What Are Cocktails?
What, exactly, is a cocktail? There's much speculation about the origin of the term and the drink, but I'm not going to delve into that here (for a good discussion, see the book Straight Up or On the Rocks by William Grimes.) In the second section I will give a general description of what constitutes a cocktail and discuss the structure of various types, but that can wait.
Whatever the definition, though, the cocktail was for most of its history a uniquely American phenomenon. It survived Prohibition (which actually served to stimulate the creativity of the drinkers of the day in constructing new cocktails) and the counterculture of the 60's. Now, with the recent resurgence of interest in cocktails, both old and new, many people are being introduced to them for the first time.
It's not always a smooth introduction. The sheer number of drinks, the intriguing but not always descriptive names, and the variety of ingredients combine to make the world of cocktails mystifying and impenetrable to many.
But that needn't be the case. Yes, it's true that there are way too many cocktails out there to sample in one healthy liver's lifetime, but take it from me, you can ignore most of them. There is no reason to drink or even taste a Sex on the Beach or a Slippery Nipple (a good rule of thumb: if the name is something that a 21-year-old girl thinks is racy, chances are it's not a very good drink).
What follows will, I hope, give you a foundation to begin making your own cocktails and some information that will make ordering cocktails less confusing. I'll start with the major ingredients, then turn to some theory and recipes, with a section of the logistics of throwing a cocktail party added for good measure.
Stocking a home bar can seem prohibitively expensive, but you don't have to buy all these ingredients at once, or even at all. If you want to experiment, then of course the wider the range of ingredients you have, the more possibilities for being creative you'll have. But you can start out mixing a pretty wide variety of drinks with only a few bottles, if you know what to look for. If you have a favorite spirit, by all means start out with that one. But don't limit yourself unnecessarily. For years I told myself and everyone who would listen that I hated rum, because of the bad, quasi-tropical overly sweet drinks I'd had in college. But when I finally decided to overcome that particular prejudice, I found that there are some really great rum drinks out there, all of which I would have missed had I stuck to my narrow view.
Finally, any time you use an ingredient in a drink, you should know what it tastes like plain, even if you won't ordinarily be drinking it straight. I'm constantly amazed by the number of Martini or Manhattan drinkers who have no idea what vermouth tastes like straight, or Margarita drinkers who don't know the difference in taste between Cointreau and Grand Marnier. So every time you buy an ingredient for a drink, open it and taste it plain before you even think of reaching for the cocktail shaker.
Looking at the spirits shelf in a liquor store can be dizzying. So many types, so many brands, so many prices -- how on earth can a novice be expected to make a decision? What follows will, I hope, answer some basic questions.
One of the questions I hear most frequently is whether it's "worth it" to buy premium brands of spirits for cocktails, or if the lower priced brands work as well. My answer: it depends. It depends on the drink you plan to make, your personal preferences and your wallet. Some people will say that it's criminal to use the super premium liquors in cocktails; others will say that any cocktail deserves to be made with the very best. I fall somewhere in between those extremes. I think a well-made cocktail will always benefit from good liquor; the more predominant the spirit is in the drink, the more crucial it is to use a good quality liquor. But in the case of long-aged, carefully made liquors like single malt scotch, fine cognacs and brandies, and high-end rums and tequilas, the quality comes through as subtle nuances which are virtually always lost in mixed drinks. And I always fall back on this fact: I can only afford so many bottles of premium spirits, so if I'm going to splurge on them, I want to make sure I will fully appreciate what they have to offer.
I can't possibly evaluate every brand of every liquor, but I will give you my personal opinions, including an indication of the minimum quality I recommend for various drinks. Do keep in mind that these are opinions though, and not definitive answers. I'm sure for every recommendation I make, there will be dozens of people who disagree. Oh well, you can't please all the people all the time, now can you?
Gin and vodka, the "neutral grain spirits"
These spirits are distilled to a very high proof (190 proof, or almost pure alcohol), and they retain virtually none of the character of their source (grain or potatoes, generally). They are distilled at least three times ("rectified"), rendering them virtually tasteless. Vodka is then bottled with enough distilled water to bring the proof down to about 80; gin is flavored during the second or third distillation. Because of their neutral character, gin and vodka are among the most commonly used spirits in cocktails.
In the United States, most of the gin you'll see is London Dry gin, and unless a drink recipe calls specifically for Dutch gin, it's the type you'll use in cocktails. Dutch or Geneva gin is sweeter and has more of a malt flavor than London Dry.
After distillation, gin is first filtered, then (usually) redistilled with juniper berries and various other herbs and roots to add its characteristic flavor. Various brands of gin will have different flavors and aromas depending on the blend of aromatics used in their production. In very general terms, you can divide premium gins into two camps -- those with the juniper predominating, such as Boodles, Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay; and those without much juniper, such as Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray No. Ten. The last two gins are a good way for vodka drinkers to break into the world of gin, although for this gin lover, they don't provide much in the way of complexity. My everyday gin is Gordon's; although it's rather one-dimensional in a martini, it's perfectly acceptable for mixing. Seagram's is another acceptable mixing brand. For martinis and gimlets, I like any of the "juniper-y" gins mentioned above, especially Boodles. My new favorite premium gin is out of a small distillery in (of all places) Bend, Oregon, called Cascade Mountain, but I can't afford to buy it often. When I do, I reserve it for martinis.
Gin is the spirit of choice in numerous classic cocktails, including the Martini, Gimlet, Bronx, and Aviation.
