The following presents a few basic drinks that are bases for other cocktails, a bit about their past, and the logic behind them. It also discusses the basic elements of any great drink and what you need as far as tools and techniques make them well.
There are a lot of cocktails. Some are good and many more aren’t. No one can keep track of all of them, however, we don’t really need to know a million cocktails if we can keep a few key old standbys, that are easy to riff off of, in our back pocket. These key cocktails are the French mother sauces of the imbibing world. Know these drinks and you can compartmentalize most of the mixed drinks that are out there.
Start with slings. First mentioned around 1759, they’re drinks comprised of spirit, sugar [flavored syrups or sweet liqueurs count] and water [ice counts], often garnished with citrus peel. Take this base and start adding ingredients and you have sours, punches, cocktails and juleps.
spirit + water + sugar = sling
sling + bitters = cocktail
sling + mint or fruit = julep/smash
sling + citrus = sour
sour + spice or tea = punch
*Mixed drink terminology gets muddled. The Martini and the Cocktail originated as specific drinks, not a type of drink. The first written description of the cock tail was in Hudson, New York’s The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806. It was described as a “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” So, try to keep things straight as I use the term Cocktail, to mean a specific drink, a class of mixed drinks based on a bittered sling and more colloquially for any mixed drink.
Start with a sling, add a dash or two of bitters or splashes of bitter vermouth and you’ve just made a cocktail. Bitters were originally medicinal and mixed with other things to create a morning pick-me-up or corrective elixir.
the Martini ~ There are many “martini” menus out there full of drinks that have nothing to do with a classic martini. There are also many creation stories that explain the Martini’s origin but, in all likelihood, the drink simply evolved. The Martini of today and the Manhattan may not appear to be related at first glance but if you go back to the Martini of the 19th Century, the similarities are clearer. Replace the whiskey in a Manhattan with gin and the Angostura bitters with orange bitters and you have a Martinez which predates the Martini by a few decades. Swap the out the sweet vermouth in a Martinez for dry and voila! – a Martini.
Juleps & Smashes: Mint Julep, Mojito, Caipirinha
A julep was originally a medicinal concoction. In the South, it evolved a beverage with lots of shaved or crushed ice, some spirit or wine, sugar and mint. Smashes are simply drinks with smashed up fruit and usually mint. The mojito and caipirinha are two extremely popular smashes today (thanks Latin America for preserving the smash through the 20th century). Only use good limes in mojitos. Try substituting other fruit for some of the lime, another herb for the mint, and switching out the rum or cachaça for other clear spirits. Try gin, strawberries and basil for instance. Smashes may be a bit laborious to make but Smashes and Juleps are well worth the effort. After all, fresh mint and citrus makes almost anything better, especially a sling.
Sours: Cosmopolitan, Tom Collins, Whiskey Sour, Margarita, Daiquiri, Sidecar
Add lemon or lime juice to a sling and you have a sour. Add some soda to a sour and you have a fizz. Put a fizz in a taller glass with ice and you have a Collins. Sours and fizzes often contained egg white to promote frothiness. There are few things nicer than a well made Pisco Sour or Ramos Gin Fizz.
A good place to start with sours is the Daisy. A Daisy is a sour with grenadine, raspberry syrup or curaçao instead of sugar. People like to attribute the Margarita to a woman by the same name in Tijuana, or a confused Tex-Mex bartender, but the drink’s similarity to the Daisy and the fact that margarita means daisy in Spanish means that a Margarita is probably a Mexican or Tex-Mex Daisy.
The Rickey is also an important drink in the sour-of-sorts family. It was probably the most popular drink of the 1890s and the primary use for limes in the US at the time. It’s native to DC, originating at Shoemaker’s bar and named after lobbyist Colonel Joe Rickey who couldn’t stand sweet drinks. It was probably made with whiskey for the Colonel but became popular with gin. these days and it makes. The lack of sugar in the drink may not qualify it a modified sling but it does make for a wonderful summer cooler.
When we talk about the evolution of the cocktail, we have to talk about punch. Despite having more ingredients and essentially being more complex than the other drinks we’ve talked about, punches predate everything else. Punch came West around 1630 by way of the East India Company. The word derives from the Farsi and Hindi word “panch’ meaning five – for the five ingredients spirit, sugar, lemon, water or tea and spice.
Flavors & Aromas:
The purpose of a cocktail is to take the pronounced, even pungent, flavor of a liquor and, through careful blending with acids, aromatics, and essences, transform it into something new and hitherto-untasted. (Wondrich)
A key idea to this end is balance. Sweet, sour and bitter counter the strong bite of spirits and should be in balance themselves to create a successful cocktail. Sweetness is an obviously pleasant flavor and softens harsher flavors. Bitters such as Angostura create balance by tying ingredients together. Sour gives drinks spark, is refreshing and gets us salivating and wanting more.
You may add depth and complexity to your cocktails by going beyond the base three flavors and adding a savory, spicy or salty component. These additional dimensions explain the popularity of two of the most consumed cocktails in America – the Bloody Mary and Margarita but their addition often muddles and masks primary flavors so go light. Balance is most clearly achieved when you use few ingredients. Think sweet, sour, bitter + 1 other component. If you are using quality ingredients, let them shine in simple cocktails because the ingredients themselves have multiple elements and complexity.
