Lesson One: Mixology

Chapter Three: Back to the Store

People have found ways to incorporate just about everything from tomato juice and heavy cream to smoked salmon into their drinks, but there are a few items that are more than just passing fancies. They fall into five main categories: sweet, sour, bitter, cold and fizzy (sounds like a Joyce Carol Oates novel).

Sweet

There are many ways to sweeten up your drink, including the Kentucky way, which is to simply pour more liquor into it. For the rest of us, it involves adding sugar or one of its analogues. Plain white sugar is usually too slow to dissolve for cocktail use (exception: the Old-Fashioned, where you grind the hell out of it). Superfine sugar works much better, but even that requires a fair amount of stirring (in a liquid that isn’t too cold or too alcoholic) before it gives up the ghost. For that reason, the nineteenth-century pioneers of the mixological arts preferred to have their sugar pre-dissolved, in a syrup. “Simple syrup,” as this is known, is nothing more than sugar and water. The standard kind used by bartenders these days is made by pouring equal volumes of superfine sugar and cold water into a bottle, corking it up, and shaking it briskly for a minute or two. Then you let it sit until the undissolved portion settles out and repeat. Keep going until everything has dissolved.

We Barmen sometimes prefer something I’ll call “rich simple syrup,” which is made with a tan raw sugar—demerara or turbinado (“Sugar in the Raw”) instead of the plain old white, and is thicker to boot. This adds less water to your cocktail, and the full, sugarcane taste adds a subtle richness to the drink. It is, however, dark brown instead of clear, so some drinks will come out a little darker than you might be used to. To make it, you simply stir 2 parts sugar to 1 part water (by volume) together over a low flame until all the sugar has melted. Let it cool, bottle it, and add ½ ounce or so of grain alcohol or 151-proof rum; — this will prevent it from getting moldy. It should keep for quite a while, even unrefrigerated.

Once those old mixologists made the switch to syrup, it opened the door for all kinds of things. Pineapple syrup, raspberry syrup, almond syrup (a.k.a. “orgeat”), pomegranate syrup—all turn up in classic drinks. Orgeat you should buy, but the others are easily made. All you need to do is put your fruits—you can use just about anything—in a bowl (cubed, if they’re large) and pour just enough rich simple syrup over them to cover everything. Let them sit overnight, strain out the solids, and bottle up the syrup. Add grain alcohol or rum as with the simple syrup. This is a great way to experiment—use a different flavor of syrup and you’ve got a different drink. Be creative. If you prowl around the sweetener aisle of your local health-food store, you’ll find a bunch of substitutes for sugar: agave nectar, honey, barley-malt syrup, maple syrup, etc. These are well worth playing around with.

Finally, a note on grenadine. This violently-red syrup, used as much to color drinks as to sweeten them, was once made from real pomegranates and is now almost exclusively a product of the food chemist’s black art. Luckily, it’s easy to make your own version, one that will actually taste like something and yet still give you that saturated redness. Simply fill an empty bottle halfway with superfine sugar and the rest of the way with pomegranate juice (“Pom” is a heavily- marketed brand that works just fine), leaving a little room at the top. Cork the bottle, shake the stuffing out of it, let the sugar settle, and shake it again until the sugar has dissolved. Add a little more sugar—2 or 3 ounces—and repeat. Finally add 1/2 ounce or so of grain alcohol or 1ounce vodka, to retard spoilage. Done. You might need a little more of this than commercial grenadine to achieve the same effect, but not that much more. Let trial-and-error be your guide.

Sour

Lemons. Limes. Oranges (all right, not so very sour). Grapefruit. Cranberries. Tamarind. If you’re going to use something sweet in your drink, you’ll want something sour to balance it out. These are listed in rough order of cocktail popularity (although, come to think of it, cranberries might beat out grapefruit). Always squeeze your citrus fresh—if not drink-by-drink, at least no more than an hour or two before consumption. There is no substitute for fresh juices, and to use sour mix or frozen concentrated limeade or anything like that is the mark of a piker.