By U.S. law, vodka must be made with no additives but water and must be basically tasteless and odorless. This is not to say that there are no differences among all the brands of vodkas out there, but with very few exceptions, the differences are slight (if you can find a bottle of Tito's Texas vodka, you'll discover one of the exceptions -- a viscous, relatively sweet vodka reminiscent of corn liquor). Because vodka is so close to flavorless, it's useful in cocktails where the other flavors need to shine or might clash with the juniper flavor of gin. These days, of course, vodka now outsells gin by far, and many of the newer trendy cocktails call for plain or flavored vodkas. The Lemon Drop and the Cosmopolitan are two of the many cocktails based on vodka.
With very few exceptions, I'll always choose a gin drink over a vodka one, and if that makes me old-fashioned, so be it. Because of my preference, I find that Smirnoff or anything in the same general price range suits my needs for vodka. The vodka-lovers of my acquaintance opt for Ketel One, Absolut, Stolichnaya, and Belvedere, among the many premium brands available. If I were going to make vodka martinis, I would probably spring for one of these brands.
Flavored vodkas are generally made by steeping fruit, citrus peel, or other flavoring agents in the vodka after distillation. You can also do this yourself very easily, by steeping citrus rind, for example, in vodka for a week or so. Infused vodkas can add a little complexity to drinks ordinarily made with plain vodka, especially if the flavoring agent is unusual.
Whiskies are made from various grains -- mostly barley, rye, corn, wheat -- depending on the country of origin. They are distilled at lower proofs than the neutral grain spirits and are all aged to some degree.
American whiskey is generally made from corn or rye, plus other cereal grains. Bourbon by law must contain at least 51 percent but no more than 80 percent corn and be aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years. Jim Beam and Maker's Mark are both bourbons. Tennessee whiskey (Jack Daniel's, George Dickel) is similar in production to bourbon, with the additional step of being filtered through charcoal made from maple trees. Rye whiskey (Old Overholt, Jim Beam Rye), not surprisingly, must come from a mash made from at least 51 percent rye. It tends to be less sweet and considerably less smoky than Bourbon or Tennessee whiskies. Blended American whiskies, such as Seagram's Seven or Kessler's, are similar in flavor profile to their bourbon and Tennessee cousins, but tend to be lighter.
Canadian whiskey is made from a blend of grains, often primarily rye. But Canadian whiskey is lighter and somewhat sweeter than its American cousins. Seagram's V.O. and Canadian Club are two popular brands.
Personally, I prefer rye to bourbon, and bourbon to Tennessee whiskey, and anything over Canadian. If you want rye in your Manhattan, try Jim Beam rye (good), Old Overholt (better) or Old Potrero (if you're feeling flush). I tend to fall back on Maker's Mark or Jim Beam when I buy bourbon, although Wild Turkey is something I'll splurge on if I'm entertaining bourbon drinkers. I don't buy Tennessee whiskey, but a friend of mine who loves both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey swears by George Dickel.
The mash for Scotch whisky has to be made from at least 51 percent malted barley (malting is a process of germinating, then drying the grain. Scotch is made from barley that's dried over the smoke of peat fires, resulting in a distinctive, smoky flavor). Single malts are 100 percent malted barley; blended scotches can also contain other cereal grains. The distinctive smokiness of Scotch makes it a harder whisky to mix than American or Canadian. It’s most often served straight or on the rocks, although I've been known to enjoy the occasional Rob Roy (scotch with vermouth) or Rusty Nail (scotch with Drambuie). Good blended scotches include Dewar's (my preference for the cocktails mentioned above), Chivas, Johnnie Walker Red or Black, and Teacher's. I wouldn't dip much below the level of Grant's, even for mixing. I personally love single malt scotch -- the smokier the better -- but I wouldn't use it in cocktails (see the note in the introduction to this section). I save that for sipping.
Irish whisky is sometimes made from malted barley, but it usually comes from a blend of lighter grains with the malted grain, resulting in a less smoky taste than Scotch. I like Jameson's, Power's, Bushmill's and Tullemore Dew.
Brandy and other fruit based spirits
Distilled from fruit, usually grapes, brandy is distilled at lower proof and aged in oak barrels for anywhere from three to 50 or more years. Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of France; likewise, Armagnac comes from the Armagnac region. It used to be that fine brandies came from France and cheap brandy came from California, but that is no longer the case, as some very nice brandies are now coming out of both California and Oregon. Like the expensive single malt scotch, fine aged brandies are rarely used in cocktails, but younger, less expensive brandy is an ingredient in such classic drinks as the Sidecar. Jules Domet and Canard are two reasonably priced French brandies that work well in mixed drinks. Korbel is acceptable in mixed drinks if you can't find anything else, but barely.
Marc, grappa and pisco are distilled from the remains of the wine crush (stems, seeds and skins). Traditionally the "poor man's brandy," these liquors have become more popular (and more refined) and are now a sort of cult favorite. Pisco is, not surprisingly, the spirit on which the Pisco sour is based, but marc and grappa are most often enjoyed straight.
Eau de Vie, in the broad sense, refers to any liquor distilled from any fruit. In its more common usage, though, it refers to higher proof, colorless liquor made from fruit other than grapes, and aged for a shorter period of time than brandy. Eaux de vie are typically more fiery than brandy, with the distinct aroma of the fruit from which they're distilled. Poire William and kirsch are popular eaux de vie. Although technically Calvados is an eau de vie, it's closer in style to a fine grape brandy. Several cocktails call for eaux de vie, but they are far less common an ingredient than sweeter, lower proof fruit cordials.
Although brandy is not the most common base for cocktails, it does appear in several, notably the Sidecar.
