Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Small Guide To Improving Your Classic Cocktails

A "Callie's Way" which is a modified
Hemmingway Daquiri that I make. 

I'm no cocktail wizard. In fact, if you probe the depths of the trivia-lobe of your brain, you might recall that I had "learn to make more cocktails" on my New Year's resolution list. And by "learn to make more cocktails," I am excited that I am now master of 7 different drinks! (I make a Jack Rose, Manhattan, Trinity, Dry Gin Martini, Regular Martini, Hemingway Daiquiri, and Daiquiri as well as almost anywhere in town if you are curious.) 

That said, I have had the of making innumerable more cocktails and a few punches, as well as had access to the blooming cocktail renaissance in Los Angeles from being a member at Cana, to chatting with Eric at the Varnish about vermouth, and tasting Chartreuse with Julian at Rivera. So I wanted to offer a few quick pointers to people who are just now discovering the joys of classic cocktails but might be getting less-than-stunning results at home. 

1) Your ice has to be really good. Go to the freezer and pop one of those cubes you've been using to try drinks in your mouth. If it tastes at all stale, funky, bitter, mineral, dusty, musty, freezer-burnt or anything besides like wondrously clear January skies, you're probably going to be boned no matter how good your technique and ingredients. Depending on the severity of the issue you might just have to get fresh trays and use filtered water (as was my case) or do more crazy things like cleaning your freezer and making your ice with filtered water and then putting the trays in doubled ziplock bags (like my friend Brendon had to do). You can always go buy ice if your home water and freezer are terrifying. 

2) Dilution is vital. This includes ice size. If you've ever been to a good cocktail bar you know they chip their ice differently for each kind of drink. It's not just to look fancy, it's because they're trying to get the dilution of the drink right. Same with the amount of stirring and/or shaking. Agitation and time takes water from the ice and incorporates it in to the drink. While the foremost thing ice does is make the drink cold (a general rule in classic cocktails is that getting the drink as cold as you can is good), what you are also doing is watering down the drink slightly. Much like a barrel proof whiskey (50%+ abv) can be too "hot" to be pleasurably sipped without a bit of water, so too you're bringing the abv of the cocktail down a bit. If it's not diluted enough it will taste really hot (not just strong, but burning strong and almost syrupy) but it will taste watery and thin if diluted too much. This is why you don't interchange things like large chunks of ice and crushed ice - remember from high school science that surface area is a big part dissolving an ingredient (as is agitation). As with snow piled up on the side of the road that stays frozen until March, using larger amounts ice also means that they will stay colder longer, thus adding less water but still chilling the drink and visa versa. 

3) Measure measure measure. Please make drinks by measuring very precisely. You can't learn anything if you're sloppy about how much of each ingredient you're adding because then you have no way of knowing how much more or less of an ingredient will be needed. They did a test and found that even professional bartenders regularly miss eyeballing a shot by +/- 50%!  I know that the trend at the moment is to be all fanciful with tricks and gimmicks while shaking and pouring the drinks, but honestly, I could care less about how many flips the damn bottle does if the drink is whack.

4) Practice one drink A LOT. Vary the ratios of on ingredient at a time slightly (three dashes of bitters instead of two - using different kinds of biters - use slightly less Chartreuse - use more lemon - use higher proof booze etc. etc.) and if you make 10-15 of the same drink you can understand how the balance of the drink works and most importantly what each ingredient is adding. This also lets you "fix" drinks. Your citrus is not always going to be the same acidity, you're not always going to have the same bourbon, you're not always going to have access to the same brand of creme de violet. But if you've meticulously worked through variants of a standard drink, you can taste it as you go and make adjustments because you know what to adjust! I usually focus on one kind of drink at a time. Besides, being able to make two A+ drinks is way more impressive than being able to make twenty D+ drinks. 

5) Even before you get mixing, taste your ingredients! If you've never tried something on it's own, pour a little glass of it and sip or on the rocks on it neat to get a feeling for what it is. I was all over the place on vermouth until I started drinking if on by itself and suddenly I understood what it was doing in drinks. Same with any liquor, syrup or bitters. Start making an archive in your head of the base flavors and next time you're out and someone asks your opinion of a drink you can look like a rockstar when you say "oh, it tastes good, but I think another dash of Angastura would balance it out better."  

6) Non-tiki cocktails are the art of balance. (Tiki cocktails are their own game - just pick up Beachbum Barry's books to learn about them). We can't figure out who to attribute this quote to, but apparently some 1800's bartender said that a good cocktail should never make you full, it should always make you hungry. What this means is that sugar and acid are harmoniously aligned. That the body is firm, not flabby. That the flavors aren't cloying. That the drink tastes unified. 

7) Learn to make your own syrups; learn to squeeze your own juices. Making simple syrup is amazingly easy. Making your simple syrup with real Turbinado sugar (which has this molasses funk to it) like they did back then will change your drinks from "decent" to "glorious." And while I know I don't have to tell you, always squeeze your own fresh juices for each session. If getting a dozen or two fresh limes at the local chain market seems pricey, try to find a Korean, Japanese, or Mexican market near to you. Do you know how to pick good citrus? If not, pick it up - it should feel heavy in your hand. The skin should be unblemished. It should be firm, but have some give (old citrus will feel mushy, or like a rock).  

8) Do your homework. These drinks have been made by professionals for upwards of a century, so go grab a copy of David Wonderich's Imbibe and get reading! You'll be amazed at how much of what you thought you knew turns out to be hearsay and advertising jiggles. Learn to be highly skeptical of recipes online — look at the source. If it's not someone who has a clear knowledge of cocktails, beware, you're probably looking at a recipe for disaster (see what I did there?) Cocktail virgin slut is a great blog to get you started. As is

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