How to Invent a Cocktail, Part V of VI

(Recently, my friend Luke quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here. I created a signature cocktail for the launch party, and because I sometimes get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought you might like to see my thought process for this one. It's a longish story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe. Last week's chapter, "Taking stock - now what have we got?" can be found here.)

Chapter 5: Trusting your gut, even when your gut gives you every reason not to.
If I've learned anything from creative pursuits - cocktails, writing, or otherwise - it's that you have to listen to your instincts. They'll be wrong occasionally (or often, when you're trying something new), and that's OK. That's how you learn.

Best of all, sometimes your gut will tell you something that sounds bizarre but works on some deeper level. No matter how nicely bitter, herbal flavors contrast with pineapple, the Jungle Bird must still have seemed ridiculous the first time it was tried, because what kind of nut puts Campari in a tiki drink?

You miss opportunities like that if you become dismissive of your own ideas. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially when you know other people have been doing something longer than you, or do it better than you. This is why a lot of authors practice spontaneous writing: if you do it right, you're too busy writing to think about all the ways in which the writing is bad, which frees you to actually write. You can edit later, when you actually have something written.

I've been making cocktails for a long time now, and my instincts are, on the whole, pretty good. That's what I reminded myself when I went back to the drawing board with the following two thoughts:

  • Given how poorly this has gone so far, it's weird that I thought it would work at all, let alone through so much tinkering. Maybe I should can the whole thing and look to a different poem for inspiration.
  • Wait this drink might actually work with Cognac.

In retrospect, I can tell you exactly why the Cognac worked. The subtle wood and strong fruit flavor (raisin, in this case) complement the plantiness and the cherry of the kirschwasser. There are no distracting savory or evergreen notes. It doesn't have the oiliness of gin, which was causing textural problems I didn't even get into before. And the warm, rich lactones of an aged spirit base gave the cocktail a depth that could support everything else.

But that wasn't a conscious thought process at the time. "Cognac!" popped into my head, and I went with it. I knew that even if my judgment was compromised that day, at least this would turn out badly in a different way, which was enough for me to give my mind's palate the benefit of the doubt.

I want to save the big reveal for next week, but I did promise you a recipe. Since this week brought us back around to Cognac, and we'll spend some of next week on the importance of simple syrup, I'll leave you today with a cocktail that uses both extremely well: Joaquín Simó's Sidecar.

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Simó Sidecar
2 oz. Cognac
3/4 oz. Curaçao
3/4 oz. Lemon Juice
1 tsp. 2:1 Demerara Simple Syrup
Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel (or not at all).

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 6: Reaching a recipe by technique and tinkering."

Sidecar

Sidecar

4 parts (2 oz.) Courvoisier cognac
1 part (1/2 oz.) Cointreau
1 part (1/2 oz.) fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Sugar rim

This is where that lemon juice I mentioned went. The Sidecar may well be my favorite of the classic recipes. It’s also one of a very small number of drinks I consider to be “solved” - that is, I’ve found a way to make them that I like so much, I see no reason to deviate.

Courvoisier is far and away the best cocktail cognac. Hennessy, its closest cousin in terms of quality, has a harsh bite to it that relegates it to use in brandy/rye and brandy/bourbon cocktails, which are already covering a parallel trait in the whiskey. Courvoisier retails in the low thirties.

Cointreau is an orange liqueur with a neutral base. Most bars use it for their Sidecars. If you have your own orange liqueur, feel free to substitute it. Luxardo’s triple sec, Solerno blood orange liqueur, and the inimitable Grand Marnier all make pleasant Sidecar variations, although you should note that the substitution is not as easy in most drinks, particularly in the case of Grand Marnier. (Thus, “inimitable.”)

With a drink like this, so simple and with so few ingredients, always use fresh lemon juice. I tell people a drink is never better than its worst ingredient. Sometimes you can get away with a weak link, if it’s a bit player in the act. Here you can’t.

I recommend shaking for the Sidecar. It’s advisable for all drinks with fruit juices in them, to be sure everything distributes evenly. The bit of water from the melting ice also opens up the flavor of certain spirits, including brandy. All that said, you can stir this one without too much worry.