Rum is distilled from sugar cane or molasses, and hails from sugar producing countries such as Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The rate of fermentation as well as the length of time spent aging, affects the flavor of the rum, with the lightest rums having the shortest fermentation time. After the distillation process, a raw, clear, fiery spirit is the result -- embraced as cachaca in Brazil, it forms the base of the Caipirinha cocktail.
In most cases, though, this raw spirit is aged, sometimes with flavoring and coloring agents, to become rum. White or silver rums are generally the lightest in taste, due both to the short fermentation period and to their being filtered before bottling. Medium rums are golden to amber in color, sometimes the result of aging in oak, sometimes the result of addition of caramel or a small amount of molasses. Light and medium rums are most commonly found in cocktails, although the very dark heavy rums like Myers's are an ingredient in some tropical drinks.
For a good mixable light rum, you can't go wrong with Bacardi Light. If you can find it, white Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti is also good for cocktails. Mount Gay Eclipse or Bacardi Gold are good choices for medium body, golden rums. I like Myers's when I want a dark rum for drinks. As with cognac and fine brandies, the most expensive rums are aged for years and are best enjoyed sipped straight.
After gin and vodka, white rum is probably found in more cocktails than any other spirit. The Daiquiri is probably the best known of these; others include the Mojito, the Bacardi cocktail, Mai-tai and the Zombie.
Tequila is distilled in Mexico from the agave plant. By Mexican law, it must be distilled from at least 51 percent blue agave grown within a specifically delineated region in Mexico. Quality tequilas are 100 percent agave, and it's a good idea to stick to those when choosing a bottle for your bar. Like rums, tequilas come in a range of colors from silver to golden. White or silver tequilas are aged for less than 60 days. Golden tequilas are usually aged about the same and usually get their color from caramel. For aged tequilas, look for the designation Reposada, which requires aging of 60 days to a year in wood, or Anejo, which is aged at least a year but often for two or three.
Mescal (mezcal) can mean two different things. Originally, mescal simply referred to any distillate of any agave plant; thus in that sense, tequila is a subset of mescal. Then there is the spirit now marketed as mescal, which comes from a different type of agave than does tequila. This mescal tends to have a smokier flavor than tequila, due to its production, which involves heating the agave (more precisely, the pina, or heart of the agave) over charcoal.
There are almost as many premium tequilas out now as there are premium vodkas. Every brand has its fans, and I'm not about to step into that argument. I rarely drink tequila straight, so I don't bother with the expense of Chinaco and Patron, although they are very good indeed. I like Sauza Hornitas, El Tesoro Silver and Herradura for cocktails. Virtually anything that's labeled 100 percent agave should be fine for mixing. Tequila's claim to fame in the United States, drink-wise, is of course the Margarita, with the Tequila Sunrise a close second.
Vermouth is fortified wine flavored with a variety of herbs. There are dozens of vermouths on the market, although Americans tend to think only in terms of the dry (white) and sweet (red) vermouths used in Martinis and Manhattans. In some older cocktail and bar books, you may encounter the terms "French" and "Italian" vermouth. Because the dry, white vermouth was first produced by a French company, it not surprisingly came to be known as "French" while the sweet red vermouth, which originated in Italy, was called "Italian." Now, of course, both styles of vermouths are produced in both (and other) countries, and those designations have mostly died out.
Of the common bar vermouths, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, and Cinzano are good solid brands. I prefer Noilly for white and Cinzano for red, but all are acceptable.
There are, however, numerous less known vermouths available with distinctive tastes, such as Dubonnet, Lillet, and Cinzano Bianco, which in other countries are commonly drunk on the rocks or with soda as an aperitif. For a change in your regular vermouth-spiked cocktail, try one of these, or the American vermouth called Vya. (Lillet Blonde, in particular, is one of my favorite additions to many cocktails.)
Liqueurs and Cordials
Flavored with fruit or (less often) herbs and lightly to heavily sweetened, liqueurs and cordials play a role in many a cocktail. They are generally much lower in proof than liquors. There are many more varieties than I have time for here, but several are so common in cocktails that they bear special mention.
Campari. Bitter, sweet and herbal is the best way to describe this red Italian aperitif liqueur. Found in such classics as the Negroni and the Americano, Campari can add a delightful bitter edge to many fruit juice cocktails. It's also nice mixed with club soda over ice for a light afternoon drink.
Triple Sec and Curacao. Triple Sec is probably the most widely used liqueur in cocktails. Strictly speaking, triple sec is a liqueur flavored with the peel of sweet oranges, while curacao uses both sweet and sour oranges. However, the two terms are used virtually interchangeably in cocktails. The proof varies widely, so it’s best to check so you know what you’re dealing with. An expensive and well known triple sec is Cointreau, which is good to have if you want to spend the money. Marie Brizzard makes an excellent triple sec as well. If you buy curacao, avoid the blue version unless you want to make blue drinks and stain your tongue. Avoid non-alcoholic triple sec, which is basically an artificially orange flavored sweetener.
Grand Marnier and other brandy-based orange liqueurs are often substituted for triple sec. They are very good liqueurs, but they will add a distinct brandy flavor and will thus change the flavor of the drink, sometimes significantly. They also tend to be sweeter, so keep that in mind when substituting.
Maraschino. Less well known but a great addition to the home bar is the Italian cherry liqueur called Maraschino. A couple of brands are available in the United States; I have only tried Luxardo but understand from those who know that it's the best. Maraschino is subtle, with a great cherry aroma and a hint of bitterness behind the sweetness.
