Lesson One: Mixology

Chapter Four: How to Make a Cocktail

This is the part of the movie where a whole lot of stuff gets done in quick order while some nostalgic pop hit blares away on the soundtrack; the montage. Here’s where we’ll walk through the whole process of creating a perfect cocktail, from figuring out what you want to drink, to checking the liquor cabinet and finding out you’ll have to make something else, to inventing something based on what you’ve got, to mixing it and finally giving it a name. Apply these steps to your Martini, Manhattan, Weeski, or White Star Imperial Daisy and it’ll come out perfectly every time.

So. You come home from a long day doing whatever it is you do and, naturally, you’d like a drink. Something firm and bracing, like a rye Manhattan. But rats! You finished the rye yesterday (you needed something nice and bracing then, too—it’s been that kind of week). There’s some Bourbon, though, and that’ll do in a pinch—more soothing, less bracing. But there’s no vermouth left, either. In fact, here’s what you do have: half a bottle of bourbon, an inch or so of Cointreau, an unopened bottle of ruby port, plenty of gin, and some crème de cassis that your mother-in-law brought back from France. The refrigerator yields a grapefruit and half a lemon. Hmmm. You call for back-up; that would be this website.

When you strip off all the frills, the garnishes and the dashes-of-this and splashes-of-that, most cocktail recipes fall into one of a handful of basic patterns. For short drinks—the kind you strain into a cocktail glass or build over ice in a rocks glass—the list goes something like this. :

  • Liquor + fortified wine (with or without herbs) which yields = the Martini and the Manhattan and all their infinite variations.
  • Liquor + citrus (or other sour ingredient) + sweetener (some kind of sugar, syrup or liqueur) = the Daiquiri and countless others, including the Cosmopolitan.
  • Liquor + bitters (or other spice) + sweetener = the Old-Fashioned and the Negroni (Campari, its distinctive ingredient, is a kind of bitters, although the fact that it also has vermouth means it’s something of a hybrid)
  • Liquor plus + liqueur = the Stinger, the Rusty Nail, and a whole lot of collegiate shooters.
  • Liquor (particularly pre-flavored with fruit) + fruity liqueur + sweet fruit juice = the Flirtini and any one of a zillion other trendy drinks (many, if not most, modern creations throw traditional ideas of balance out the window and pair sweet ingredients with more sweet ingredients, fruity ones with more fruity ones; whatever.).

There are a few others, but you get the idea. Okay. So you’ve got options. You could squeeze that lemon half into a jigger of gin and sweeten it up with half an ounce of Cointreau. That’s called a White Lady (although for it to be authentic, it needs an egg white shaken into it). But you were in the mood for whiskey when you got home, and you’re still in the mood for whiskey. You could mix 2 parts bourbon to 1 part port, dash in some Angostura bitters (you’ve got those, naturally), and have some sort of Portuguese Manhattan. Probably not bad, but why risk comparison with the rye Manhattan you had your heart set on? Better to break the mold. Bourbon White Lady? Promising, but too . . . normal. What if you use grapefruit juice instead of lemon? And what if you crack that crème de cassis, use that it instead of the Cointreau? Its sweet muskiness would balance the sharp thinness of the grapefruit. Bitters to tie everything together and there you go. Worth a try, anyway.

So much for theory. Now for practice. Here’s what you do, in order. There’s no need to hurry anything until Step 8. The instructions are for one drink.

  1. Place your glass in the freezer or, if no freezer is available, fill it the glass with ice and cold water. (If you’re making a drink that is served with ice in the glass, you generally don’t have to bother with this step.)
  2. Wait at least 5 minutes for the glass to cool. While doing so, you may perform steps 3- through 9.
  3. Wash your hands (but you knew that).
  4. Using a vegetable peeler, cut your twist. Slide the peeler’s blade under the outer skin of the lemon and turn the lemon into the blade while wiggling the peeler back and forth a little until you’ve got an inch and a half of peel.
  5. Juice your grapefruit into a cup, passing the juice through a fine-meshed strainer (however you usually juice a grapefruit will be just fine). If you were juicing a lemon here, you’d stick it into your hand-squeezer cut side down and squeeze it into a cup, again using the strainer. This makes for a clearer, better-looking drink and makes all your barware much easier to clean (no pieces of pulp sticking to everything).
  6. Measure out your ingredients into the bottom half of your stainless-steel cocktail shaker. In this case, you’ll want:
    • 2 oz ounces bourbon (the standard bar pour is usually 1 1/2 ounces, which is a little chintzy),
    • ¾ oz ounce grapefruit juice (with lemons and limes, a four-to-one liquor-to-juice ratio is a good place to start, while with oranges, it’s more like two-to-one; since a grapefruit is less sour than a lemon and more sour than an orange, let’s split the difference).
    • 2 teaspoons crème de cassis (it’s quite sweet, so this should be plenty; see step 7)
    • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

