• Photography by Justin Fox Burks •
Over the past 15 years, the artistry and craft of mixing drinks has re-emerged. Bartenders began turning away from vodka, which lends a drink very little flavor, and switched to gin, brandy, and rye whiskey. This trend was embraced by patrons who enjoyed reinvented classics made with the finest spirits, quality ingredients, and modern techniques.
As a home cocktail enthusiast, I’m no expert, but absorbing this culinary approach to classic mixology is just plain fun and great for entertaining. Plus, it’s easy. As Julia Child once said, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” The same goes with making an excellent cocktail at home. I’ll explain how, but first, a little history.
The first true cocktails were purely an American phenomenon that evolved between the Revolutionary War and Prohibition. Offended by the notion of “debasing a spirit,” Europeans preferred simple aperitifs, thought to aid digestion, and enjoyed before or after a meal. Aperitifs, like Campari, are light and refreshing, served in small portions, and often contain botanicals and bitter ingredients.
In America, most available alcohol was distilled. Bartenders in the eighteenth century learned to make cordials, vermouths, and bitters, mixing local wine, brandies, and spirits with herbs and spices. Many libations enjoyed today date back to these early caged-bar experiments (yes, there were actual cages around many bars that keepers locked at the end of the day). The Manhattan, Sazerac, Martini, and Mint Julep are the most quintessential American libations to originate pre-Prohibition.
It did not take long for our young country’s unique cultural product to grab the world’s attention. During Prohibition, wealthy Americans traveled overseas — to the Caribbean Islands (namely Cuba), and in Europe to London, Paris, and Milan — where alcohol flowed in abundance. American bartenders migrated too, in need of work and eager to demonstrate their craft. As a result, new cocktails emerged in America and overseas with old-world flavors.
One of my favorites, the Sidecar, emerged out of Paris in the 1920s. Historical accounts (although much historical documentation of cocktails varies widely) credit its origins to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Paris, invented by the head bartender, American ex-pat Frank Meyer. It is a rich blend of cognac and citrus, with lemon juice and Cointreau. However, I prefer a variation of the drink using Calvados, a French apple brandy. It’s great in cold weather, and with notes of apple and cinnamon, the drink is warm and soothing.
4 Tbsp. sugar with 1/2 Tsp. cinnamon, for rim
1 oz. quality Calvados (such as Daron Fine Calvados)
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 orange twist, for garnish
❱❱❱ Run the lemon wedge around the rim of a coup glass and carefully dip in the cinnamon sugar. Place glass in the freezer to harden. Pour the Calvados, Cointreau, and juice into a mixing glass. Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously. Strain into the sugar-rimmed glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Culinary trend moves from food to drinks.
With the Industrial Revolution, people consumed more processed food and drinks. As a result, the craft of artisanal cocktails was lost for almost a century. Tiki drinks gained popularity and towards the 1980s, cocktail trends catered to the sweeter palate.
When farm-to-table pioneers, like Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, and the sustainable food and modernist movements took cooking to a new level, passionate bartenders began to do the same with cocktails. They moved away from cliched martinis and turned to the classics, applying traditional techniques to drink-making with a culinary approach.
Making homemade bitters, syrups, and infused spirits may sound daunting, but it’s easier than you would think. A little knowledge, a trip to a well-stocked liquor store, fresh produce, the right tools, and passion is all you need.
Homemade simple syrup is, well, simple to make and a staple sweetener in many cocktails. Infusing simple syrup with ingredients — raspberries, mint, pineapple, thyme, and basil, to name a few — is easy and invigorates cocktails with depth and additional flavor. Stored in the refrigerator, homemade syrups should keep for about six months.
❱❱❱ Heat 1 part sugar to one part water in a pot on the stove. Remove from heat right before boiling, when the sugar has completely dissolved. Add an ounce of vodka to extend its shelf life.
❱❱❱ Add 4 sprigs of rosemary to simple syrup in a pot over medium heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, then let cool. Refrigerate overnight, then strain into a bottle.
Muddling releases oils and flavors of herbs and produce. Like the Mint Julep, the Whiskey Smash is an old American cocktail that requires muddling mint and sometimes berries. The Ginger Smash, from the New York City restaurant and bar Employees Only, is a play on the traditional, and a refreshing one. I use less sugar (they use 1-½ teaspoon), add homemade rosemary syrup, and substitute Berentzen Apfelkorn apple liqueur for Calvados, which I keep on hand more often.
2 thin slices fresh ginger root
10 fresh whole cranberries
1 Tsp. sugar
1 1/2 oz. Plymouth Gin
1 1/2 oz. Calvados
1/2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz. rosemary syrup (see recipe)
rosemary sprig to garnish
❱❱❱ Muddle the ginger, cranberries, and sugar in the bottom of a mixing glass. Pour in gin, Calvados, rosemary syrup, and juice. Add enough ice to fill a rocks glass. Cover, shake, and pour unstrained into a rocks glass.
Inaccessible 10 years ago, quality Creme de Violette, liqueur flavored with violet flower, is now readily available. Use it in the old-school gin, Aviation. It packs a light and crisp blend of juniper and citrus — on the dry side — and is a stunningly beautiful cocktail. The Creme de Violette lends an opalescent blue color, so mark my words: This is the only blue cocktail you should ever drink.
2 oz. quality gin
1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 ml. maraschino liqueur, such as Luxardo
5 ml. Creme de Violette
❱❱❱ Pour the gin, juice, liqueur, and Creme de Violette in a mixing glass. Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled coup or martini glass. Add 1 dash of Angostura bitters (optional).
Stay free-spirited, but follow a few rules.
An exquisite cocktail requires a balance of sweetness and dryness. The spirit shouldn’t overwhelm the palate, nor should it be lost. Counterbalance the drink with an element that enhances the flavor profile and creates depth.
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart provides a handy guide with foolproof flavor combinations to muddle with 1-½ ounces of a given spirit.
Bourbon: Peaches and mint with simple syrup served over crushed ice. Optional: peach bitters.
Gin: Cucumber and thyme with lemon juice, shaken and served over ice with tonic. Optional: splash of St. Germain (elderflower liqueur).
Rum: Strawberry and mint with lime juice and simple syrup, served over ice and topped with soda or sparkling wine. Optional: splash of Velvet Falernum (sweet spiced alcoholic syrup used in tropical drinks).
Tequila: Watermelon and basil with lime juice, shaken and poured into a cocktail glass. Optional: splash of Cointreau.
Vodka: Tomato and cilantro with lime juice, shaken and poured into a cocktail glass. Optional: dash of celery bitters.
Every budding bartender needs to learn basic techniques and have the right tools. In lieu of a three-piece martini shaker, try the Boston shaker — a 16-ounce mixing glass and a 28-ounce tin shaker. For more efficient mixing, it’s what the pros use. Other tools to have on hand are a hawthorne strainer, bar spoon, muddler, jigger, paring knife, citrus zester, and a sieve.
Drinks also deserve the proper glassware. Keep these three basics around: cocktail glasses (called a coup and resembles a rounded martini glass); rocks glasses (a short tumbler); and collins glasses (a narrow cylindrical tumbler).
The “speakeasy” days may be long behind us, but the bar traditions they sparked remain timeless.