Other liqueurs that find their way into cocktails include:
Anisette: licorice (other licorice/anise flavored liqueurs include Sambuca and Pernod)
Baileys: Irish whisky-based cream liqueur
Crème de cassis: currant
Crème de cacao: chocolate
Crème de menthe: mint
Kahlua: coffee (Tia Maria is another coffee liqueur)
Sloe gin: sloe berries
Schnapps. Most schnapps you will see in the United States belongs to a category of sweet, inexpensive, non-proprietary cordials. They come in a wide range of flavors, with peppermint, peach, cinnamon and root beer being the most common flavors; de Kuyper is probably the best known manufacturer. I'm sure I'll hear about this, but I see absolutely no reason to buy any of these (think sweet and artificial tasting). European schnapps, though, are apparently a different story. I've heard that they can be quite good, not as sweet yet intensely flavored.
Bitters is a wide-ranging term that usually refers to concentrated, aromatic alcoholic concoctions such as Angostura or Peychaud. The term is also sometimes used for bitter aperitifs such as Fernet Branca or Campari, but the first usage is more common. Bitters add a complexity and depth to otherwise ordinary cocktails, and in Martinis and Manhattans, they can help to make up for less than stellar vermouth. The aforementioned brands, Angostura and Peychaud, are the two you're most likely to see on the shelf, with Angostura by far the most common. Orange bitters are worth investing in if you can find them. Fee Brothers is a good brand.
Because sugar is so hard to dissolve in cold drinks, simple syrup is my sweetener of choice for cocktails. It's easy to make. The most common formulation is two parts sugar to one part water, boiled until the sugar dissolves and a syrup results. This proportion is close enough to the saturation point of the water that you may find your bottle of simple syrup develops a few sugar crystals around the rim. I keep mine refrigerated, and it seems to last forever.
If you don't have simple syrup on hand, superfine sugar is your best bet for dissolving. You can buy superfine sugar, or make it yourself by whizzing some regular sugar in a food processor for a minute or so. Avoid powdered sugar, which contains cornstarch; not only will it not dissolve, it will make your drink cloudy.
Rose’s™ Lime Juice
A sweetened lime cordial, Rose’s is the best known and, I think, best tasting of the type. Angostura also makes a version. Rose's is the traditional mixer for the Gimlet cocktail (although a fairly recent trend seems to substitute fresh lime and sugar for the Rose's), so if you plan to make Gimlets, you should have it. If not, you can probably live without it. Since the Gimlet is one of my all-time favorite cocktails, I cannot.
Do note that Rose's Lime is not a substitute for fresh lime juice. I would not recommend it for Daiquiris or Margaritas.
Traditionally a syrup flavored with pomegranates, grenadine is used to sweeten and color cocktails. Try to find a brand that really does contain pomegranate, not just sweeteners and coloring agents.
Lime, lemon and orange juice are indispensable components of many a mixed drink. Always use fresh juice, and squeeze your juices as close to the time of use as is possible. When trying to gauge the amount of fruit necessary for a given number of drinks, remember that a large Persian lime produces about an ounce of juice, Mexican limes produce about half to three-quarters of an ounce and key limes slightly less. Meyer lemons will also produce about an ounce, with the more common Eureka lemons producing slightly more. An orange will give about 2 ounces of juice, depending on the variety and size, of course.
Top left: juicer with reamer and base. Top right: Mexican juicer. Bottom: hand held reamer
There are a number of devices for juicing citrus fruit, including the hand held reamer and the "Mexican" juicer. The reamer at the left, which sits over a base to collect the juice, is handy if you're juicing multiple fruits. The juice collects in its own cup, which often contains a strainer to remove any seeds. The hand held reamer works well for lemons and limes; it can be on the small side for oranges. The Mexican juicer comes in three sizes -- small for limes, medium for lemons, shown, and large for oranges. It not only does a great job of getting all the juice out of the fruit, but also extracts some of the oils from the rind. If you choose one of these, keep in mind that the small one is really designed for the smaller Mexican limes. Most American limes are too large for it and work better in the medium size.
COCKTAIL BACKGROUND AND THEORY
So, I promised in my introduction that I would talk a little about what, exactly, a cocktail is. Although the term is sometimes used as a synonym for mixed drink, I think of it as a specific subcategory of mixed drinks. Drawing on a number of cocktail books and my own personal idiosyncracies, I've come up with the following definition of the cocktail, which is not by any means the definitive one, but it's the one I'm using for the purposes of this class. Although I will talk a little about other types of mixed drinks, I'll concentrate on the drinks that fit my narrower definition. It's not that those other mixed drinks are unworthy of attention, but I can only cover so much territory here.
So, where were we? A cocktail consists of at least one primary spirit, plus at least one modifying element, often more than one. It is chilled by being shaken or stirred with ice but served up (without ice). It is served in a cocktail glass, naturally.
For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to narrow my focus even further. First, I think that a cocktail should taste of alcohol. If I want, for example, an oatmeal cookie, I'll eat one -- I have no desire to drink a simulation of one. And setting out to make a cocktail that "doesn't taste like alcohol" is completely alien to my sensibilities. Also, I tend to think of a cocktail as an aperitif, drunk before dinner to stimulate the appetite. So although my cocktails may have a sweet element, overtly or purely sweet cocktails are not something I'm going to talk about. There is a whole category of "dessert drinks" out there, but it doesn't interest me in the least.