The eternal Sidecar question is, “Sugared rim?” The answer may be yes or no. Certainly you shouldn’t be afraid of it. The sugar is there to answer the sour of the fresh lemon. The drink works without it, but sometimes you’re in the right mood. If you’re worried you’ll look girly drinking out of a sugar-rimmed glass, stick to Old Fashioneds until you’re secure in your masculinity. The rest of you, keep reading.

To sugar a glass, pour some powdered or granulated sugar into a small dish or saucer. Please be sure your dish is larger than the glass you intend to coat, and your sugar isn’t in clumps. Chill the glass in the freezer for a few minutes. When you take it out, there will be condensation on it. Overturn the glass into the dish of sugar, and give it a few turns. The sugar will stick to the wet rim of the glass. Something similar may be accomplished by filling the glass temporarily with ice cubes to chill it, or by running a bit of lemon around the rim. So long as it’s wet, the sugar will stick.

This works any time you need to sugar a glass, or salt one, if you’re making Margaritas. Assuming all your dishes and glassware are clean, you can even return the leftover sugar to its container when you’re finished. Or revel in the decadence of pitching it. Up to you.

Martini

Martini

5 parts (1 1/4 oz.) Booths London dry gin
2 parts (1/2 oz.) Noilly Prat dry vermouth
Twist of lemon

Drink No. 2 in the rundown of Embury’s basic/classic cocktails is the Martini. If the Manhattan is the most accessible, the Martini is probably the least. Most people who drink “Martinis” or [word]-tinis would balk at the big glass of gin that is an actual Martini. The Herzog Cocktail School offers counter-instruction.

There are many kinds of gin, with different production processes and resulting flavor palates. For the purposes of cocktail mixing, I find it useful to describe three types: dry, herbal, and neutral. Dryness is a flavor you become accustomed to when you drink a lot of gin. If you haven’t experienced it, “un-sweet” is probably the best footing to put you on. It tends to feel boozy, and heavy, relative to other gins.

Herbal gins are your Botanists and Hendrick’ses. They have a really powerful flavor of herbs and spices. “Botanical” is the more prevalent term among aficionadoes, but calling Botanist gin “botanical” doesn’t seem particularly helpful. Neutral gins don’t jump out either way. They may be slightly citric, a little sweet, or a little more juniper-y. They’re your most versatile base for gin cocktails.

Booths is not a neutral gin. It is a very dry gin, as will be anything labelled “London dry.” In a dry-gin Martini, you want to be very careful there’s enough vermouth to offer a counterpoint. In general, between 3:1 and 7:1 gin:vermouth is a reasonable proportion for the Martini, making our 5:2 a little off the vermouthy side. Trust me when I say the gin needed it. Cocktails are a game of balances.

The classic Martini question is not, in fact, “Vodka or gin?” but, “Olive or twist?” Another way to put this is, “Savory or sour?” Which direction to bring the drink in? The Martini has many cousins which wrestle with the same issue. I opted for the twist of lemon, chiefly because I had lemons but no cocktail olives. Both are valid. The lemon version is a crisper drink, the olive one heavier. Dirty Martinis, which incorporate the olive juice, are heaviest of all.

Incidental note: I haven’t got a citrus zester, unlike our friends at Don’t Blame the Gin. I improvised the twist you see there, by cutting a lemon in half, and shaving off the rind around the edge with the knife, cutting away any fruity bits when I was done. Not too shabby a job, if I say so myself.

What happened to the rest of the lemon, you ask? Check the next update to find out…

Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned

2 oz. Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey
1/2 or so tsp Demerara simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

The Old Fashioned is the original cocktail. When the word “cocktail” was coined, it referred to a combination of a spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. In the way that Sour, Flip, Fizz, Daisy, Fix, Crusta, and so on are drink categories characterized by particular formulas, so, originally, was Cocktail.