    Always measure everything. The only reason bartenders don’t is that they’re in a hurry and they’ve made the same drinks a million times. For the home mixologist, this is the only way to ensure that your drink will turn out perfectly every time, and if it doesn’t, you’ll have a much easier time fixing things if you know exactly what went into the mistake you’re drinking in the first place.
    When measuring, it’s always best to avoid doing it directly over the container you’re mixing in—better to have to mop up a little than to have a drink spoiled by extra stuff slopping in.

  7. Check the drink (optional). When making a drink for the first time or with a different batch of citrus (they vary in sourness) or a different brand of liquor, it’s a good idea to give it a quick stir and taste it (make sure not to double-dip your spoon, especially if somebody’s watching). In this case, your tasting revealed that the 1 1/2 teaspoons crème de cassis you originally started with—always better to put less sweetener in and then adjust upward—wasn’t quite enough, so you added a 1/2 teaspoon to reach the amount specified in step 6. In general, it’s good to look things over at this stage, because once the ice goes in, you’re committed.
  8. Crack your ice. Put half a tray’s worth of ice cubes into your ice-bag (for two drinks, use about 3/4 of a tray’s worth; for three or four, a full tray’s worth; beyond that, your shaker will be full and you’ll just have to break down and make a second round). The object isn’t to pulverize the ice, just to break it up into smaller pieces, so a quick but vicious pass over the ice with the mallet, hammer, or whatever you use (rolling pin, mini baseball bat, etc.) should do it. Do not linger over this—once the ice is out of the freezer, the fuse is lit on your drink.
  9. Dump the ice into the shaker, as gently as possible, whether you are using whole or cracked ice.
  10. Put the top on the shaker and shake it vigorously for 10 seconds.
    You’ll have to work out your own characteristic shake, but in general you want to make sure one hand’s on the bottom and one’s on the lid, and then move the shaker up and down, back and forth, or left and right as the spirit takes you. In any case, when you shake a drink, shake it—“like a Polaroid picture,” as the song goes.
    If this were a drink that should be stirred—generally, anything without fruit juices, such as a Martini or a Manhattan—this is where you’d stir it instead of shaking: just stick your bar spoon into the metal shaker-bottom into which you’ve measured your ingredients and added cracked ice, exactly as above, and swirl it around through the ice in a brisk circular motion for about 15 to 30 seconds.
  11. Remove your glass from the freezer.
  12. Take the top off the shaker and place the strainer over it, holding it in place with your index finger. (Don’t bother with the strainer built into the cap; with some exceptions, these are too inefficient to be useful.).
  13. Strain the drink into the glass.
  14. Squeeze the twist over the drink (grab it by the sides and pinch it until it cracks in the middle) and rub the rim with the peel. The best bartenders of the Pre-Prohibition era (when giants walked among us, and the mixological arts reached their apogee) insist that the twist should then be discarded, its work being done, but I have a tendency to pitch it into the drink anyway, as is modern practice.
  15. “Then smile,” as the old bar books say. If you’re the prudent type, this is also where you’ll rinse off your barware (if it’s stainless steel and you’re not making anything too sticky or creamy, a quick run under hot water should be enough to prepare it for the next round).
  16. As you sip your creation, there’s one final step you must perform. You must give it a name (unless, of course, you hate it, in which case it goes to wherever unbaptized babies are supposed to go). Best to avoid juvenile humor, cheap puns, or overt lewdness. Names like “Liquid Pathologist,” “Thong of the South,” and “Cameltoe” will not inspire confidence in your victims or prophecy longevity for your creation. Aim for something classy, but not ridiculously so, and preferably something that has some connection to the drink, its creator, or the circumstances of its conception. So maybe this one should be a— hellHell, it’s your drink, you figure it out.

Using Mint as a Garnish

Andy Shows You How to Use Mint as a Garnish.

How to Flame an Orange Peel

Andy Shows You How to Flame an Orange Peel.

Flaming the orange peel is not at all difficult, but to do it well requires some practice. Don’t worry too much about warming the peel, as Dale DeGroff says, if you warm it for more than a second, it starts looking like a science project. Just make sure you cut a nice large piece from a navel or seville orange so that there’s lots of oil in the skin. Use a wooden match but let the sulfur burn off before you bring the match near the orange slice (or near the drink). Then squeeze the peel firmly and quickly. That’s it.

Reproduced from “Killer Cocktails” by David Wondrich.