I can't really continue without mentioning the recent trend of calling any drink that's poured into a cocktail glass a Martini of some sort. Now, I'm all for the creation of new drinks (if they're good, that is). But in my book, calling all these creations "Martinis" is not a welcome trend, for three reasons. First, there's already a term for those types of drinks: "cocktail." Second, it means that eventually, my ordering a Martini is not going to mean anything specific. It's not going to result in a true Martini being set down in front of me. And third, it shows a complete lack of imagination in naming new cocktails. Part of the fun of cocktails is the fanciful names. Instead of the Maiden's Prayer or the Monkey Gland, a Leap Year or a Satan's Whiskers, we now have the "Fill-in-the-blank" Martini. How pedestrian. And how very sad.
End of rant. Back to cocktails.
To make sense of all the hundreds of thousands of drinks out there, you have to have a starting point -- a way to categorize them. But, you ask, just how does one categorize cocktails? This is where I take a different path from most other cocktail makers. Generally speaking, bar and cocktail books categorize cocktails based on their base spirit. I divide them into groups based on their structures and flavor profiles.
FLAVOR AND STRUCTURAL PROFILES
To discover the flavor profile of a drink, look past the drink name, past even the base spirit. Concentrate on the other ingredients. Which tastes are provided by the "modifiers" in the drink? Sour flavors from lime or lemon juice? Bitter flavors from herbal liqueurs? Sweetness from simple syrup, triple sec or grenadine?
Take, for example, the Daiquiri (and I'm referring to the traditional Daiquiri, not those sweet slushy fruit travesties). This drink consists of rum as the base spirit, simple syrup or sugar, and lime juice. This is a fairly simple profile -- sweetness from the syrup and a sour note from the lime. As it turns out, this profile – base + sweet + sour -- is a very common one. Take the brandy-based Sidecar. The Sidecar's ingredients -- brandy, triple sec and lemon juice -- play the same roles as the rum, syrup and lime of the Daiquiri. It's not just these two drinks that share that structure, either. It forms the foundation for a number of classic cocktails, as well as a majority of the newer cocktails worth imbibing. Among them are:
- Margarita (tequila, triple sec, lime juice)
- Gimlet (gin, lime cordial -- such as Rose's -- provides both the sweet and sour elements)
- Aviation (gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice)
- Caipirinha (cachaca -- a sort of unaged rim, simple syrup, lime)
- Cosmopolitan (vodka, triple sec, lime and cranberry juice)
- Lemon Drop (vodka, simple syrup, lemon juice)
Now, if you're interested in making a sweet/sour cocktail a little more complex, you can add a bitter element -- Campari or bitters are the most common. A dash of bitters, for example, makes a Lemon Drop a much more interesting drink.
This sweet/sour structural profile, is, of course, not the only one for cocktails. Martinis and Manhattans, those bastions of the cocktail world, belong to a different category entirely: alcohol base + herbal/aromatic modifier (i.e., vermouth). So does the Rob Roy, which is essentially a Manhattan made with scotch. (Very close to this category is the rarer base + bitter modifier, into which the Pink Gin or Gin and Bitters falls.)
I know what you're going to say now. "But a Martini doesn't taste like a Manhattan!" And of course you're right. Gin doesn't taste like rye. Because the cocktails in this particular category are dominated by the spirit they contain, this is really more of a structural category than a flavor category. But it's still a distinct and useful category.
A third category, base + bitter + sweet, is the one into which the Old-Fashioned and Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth and Campari) fall. Any drinks that contain Campari or a significant dose of bitters will likely fall into this category. Liqueurs like Amer Picon, though harder to find than Campari, are also ingredients in bitter-sweet drinks.
Finally, a less common category, but one that's ripe for experimentation, is base + sweet + sour + bitter. With all the tastes going on, it requires no small degree of mixing skill -- too much of any one of the ingredients can result in a total disaster. The Jasmine, a drink from Harrington and Moorhead's book that's become one of my favorites, fits into this category, consisting of gin, triple sec, lemon juice and a splash of Campari. My own After School Special (recipe below) also falls into this category.
Those categories cover most of the cocktail recipes you'll find in most of the cocktail books out there (except for the purely sweet ones, which I've already said I'm ignoring for now).
Once you know what the basic spirits taste like, and you isolate the predominant flavors of the other common ingredients in cocktails, you're well on your way to
a) predicting in general terms how a recipe will taste and whether you might like it, and
b) being able to experiment successfully on your own.
Not too difficult, was it?
Before we leave the topic, I want to say a few words about some other kinds of mixed drinks. Cocktails, wonderful as they may be, are not always the best choice for an alcoholic drink. They're strong, for one, and strongly flavored. Sometimes a better choice is a lighter drink, on ice, maybe with soda or tonic. Any drink book will provide plenty of recipes for such drinks, like the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water) or the Gin Rickey (gin, lime juice, simple syrup and soda). You can still use the same principles to evaluate these drinks. The Americano, obviously, shares its profile with the Negroni mentioned above, and the Rickey is similar in flavor to the Gimlet. Many cocktails in the sweet-sour or bitter-sweet categories can be successfully turned into mixed drinks made on ice with a splash of soda.
In fact, many cocktails -- especially those with fruit juices and cordials -- can be converted very successfully into lighter drinks simply by serving them over ice with a splash of club soda.
Chances are pretty good that among your acquaintances are a couple of people who for any number of reasons don't drink alcohol. Yet the so-called "mocktails," or non-alcoholic cocktails that many restaurants serve are nothing but pureed fruit juices or tonic water with lime. There's nothing really wrong with these, except that they're often boring and never very sophisticated.
