Notes on Cocktails

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Ingredients

Great drinks, like great food, require great ingredients. This doesn’t just mean the spirits that you choose to put into your cocktails. Spirits are, of course, important. But perhaps even more important is what you surround those spirits with. Just as it is a small tragedy to serve a fine cut of prime rib with a bottle of ketchup, it is just as unfortunate when a great whiskey is accompanied by a sugary bottle of unnaturally yellow “sour mix.”

As a standard, I keep the following things in my bar  or refrigerator at all times: \fresh lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar), and rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water); high-quality Maraschino cherries; good green olives; good tonic water or tonic syrup; and soda water or (better) a charged soda siphon. There are many other things that can go into a cocktail, but if you have these few things on hand, you’ll always be able to make a delicious and satisfying drink.

Tools

Bar tools

As with ingredients, there are dozens of crazy gadgets you can have around your bar. With a few simple tools, however, you’ll find that you can make just about any drink you can dream up or find a recipe for.

  • Two-oz. measuring cup or 1.5/0.75-oz. jigger
  • Cocktail shaker
  • Mixing glass
  • Bar spoon
  • Strainer(s)
  • Muddler
  • Fine mesh sieve
  • Hand juicer
  • Small knife
  • Channel knife and vegetable peeler
  • Bar straws
  • Cocktail picks

Glassware

Every drink has a specific type of glass, and each glass brings something specific to that drink. You can always substitute another glass based on what you have available, but drinks are generally designed with the type of glass in mind. As an example, the tall Collins glass—named after the Tom Collins cocktail—provides a long travel for the bubbles and, therefore, allows the drink to stay fizzy longer. You can, of course, make a perfectly delicious Tom Collins in a shorter glass, but a tall glass will help to make it just a little bit better from beginning to end.

With that said, here are the basic glasses you should have on hand: 

  • Coupe or v-shaped “martini” glass
  • Collins glass 
  • Rocks/Old Fashioned glass
  • Double Old Fashioned glass

That’s it! The end. There are certainly many more glasses out there, and if you like to collect things, many antique stores are a treasure chest of fun and vintage glasses, but these few will get you through just fine.

Shaking vs. Stirring

James Bond liked weak martinis. There. I said it. Fortunately for me, James Bond is busy saving the world, so he doesn’t much have time to care about what I think about his unfortunately watered-down martinis.

When it comes to shaking versus stirring your cocktails, the rules are simple: if the drink contains only alcohol, stir; if the drink contains juice or syrups or any other ingredients, shake.

But why? you ask. I’ve been drinking shaken martinis for years and they’re delicious! Well, of course they are. They are martinis after all, and martinis are delicious. 

So why not shake? Shaking does two things to a drink: it adds air and it adds ice chips.

Think about a Manhattan (an easier example than a martini because it’s easier to see). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a Manhattan set in front of me that is cloudy in the middle and frothy on top with little chips of ice floating around. Don’t get me wrong, I loved just about every one of those cloudy, frothy Manhattans. But, when a Manhattan is stirred…oh boy…well, that is a truly wonderful experience. Without all the aeration, a stirred Manhattan has a creamier texture, and without all the extra ice added to the drink, it stays at its perfect level of dilution from the first sip to the last.

Try it some time. Make two Manhattans or martinis. Shake one and stir the other. You will, without doubt, notice the difference. Now, if you still prefer the shaken version, have at it. Everybody’s preferences are different. I’m willing to bet you might be a convert, though.

But shaking has its place, too. It is a great way to integrate juices and syrups fully into a drink. It also chills the drink much better than stirring and is great for hot-summer-day drinks like a whiskey sour or margarita. So, when it’s called for, shake away.