Using seasonal, fresh and aromatic spices, herbs, fruits, and vegetables also take drinks to another level. We perceive only a few flavors but there are thousands of smells so aromatics compoundcombine in an almost infinite number of ways. They also trigger the same part of the brain that recalls memory. Alcohol may help connect us with those we’re with, but aromas can take us back to the past.
Tools & Techniques:
There are many tools for making drinks but you can make 99% of them with 7 simple tools – a mixing spoon, jigger, strainer, shaker, knife, juice press and muddler.
Jiggers: Good bartenders don’t use these to be cheap. They do it to be exact. A 1¼ & ¾ oz and 1 & ½ oz jigger along with a bar spoon (which holds 1/8 oz) makes any measurement possible. You also need to know what an appropriate sized drink look likes in all glassware that you serve drinks neat in. Using a jigger for these drinks will make you look cheap. Old fashioned glasses are usually for whiskeys and aged rums and tequlias and a snifter for brandies and liquors. Frequently pour a measured serving of water in these glasses and make a mental note of the fill line.
Glassware: Old fashioned or rocks glasses are usually for whiskeys, aged rums and tequilas. A snifter is used for brandies and a cordial glass for liqueurs. Pour a measured serving of water in these glasses and make a mental note of the fill line. Tall or long drinks that are served with a mixer over ice should be served in a chimney style Collins or hi-ball glass. The rounded champagne coups have grown in popularity as a way to hearken back to the classic age of the cocktail. Just as martini has become a colloquial term for any chilled and strained mixed drink, so have the glasses that they are served in been commonly termed “martini” glasses as well as cocktail glasses. Just be careful that you’re not over pouring if you use an oversized cocktail glass. There is supposed to be room in the glass and needs to be if you’re trying not to spill. Cocktail glasses, like everything else, got bigger during the eighties and nineties. If the glassware is too big, you have to use more mixer, making the drink unbalanced, or, you have to use more alcohol than is responsible to serve in order to keep it in balance. Big drinks also either lose their temperature, texture and aromatics or you have to drink them too fast.
Clear drinks like martinis and manhattans should be stirred, not shaken. Shaking dilutes and and adds air which lightens the texture. Stirring with a barspoon should be effortless. The key is to stir long enough for the ice to chill the ingredients thoroughly (the glass should feel very cold) without watering it down—at least 30 stirs (stir less with smaller, soft cubes and more with larger, dense cubes. Your grip should be over the center of the glass and take little actual motion to spin the ice around the glass (putting a slight bend to the spoon can help minimize this motion). You’re essentially rubbing the handle between your thumb and middle finger to spin the spoon. A spoon is also useful to pull heavier substances up the wall of the glass to mix ingredients gently.
Cocktails that contain thick ingredients like eggs, dairy products, fruit juices, or cream liqueurs should be shaken. The object of shaking is to almost freeze the drink while breaking down and combining the ingredients and creating froth by adding air. Shake vigorously for ten seconds or until the mixing glass begins to collect condensation. Using a Boston shaker, add ingredients to the mixing (pint) glass, fill the glass with ice and then set the tin on top. Give it a little pop to seal. Make sure the seal is firm then flip the drink so that the tin is on the bottom. Give the glass a thump where metal meets glass with the heel of your hand to break the seal.
Roll – To roll, pour ingredients from one glass into another and back again to mix. You’ve probably seen drawings of old-time, handlebar mustached bartenders “rolling” a cocktail from glass to glass, maybe on fire, at arm’s length. It’s surprisingly difficult to do and often impractical but it is fast.
Use the Hawthorne strainer (the one with the slinky-like wire) to strain from a mixing tin and a Julep strainer (the big spoon-like one with holes) to strain from a mixing glass. Both allow some small ice particles in the drink. Pouring from a tin with a Hawthorne strainer through a julep strainer or a fine mesh strainer is referred to as double straining. This will keep little ice particles and some froth, pulp, berry seeds etc. out of the drink. Think of it as the difference between paper filter and French press coffee.
Get the heaviest hinged citrus press that you can find. Don’t bother with light weight plastic models. They come in different sizes for different fruit. If you only get one, go bigger. Strain juices through a fine mesh or julep strainer to catch pulp and seeds.
Novices tend to bash the bejeezes out of ingredients with a muddler. The point is to release the oils and juices from fruit and only the essential in herbs, not destroy them, which can result in bitterness. I recommend unstained wood muddlers that are long enough to reach a hand’s width out of a mixing glass. Do not soak the wood or run them through dish washers.
Orange and lemon twists: Citrus peel is all about the oil in the zest. Avoid the pith when cutting a piece and make sure to cut a big, wide swath. Skinny little twists that were cut hours earlier don’t do anything for a drink.
Wheels & Wedges: I’m not a big fan of lemon and lime wedges. Why should a guest have to use their own dirty hands or get their clean hands sticky to make their own drink? If a drink needs citrus, it should already be in there. Some people like a squirt of lime with their gin and tonic or rum and coke, and for those people, you are giving the guest the option. Otherwise, use a citrus wheel which is just for color and aromatics. Sticking a cherry to a wheel for garnish is known as a “flag.”
Cherries: There are better cherries than maraschino. Try soaking real cherries in brandy, bourbon or maraschino liqueur.
Mint, fresh herbs and edible flowers: Nothing adds freshness to a drink like fresh herbs or flowers and few things look as striking. Slap fresh herbs on the back of your hand to release essential oils.
Nutmeg and spice: Great with rums and punches as well as coffee, tea and dairy based drinks. Grate them fresh over the drink.