Because several of my close friends and relatives no longer drink alcohol, I wanted to develop some sophisticated alternatives for them. Instead of creating alcoholic drinks that didn't taste like alcohol, I wanted to create non-alcoholic drinks that would mimic the sophisticated, complex taste of the alcoholic drinks I was serving to my other guests.
I began with a non-alcoholic version of the Margarita. First, I thought about what taste and textural components are contributed by the tequila. It contributes a feeling of heat and a relatively viscous mouthfeel, with a note of sweetness and sometimes smoke. After some experimentation, I decided that chipotle chiles (dried, smoked jalapenos) were what I was looking for. I steeped them in water, which I then used to make a simple syrup. With the syrup adding sweetness, I could dispense with the triple sec, but of course I still wanted a hint of orange. A couple of tries later, I hit on steeping dried orange rind with the chipotles. Lime, obviously, added the sour element, but the drink was still not quite right. First, even served over ice, it was too intense, so I added a little water. That helped, but somehow, even with the lime, I kept thinking that it needed more acid. All of a sudden I realized what it needed, which was grapefruit juice. Just a little pulled the drink together perfectly.
Since then, I've experimented with other syrups, such as a jalapeno and mint syrup that makes a nice non-alcoholic version of the mojito. These exercises have proven to be fun and challenging, and I'm hoping to develop a few more (I'm currently working on a less sweet drink incorporating juniper and cucumber, but I'm not quite there yet).
I've talked about ingredients, flavor profiles and structure. In the last section, I'll provide some recipes for anyone who wants to start mixing cocktails. But before I do, I need to talk about balance. There are a lot of poorly mixed cocktails in the world, many (sad to say) mixed by so-called professional bartenders. Sometimes the problem is poor quality ingredients, but most often is a lack of attention to the balance of the drink. Specifically, the most common problem I encounter is drinks that are made too sweet. Maybe it's because in catering to a younger crowd with a less sophisticated palate, some bartenders feel it necessary to sweeten up all their drinks. I don't know the reason, but it's something to watch when you start to mix your own drinks.
And while we're on the subject of poorly mixed drinks, over-pouring the alcohol will throw a cocktail off balance just as badly as over-sweetening. An inexperienced bartender may think that extra alcohol is always welcome in a drink, but in almost all cases, this is not true.
Making cocktails is not difficult, but there are a few techniques that you'll need to understand before you begin mixing. While the Evolving Cocktails lesson covers equipment in detail, there are some essentials that I will address briefly in this section.
You might think that professional bartenders don't measure ingredients when they mix drinks. Not true. They don't pour into a measuring cup, certainly, but they still measure -- by sight or by feel or by "count." You can teach yourself to do that if you wish. All it takes is a lot of practice and a careful eye. Start by measuring out water in half ounce increments and pouring it into your mixing glass or shaker. Do it often enough that you know by sight about how much space each measure takes up in the glass. Or practice pouring out of a liquor bottle at a steady rate. While you're pouring, count to yourself at a steady rate. Then start measuring how much liquid is in the glass after one "count," two "counts," etc. After enough practice of either of these methods, you'll begin to be able to measure without a measuring glass.
To start, though, plan to use a measuring device -- a jigger, a shot glass or a measuring glass.
Left-to-right: a "one-shot" measuring glass, a two-ended jigger, and a four-ounce measuring glass
A two-ended jigger consists of two cups, one usually 1.5 ounces (the "jigger") and one that measures 1 ounce (the "pony"). Sometimes one of these will measure 1 ¼ ounces and the other ¾ ounces, so unless you know in advance you may wish to check your jigger. An easy way to do this is with a tablespoon, which equals half an ounce, or a two-tablespoon coffee measure, which equals one ounce.
A shot glass or measuring glass is usually a little more versatile, with increments ranging from ½ ounce up. I really like the glass on the right, which goes up to four ounces -- it can be used for measuring the ingredients for one or two drinks at a time. Even though I can measure many drinks by count and sight now, I still use it when I'm making a particularly complex drink or when I'm experimenting.
Shaking v. Stirring
No discussion of classic mixed drinks is complete without a mention of the difference between shaking and stirring a drink. First of all, let's dispense with all the talk you may have heard about shaking a martini somehow "bruising" the gin. Ain't so. End of story.
What shaking does do to a drink is three-fold. First, it chills a drink faster and to a lower temperature than does stirring the same drink. In Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, the authors (Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead) estimate that shaking a drink in a metal shaker will result in a drink that's approximately 20 to 25 degrees. The same drink stirred will end up in the 25- to 30-degree range.
Second, as the drink chills, it also becomes more diluted as the ice melts into the drink. The higher agitation of the shaken drink means that more liquid comes into contact with more ice and results in more water in the drink.
Third, shaking introduces millions of tiny air bubbles into the drink, making it appear cloudy and feel lighter and almost fizzy on the tongue.
Traditionally, it's felt that a drink that's primarily spirit with little else, such as a Martini or Manhattan, should be clear and still and not overly diluted, so it should be stirred, even though that means it won't be as cold.
Practically, drinks that include syrups, fruit juice or cordials will be more thoroughly combined when shaken, so that's the usual technique for those drinks.
Of course some Martini drinkers prefer their drinks more diluted or like the lighter feeling of an aerated libation, and they're willing to trade a slight cloudiness for those qualities.
