but there’s a very high rate of return on a cocktail. Test out the theory with a Gibson: 2 oz of gin and ½ oz of dry vermouth, shaken and strained with a cocktail onion garnish. If that’s not strong enough for you go for a Dry Martini, which in practice is often just a glass full of chilled vodka.

Cook, Bottle, And If You Can, Plant A Garden. Brew your own beer, make your own bitters, bottle your own limoncello, and grow some mint for those juleps. We’re not advocating for bathtub gin, but there are plenty of ways to get closer to the roots of what you’re imbibing. Try some homemade bitters in a Pegu Club: Shake with ice 1 ¾ oz gin, ½ oz orange curacao, ¼ fresh lime juice, 1 dash orange bitters, 1 dash Angostura. Once you know exactly what goes into something as seemingly minor as bitters, you have the chance to appreciate its taste more fully, and that single dash of orange bitters will never again seem inconsequential.

Try Not To Drink Alone. Alcohol has played a role in social functions throughout history, from Plato’s Symposium to the Last Supper (though maybe that one didn’t end so well). There’s no reason to drink like you’re still a teenager. There are bars out there. And if you’re lucky enough to live in a city, you probably don’t have to stumble more than a block to find one. So get out there and raise a glass — to your health.