Ordinarily, I encourage the shaking of drinks that feature syrups, but the Old Fashioned has been around longer than cocktail shakers, I say stir. It’s a rough drink, rough in the sense that Teddy Roosevelt was rough. It’s nearly all whiskey. Careful measurements and advanced mixological techniques don’t belong here.

Old Fashioneds historically were made with rye, then with bourbon for many years, and now with rye again. Rye is more complex nine times out of ten, which matters a lot when the flavor palate you’re working with comes 85% or so from the whiskey. I used Bully Boy’s American Straight Whiskey (distilled in Boston!), which is made from a mash halfway between a bourbon and a rye mash. The result is very interesting and very smooth - smoother even than a lot of bourbons, which are allegedly the sweeter American whiskey. Whatever you use to mix these, be sure it’s of decent quality, and you enjoy it. Your particular whiskey selection should be one you would sip on its own.

There is a newer school of Old Fashioneds that involves muddled fruit. These can be enjoyable, but yield a distinctly different drinking experience. I’ll cover them some other time. For now, our foray into Embury’s basic/classic cocktails is concluded. The Daiquiri and the Jack Rose will follow eventually.

Finally, a shout-out to Jon, whose Demerara simple syrup was the sugar I had on hand for this. Demerara has a rich flavor, and makes a syrup that’s almost black. It blends very well with aged liquors.

Manhattan

Manhattan

3 parts (1.5 oz.) Old Overholt rye whiskey
2 parts (1 oz.) Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth
3-4 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters

Yesterday was a snow day for me, so I decided to whip up examples of David Embury’s major classic cocktails. There are six he says everybody ought to be able to make, as a basis for cocktail knowledge, and for further experimentation. I realize I’ve put up plenty of innovations and outlandish drinks, but the really essential standby cocktails haven’t gotten much airtime. That changes now.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make all of them. A trot out to the corner store (good on them, being open) got me the citrus I needed, but I was still short the Daiquiri’s light rum and applejack for the Jack Rose. The others will show up as I load them in, all tagged appropriately.

I started with the Manhattan, one of the most famous and most accessible classic cocktails. The Manhattan is that rare drink that is not merely more, but something else entirely than the sum of its parts. A well-mixed Manhattan does not taste like whiskey or vermouth. It tastes like a Manhattan.

The recipe you see here is a bit of a poor-man’s Manhattan. Old Overholt is perfectly serviceable, but it is bottom-shelf, by rye standards. Now, fortunately, rye whiskey is like applejack, brandy, gin, and dark rum, in that the cheapest stuff you can possibly find will be miles ahead of the glorified ethanol that comes packaged as bottom-shelf vodka, light rum, or nonspecific “whiskey.” I’ll indicate in later posts on the Manhattan what price point we’re talking about. The Manhattan, like many of the classics, falls into the “easy to learn, hard to master” category. It can be varied greatly.

For now, though, let’s talk about the poor-man’s Manhattan. Old Overholt and Jim Beam are the two cheapest ryes on the market. Expect to pay $15 for a fifth. I’ve seen them anywhere from $11 to $22, but $15 is a good estimate. I happened to have Old Overholt, although I tend to prefer the Jim Beam, which is slightly more complex. A tenth-size bottle of Martini & Rossi will hit around $7 or $8 at the most. It is the cheapest vermouth on the market, but as with rye, cheap vermouth is still plenty drinkable.

Never be stingy with the non-whiskey ingredients in a Manhattan, but especially when you’re using bargain ingredients. I say 3-4 dashes here. The bourgeois Manhattan would call for 2-3. The royal Manhattan uses such good stuff the bitters falls to one dash. The vermouth percentage also falls as the whiskey gets better - but I reiterate, don’t be stingy. If your Manhattan is drier than about a 3:1 whiskey:vermouth ratio, you’d be better off with an Old Fashioned.

The end result is extremely drinkable, and a good example of how to do cocktails on a budget. If you (and your guests) are used to drinking nothing but highballs, the Manhattan is a great transition drink. Just be careful with your vermouth, which will eventually spoil if left out. Keep it in the fridge, and you should be fine.