You can see and taste the difference for yourself if you have a cocktail shaker. Simply place four or five ice cubes in the bottom of the shaker and pour in an ounce or two of gin, vodka, or white rum. Stir it vigorously with a long spoon for 15 seconds. Pour it out into a cocktail glass. Repeat with the ice cubes and gin, but this time, put the top on the shaker and shake vigorously for 10 to 15 seconds. Pour this one out. You should see a difference in the clarity of the two drinks (although as the second one sits, it will clear up). Taste them, paying attention to the way they feel on the tongue. You should notice that the second one is lighter, the first silky and a little heavier.
Personally, I like the stirred version. I follow the traditional approach, stirring my Martinis and Manhattans and shaking most other drinks. I make up for the slightly higher temperature of a stirred drink by chilling my glassware in the freezer. But you should make up your own mind.
Whatever you decide, there are three things you should avoid:
First, you may see bartenders "stir" a drink by repeatedly plunging the spoon into the ice, chipping off small bits. Don't think that this is a desirable technique to emulate. It results in little ice chunks in the drink even when strained, which is not something that belongs in a drink served up.
Second, I've seen bartenders shake a drink so hard and for so long that it comes out of the shaker practically foaming (sometimes actually foaming). That's too much fizziness for even the fruitiest of cocktails.
Third, if you shake a drink using a Boston shaker (the type with a glass as the base with a metal cup to shake), use a strainer. Don't try to split the two halves slightly and strain through the opening. I can't count the ice bits that have ended up in drinks because of this sloppy shortcut taken by mediocre bartenders.
Chilling The Glass
Properly chilled cocktails are a joy. Warm or even cool cocktails are one of life's big disappointments. Chilling your glasses can help to prevent this. When you're making a drink that is served up (that is, shaken or stirred with ice, then strained into a glass and served without ice), it's especially important to thoroughly chill them. You can do this in a couple of ways: place them in the freezer for a short time or in the refrigerator for a longer time; place them bowl-down in the ice bucket for a few minutes; or fill with ice for a few minutes while you're making your drink. Any of these techniques will chill the glass, with the temperature of the glass rising slightly from the first (freezer) to the last (filling the glass with ice).
THE LOGISTICS OF COCKTAIL PARTIES
So, you've gotten the hang of mixing up a few cocktails, and you want to host a cocktail party. What's next?
"Start out small" is the advice I always give my students. When you feel confident making cocktails for three or four people, increase your guest list to six or eight. Only when you feel at ease with that size group should you consider a larger party.
Plan your first parties within a limited time frame. Let your guests know that your party lasts from 5:00 to 7:00, or 6:00 to 9:00. Don't try for the "open house," 4:00 to 10:00, anytime-you-want-to-show-up-is-fine kind of party. It's too draining.
Making cocktails for a crowd
It's one thing to mix a drinks for a few friends; it's something else entirely to provide drinks for a crowd of 10, 15 or 30 people. Even if you're comfortable with your mixing skills, drinks for a large crowd will take up most of your time at your party. If you like playing bartender, this can be perfectly acceptable. But if you're also trying to juggle serving food and want to be able to socialize at length with your guests, you may want to adopt another strategy.
If you have friends who like mixing drinks, you can often enlist them to play bartender for an hour or so, giving yourself a break to attend to your guests, bring out food, or anything else you need to do.
If you decide to mix drinks individually for your guests, you can make your life easier if you limit yourself to two cocktails. It's tough to pick two drinks that will satisfy everyone, so when I do this, I make sure to have other options for those who don't care for the choices. Champagne or wine are good in this situation. It's best to let your guests know the drink situation, or you may end up with guests who expect to get whatever they want, especially if they know you have other ingredients.
A different option is to buy the ingredients for a few cocktails, plus some generic mixers like club soda and tonic water, and invite your guests to mix their own drinks. You can even give a few lessons and make it part of the evening's activities. The drawback to this set-up is that you have no control the amount your guests drink and risk a) running out of liquor and b) ending up with drunk guests.
Another solution is to mix up batches of cocktails in pitchers so that you can take care of a large number of guests' drinks at once. This works well if you limit your selection to two or three cocktail choices. It works best with cocktails that are served over ice. Prepare the pitcher with just enough ice to chill the liquid, then pour the drinks into glasses filled with ice. Since the pitcher may not get emptied right away, this technique will ensure that your guests get cold drinks while keeping the drinks from becoming too diluted.
Extending that idea even further, mixing a punch can work for very large crowds, with the main concern being how to keep the punch cold. I've had the best results chilling the punch and serving it over ice rather than adding the ice to the bowl.
Party Pouring Math
The average body processes one average alcoholic drink per hour, and you should keep this in mind while pouring cocktails for your guests. Of course some of your guests will drink faster (and some slower) but you really should attempt to keep them from gulping too many drinks too quickly. You can realistically plan on two drinks per drinking guest in the first hour of your party, after which most guests will slow down to one drink every 45 to 60 minutes. If cocktails are a prelude to dinner, it's best to limit the number of drinks to two, since you'll probably be serving wine or beer with dinner.
A 750-milliliter bottle of a primary spirit will provide about 16 drinks calling for a jigger (1.5 ounces). If you're making drinks like Martinis and Manhattans that call for slightly more of the primary spirit, obviously you'll get fewer drinks out of each bottle. Bottles of ingredients like triple sec, which are used in smaller amounts, will naturally stretch for more drinks.
It might seem unnecessary to talk about ice, but a couple of points about ice bear mention. First, when planning a cocktail party, always buy at least twice as much ice as you think you'll need. There's nothing worse than running out of ice. Even if you have an ice maker, you probably won't be able to make anything close to enough ice for a crowd. Second, try to buy cubed ice instead of crushed ice -- it melts slower and lasts longer. And third, store the ice in the freezer, except for what you will use within 15 minutes (or even less). Slushy, watery ice makes inferior cocktails.