Stocking your bar

A good place to start:

  • London Dry gin
  • Bourbon
  • Rye
  • White rum
  • Aged rum
  • Blanco tequila
  • Reposado tequila
  • Vodka
  • Orange liqueur or triple-sec
  • Maraschino liqueur
  • Campari or other red aperitivo
  • Dry vermouth*
  • Sweet vermouth*
  • Bitters: aromatic, orange, Orleans-style

Other options:

  • Brandy (Cognac or Armagnac)
  • Scotch (blended is great for cocktails)
  • Apple Jack
  • Absinthe
  • Amaro (various)
  • Mezcal

I do think, however, that a fun way to start to fully stock a bar is to approach it drink by drink. Find a cocktail that you want to make and buy the ingredients for that. Practice that drink a bit and then move on to the next. And then the next. Before you know it, you’ll have a well-stocked bar and a repertoire of delicious drinks to make for yourself and your friends.

*Always, always, always, ALWAYS refrigerate your vermouth. Oxidized vermouth makes bad cocktails.

Ice

Ice. Ice ice ice ice ICE. Ice is maybe the most important but most overlooked ingredient in a cocktail. It chills your drink, it dilutes your drink when you mix (which is good!), it keeps your drink cold.

If there’s one thing I wish I could convince more people of, it is this: USE GOOD ICE.

Where do you find good ice? Bagged ice is great. It’s made to be clear and dense and it works very well. You can purchase good ice from places like Creative Ice in Kent, but that seems crazy. I’ve done it for special occasions, but that’s it. Finally, you can make good ice at home, but that is a SUPER nerdy and moderately involved endeavor (more information in the references section).

So, when making cocktails for a party, I tell people to get bagged ice.

Freezer ice is…fine. I have made hundreds of very-tasty cocktails with freezer ice. But freezer ice is also problematic in two ways: it is cloudy and it might smell (and taste) like all of the other things in your freezer. Cloudiness isn’t so much just an aesthetic problem. It also means there are a lot of air bubbles and air bubbles can make the ice melt much much faster. Still, it works perfectly fine if that’s what you have.

You can also get silicone ice molds to make big cubes or spheres or even smaller cubes. This is a great first step in upping your ice game. These are better than ice from the ice maker, but they take a bit of planning if you need a lot. 

Second: USE A LOT OF ICE! This is the main thing I want to impart on people. If a drink calls for ice, use as much as you can pack into the glass. Ice should never float in your drink. The more ice you have, the colder the liquid around the ice will stay and (somewhat counter-intuitively) the more slowly your drink will turn to a watery mess.

Garnishes

Like the ingredients you put in your drink, the garnishes you choose should be of the best quality you can find or make (try making your own Maraschino cherries some time; you won’t regret it). And garnishes aren’t just there to look good. Sometimes they can let you add flavor, like with a wedge of lime you can use to adjust your margarita; sometimes they add aroma, like mint in a julep or a lemon twist or orange rind on a martini or old fashioned; sometimes the garnish adds subtle flavor. Think of a lemon twist or olive in a martini and how different those two drinks become. 

And yes, often garnishes make the drink more visually appealing. And all other things being equal, a pretty drink is a tastier drink. But their most important function is to add to the sensory experience of the cocktail.

Playing around

What I’ve put together in these pages are, for the most part, classic recipes for classic cocktails. With these recipes, like any, nothing is hard and fast. Use the recipes as a starting point. Try them the way they’re written and then change them up. Do you like your margarita a little sweeter? A little more tart? Add more Cointreau or a touch more lime (my preference). Do you think a tiny dash of that apricot liqueur you got for Christmas might make a nice variation on your Manhattan? Give it a try! I recently had someone serve me a take on a martini with just a hint of Maraschino liqueur. It was absolutely delicious.

Finally, play around within a category. I like to have a number of bourbons around for different purposes. Some for mixing, some for Old Fashioneds or Manhattans, some for sipping. Find what you like and fine tune. That’s what it’s all about.

Enjoy!


Recipes

Old Fashioned

2 oz. rye or bourbon
¼ to ½ oz. rich simple syrup
1-3 dashes of aromatic bitters

Stir to chill. Strain into rocks-filled double Old Fashioned glass filled with rocks or single large rock.

Garnish: Orange peel, cherry (optional)

Manhattan

2 oz. rye or bourbon
1 oz. dry vermouth
1-2 dashes aromatic bitters

Stir to chill. Strain into chilled coupe.