Related to the sour, if only by proximity, is the twist, the garnish that’s actually an ingredient. The skin that encloses your citrus juice contains aromatic oils, and these really wake up a drink when squirted onto its surface. The customary delivery system is a strip of peel, twisted over the drink. Lemon and orange are the only ones you’ll really need; lime is bitter, and grapefruit—who knows? I’ve rarely seen a recipe calling for a twist of grapefruit peel. When cutting twists, the object is to get all oil-rich skin and no bitter white pith (look for fruits that are fresh and have a healthy glow to them). It’s less important that the twist look neat and square than that it be big enough to deliver a reasonable amount of lemon oil to the surface of the drink, so try to cut your twist large—about 3/4 of an inch by 1 1/4 inches—and don’t worry too much about ragged edges. If you want it to come out neat, you can always trim it when you’re done cutting it. If you need to prepare a lot of these twists in advance, store them in water or else they’ll dry out and curl up.

Bitter

Originally, a cocktail meant a mixture of bitters—alcohol infused with various medicinal herbs, seeds, flowers, peels, and barks—and booze, with a little sugar to balance out the bitter and a little water to tame the burn. This was supposed to ensure your continued health. In any case, bitters are still a bar essential, although now their role is purely gustatory. Nobody’s sure exactly what it is bitters do in a cocktail, but everyone agrees it’s more than simply making it bitter. Our suspicion is that they mask some of the more volatile flavor compounds characteristic of the liquor, the ones you taste first, so that it seems to blend better with the other ingredients, to lose itself in the blend. In any case, there are three kinds in common use: Angostura (everybody knows that one), Peychaud’s (everybody in New Orleans knows this one; go to www.sazerac.com) and orange bitters (only cocktail fiends know these; look for Regan’s or Fee’s West Indian Orange Bitters). But these days, there are a dizzying number for sale (or is that the booze talking?). Remember, in a pinch, you can use Campari, Fernet-Branca, and any one of a number of other European herbal liqueurs too. So many options!

Cold

This means ice. You’ll need lots, as fresh out of the freezer as possible. If you’re entertaining at all, buy it by the bag; you’ll go through it in no time. If the water in your area is nasty, make your ice with bottled or filtered water) It really does make a difference.

Fizzy

Most long drinks get their bulk from some sort of bubbly beverage, be it as prosaic as seltzer or club soda or as luxurious as French champagne. On the prosaic side, after many years of meticulous drinking we have yet to detect some appreciable difference between a drink made with club soda and one made with ordinary seltzer. We have therefore simply specified “fizz water” in the recipes, which can be either of those, or even a good, bubbly mineral water.

On the fancy side, the sparkling wine doesn’t exactly have to be French—a nice, dry méthode champenoise from anywhere else will often do just as well, especially if not much of it is required. In between plain and fancy, although a lot closer to plain, is ginger ale—not too sweet, delicate and a little spicy, it’s a fine mixer and was used by many old-time bartenders, back in the day when a bartender was more than a customer service representative with a bottle-opener. It goes particularly well with rye, bourbon or brandy—just pour the booze into a tall glass over a couple of ice cubes and ginger-ale it up to the top. One thing: whatever fizz you use, it should always be right out of the refrigerator. The fresher, the better.

The Garnish

Last, as always, comes the garnish. Here’s the thing: most drinks don’t need one. A properly-made drink is its own delight, and doesn’t need some tacked-on afterthought to sell it. Aside from twists, which are an essential part of the drink, we have therefore indicated very few of them. If that yields a drink that looks disturbingly naked to you, by all means dress it up. Olives, onions, caperberries, pickled nuts and whatnot are good for dry drinks, bits of citrus, assorted berries, sticks of pineapple, slices of star-fruit and like that are good for not-so-dry ones. Be creative—just as long as you don’t end up paying more attention to the garnish than the drink itself.

Stocking Your Bar

There are essentially two strategies for stocking your bar: you can go out and buy a whole bunch of booze and then figure out what you want to do with it, supplementing it as needed, or you can pick a cocktail, buy what you need for it, and make it until you’re sick of it. Then you pick another cocktail and repeat. I strongly recommend the second option: it costs less in the short run, and the repetition drums the recipe into your head. If you vary your choices, eventually you’ll end up in the same place.

How to Cut Lemon Wedges

Andy Shows You How to Cut Lemon Wedges.

Cutting Lemons and Limes

Andy Shows You How to Cut Lemons and Limes.

Cutting and Using Lime Wheels

Andy Shows You How to Cut Lime Wheels.

Using a Peeler

Andy Shows You How to Use a Peeler.

Using Oranges for Garnish

Andy Shows You How to Use Oranges.

Reproduced from “Killer Cocktails” by David Wondrich.

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