Although a cocktail party is not a dinner party, you should provide something for your guests to eat. But you needn't go wild with the food. As the host of a party, you'll have a lot to do during the evening, so think hard about how much time you want to spend in the kitchen. You don't have to prepare an assortment of dozens of canapes, although if you like to do that sort of thing, it can be fun. If you don't, it's fine to buy prepared foods, provide bowls of nuts and crackers, and take any other shortcuts you can (except for buying Jeno's pizza rolls or those little quiches).
While we're on the subject of food, here are a couple more points:
First, remember that cocktail food should be finger food. You don't want your guests juggling plates, forks, napkins and drinks. If you are going to make food, think about miniature versions of foods -- tiny stuffed potatoes, bite-sized tostadas -- or canapes. And chicken wings always sound like a great idea, until you see your guests searching wildly for napkins and spilling their drinks while trying to get their hands cleaned off. Anything messy, or with a sauce, should be served with cocktail picks.
Second, when planning your menu, go with rich foods high in fat. They go well with cocktails and they help to absorb the alcohol by coating the stomach. Avoid anything terribly spicy -- really hot foods are a tough match with many cocktails. Generally, the sweet-sour cocktails are the best match for spicy foods; a Daiquiri or Margarita can pair with jerk chicken skewers or spicy empanadas better than a Martini will.
2 ½ to 3 oz. gin
¼ to ½ oz dry vermouth
Pour into a glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Pour into a shaker filled with ice. Shake gently and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist or an olive.
Vodka martini: Substitute vodka for the gin
Perfect Martini: Use half dry and half sweet vermouth
Dirty Martini: add a dash of olive brine
Gibson: Garnish with a cocktail onion
2 ½ oz. rye or bourbon whiskey
½ oz. sweet vermouth
Stir or shake gently with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cheery or a twist.
Substitute dry vermouth for the sweet or use half and half (a perfect Manhattan).
Rob Roy: Substitute blended scotch for the rye
2 oz. tequila
1 oz. Cointreau, triple sec or curacao
1 ½ oz. fresh lime juice or half lime and half lemon juice
Moisten the edge of a glass with lime juice or water and rim with salt.
Pour ingredients over ice and shake. Strain into salt-rimmed cocktail glass or pour over new ice in a margarita or hurricane glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or wheel.
1 ½ oz. vodka
¾ oz. Cointreau, triple sec or curacao
½ oz. fresh lime juice
Splash cranberry juice
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.
Try flavored vodkas for this drink: Orange, currant or lemon
2 oz. white rum
¾ oz. lime juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
Pour over ice and shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Variation: Add a splash of grenadine (and use Bacardi rum) for the Bacardi cocktail.
1 ½ oz. gin
½ oz. maraschino liqueur
¾ oz. lemon juice
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Variation: use half vodka and half gin.
Bitter Lemon Drop
2 oz. vodka (lemon vodka is good)
1 oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
Three or four dashes bitters
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. If you wish, rim the edge of the glass with sugar first.
After School Special
2 oz Gin
1 oz Lillet Blond
1/4 oz Meyer or regular lemon juice
Dash of orange bitters
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon or orange.
Note: If you use regular lemon juice, you may wish to add a dash of simple syrup.
A Drink I Haven't Named Yet
1 ½ oz. light rum
1 ½ oz. blood orange juice
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. triple sec
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel
Note: This is also very good served over ice with a splash of soda.
The Faux Margarita
1 ¼ oz. chipotle orange syrup (recipe below)
2 oz. lime juice
¼ oz. grapefruit juice
1 oz. water
Shake over ice and strain into chilled, salt-rimmed glass. Or pour over ice if desired.
Chipotle orange syrup
Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add 1 dried chipotle pepper and 2 strips dried orange peel (or fresh, if dried are not available). Cover and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes (liquid should be slightly spicy but not overtly hot). Strain out the pepper and orange and add ¾ cup sugar. Bring back to a boil and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool.
1 ½ oz. jalapeno mint syrup (recipe below)
2 oz. lime juice
3 oz. club soda or seltzer
Shake the syrup and lime juice over ice. Pour into an ice-filled hurricane or tall glass and top with club soda.
Jalapeno Mint Syrup
Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add 2-3 sliced jalapeno peppers and leaves from one small bunch mint. Cover and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes (liquid should be slightly spicy but not overtly hot). Strain out the peppers and mint and add 1 cup sugar. Bring back to a boil and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool.
Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. My favorite cocktail book by far, this is unfortunately out of print, but you may be able to find copies on Amazon or ebay. It gives recipes with background for numerous classic cocktails, and rates drinks on two scales: complexity of taste and mixing difficulty.
The Craft of The Cocktail, by Dale DeGroff. Lots of good information appears here, including photos of garnishes and equipment. Lots of recipes, too, for both new and old drinks. If there's a flaw in my opinion, it's the name dropping, which I find tiresome but which is fairly easy to skip over since most of it occurs in sidebars.
Straight Up or On the Rocks, by William Grimes. The history of the cocktail and drinking in America. It contains some recipes, but its strength is the information. Fascinating reading for any lover of the cocktail.
The Art of the Cocktail Party, by Leslie Brenner. This book will lead you through the entire process of planning and hosting a cocktail party. Even though I don't always agree with Ms. Brenner, she does cover virtually every aspect of the party. The book contains recipes for cocktail food and drinks.
Copyright 2003 by Janet A. Zimmerman
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