Garnish: Orange peel and/or cherry

Martini

2 oz. dry gin
1 oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir to chill. Strain into chilled coupe.

Garnish: Orange peel, olive, or cocktail onion (this is a Gibson)

Martinez

1 ½ oz. Old Tom or barrel-aged gin
1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
1/8 oz. Maraschino liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir to chill. Strain into chilled coupe.

Garnish: Cherries

Daiquiri

2 ½ oz. rum*
¾ lime juice
½ simple syrup

Shake with ice. Strain through fine sieve into chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish: Lime wheel or wedge

*The classic daiquiri calls for white rum, but I much prefer aged rum.

Negroni

1 oz. dry gin
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. Campari

Method one: Stir to chill. Strain into double Old Fashioned glass filled with rocks or single large rock.

Method two: Pour all ingredients into double Old Fashioned glass. Fill with rocks or single large rock. Stir briefly in glass.

Method three: Stir to chill. Strain into chilled coupe.

Garnish: Orange peel or half orange wheel (more classic)

Sazerac

2 oz. rye
¼ oz. rich simple syrup
Absinthe rinse
1-6 dashes of Orleans-style bitters (Peychaud’s)

Chill an Old Fashioned glass. Stir rye, simple syrup, and bitters to chill. Rinse chilled glass with absinthe. Strain into glass.

Garnish: Lemon peel

Vieux Carré

1 oz. rye
1 oz. cognac
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. Benedictine

Stir to chill. Strain into double Old Fashioned glass filled with rocks or single large rock.

Garnish: Lemon peel.

Margarita

2 oz. tequila
1 1/3 Cointreau or triple-sec
2/3 lime juice

Shake with ice. Strain through fine sieve into chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish: Lime wheel or wedge

Vesper

3 oz. dry gin
1 oz. vodka
½ oz. Lillet or Cocchi Americano

Stir to chill. Strain into chilled coupe.

Garnish: Lemon peel

Whiskey Sour

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. simple syrup 
¾ oz. lemon juice 
1 egg white

Shake with ice to chill and dilute. Strain through fine sieve back into shaker. Shake dry (optional: with whisk) for one minute. Pour into double Old Fashioned glass filled with rocks OR chilled coupe.

Garnish: Lemon peel in rocks glass or bitters on top of foam in coupe

Amaro Sour

1 ½ oz. amaro (your choice)
¾ oz. bourbon
1 oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
1 egg white

Shake with ice to chill. Strain through fine sieve back into shaker. Shake dry (optional: with whisk) for one minute. Pour into double Old Fashioned glass filled with rocks.

Garnish: Lemon peel

Last Word

¾ oz. dry gin
¾ oz. lime juice
¾ oz. green Chartreuse
¾ ounce Maraschino liqueur

Shake with ice. Strain through fine sieve into chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish: Cherry

Paper Plane

¾ oz. bourbon
¾ oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. Aperol
¾ ounce light amaro

Shake with ice. Strain through fine sieve into chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish: Paper plane?

*The original recipe calls for Amaro Nonino. Amaro Amorino and Amaro Montenegro are excellent substitutes in this drink.


References

Online

I like to search for recipes and look for sources I trust. Two of the most reliable are PUNCH and Imbibe magazines. Many other publications will have recipes, but they are less reliable and less classic.

I will also often search for a classic cocktail and “Robert Hess.” He did a series of videos with Bainbridge-based Small Screen Network called “The Cocktail Spirit.” This is an EXCELLENT guide.

If you really want to nerd out, Camper English has developed a method for making great clear ice blocks at home with his directional freezing method. More information can be found at: https://www.alcademics.com/2016/04/what-is-directional-freezing.html.

Books

There are so many cocktail books out there. These are some of the best.

  • Imbibe by David Wondrich
  • The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan
  • Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold
  • The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morganthaler
  • Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan
  • The PDT Cocktail Book by Chris Gall and Jim Meehan
  • How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas