How to Invent a Cocktail, Part II 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, "What goes into an artist's cocktail?" can be found here.)

Chapter 2: What goes into this artist's cocktail?
Luke is a case study in how to manage a home bar.

I suspect that most people who keep liquor in their homes do it accidentally, accumulating a seldom-used collection of gifts and one-off acquisitions that they'll someday pass down to their grandchildren, cabinet and all.

There are also some people who become alcohol hobbyists, and like to keep a large bar on hand so that they can conduct experiments and make a wide variety of classics. This group is in particular danger of eventually becoming alcohol professionals. (I speak from experience.)

But the unsung heroes of cocktail culture are people who maintain a small but deliberate home bar, the ones who have one or two cocktails that they know they like, who decide that they should learn how to make those drinks well for themselves, and who are always prepared to make them should they or their guests be in the mood for a tipple.

Luke is one of these. His cocktails are the Gibson and the Old Fashioned, and his house is permanently stocked with the ingredients for both. He makes them carefully and well. He also enjoys absinthe, and has the tools for proper absinthe service.

But that's really it. He has, essentially, a house cocktail menu (and a rotating beer list). It's a good formula, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys cocktails but finds the prospect of building up a home bar daunting or bewildering. It's also a useful thought for those of us who have large home inventories: if you have a few house specialties, it's easier to prioritize when stocking up.

And for the purposes of our devising a cocktail recipe, it's useful to know the tastes of the person you're making it for. In this case: classic, spirit-forward, enjoys both whiskey and gin, and likes slightly savory things. I can work with that.

Because it's his most idiosyncratic preference, I decided I'd especially like to make something that appeals to his Gibson-drinking side. The Gibson, you might recall from my taxonomy of the Martini and its cousins (if not, see here), is today understood as a Martini garnished with a cocktail onion instead of an olive or twist, like so:

Gibson
2 oz. Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail onion.

The proportions used reflect Luke's preference for a 4:1 drink. I tend to skew towards 5:2; others may like other ratios. As a general rule of thumb, however you like your Martini is how you'll like your Gibson - although lemon-twist partisans like myself should be prepared for a savorier cocktail than we're otherwise used to.

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 3: What's in a name?"

Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Martini

Damn if I haven't tried to write this post more than once. But we all have our Things, and the Martini is one of mine. And there's a lot to be said about it.

Let's start with the recipe, because I know I have a handle on that. When I sat down to make a Martini for this post, it so happened that I could make a delicious version using just ingredients from Portland, Maine:

Martini
3 1/2 oz. Aria Portland Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Sweetgrass Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into - what else? - a Martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Note for the home bartender: "Garnish with a twist of [fruit]" means take a strip or a small medallion of the peel of that fruit, twist it over the glass to express the oils into the drink, run it around the rim of the glass, and then drop it in. It occurred to me as I was writing that that it often shows up in recipes without explanation, and could easily be confused for, "Drop a piece of lemon peel into the glass," which wouldn't be quite as effective.

Ordinarily, Martinis are garnished with a lemon twist or a cocktail olive (the latter sometimes accompanied by some of the olive brine to make a Dirty Martini). It's easy to overlook garnishes when making cocktails at home, but if you won't take my word that you should avoid doing so in general, please at least take my advice and avoid it here. The Martini is disproportionately defined by its garnish, to the point that one variation - the Gibson - is distinguished today entirely by being garnished with a cocktail onion. There's more to that story, but...well, we'll get there.

I'm a twist man, myself. That little bit of lemon sharpens and highlights the citrus notes already present in the gin; the resulting cocktail is crisp and bracing. To my tastes, the olive garnish slows down the drink - and the drinker - with that heavy, salty/savory flavor. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, and I've enjoyed an olive Martini from time to time. I recommend trying both and seeing which one you prefer. Honestly, that's a good rule of thumb whenever you have a choice between two cocktails.

I also tend to like my Martinis on the dry side, as, it seems, do most Martini drinkers. But just as it's possible to have too much of a good thing, it's possible to have a Martini that is too dry, usually by preparing one without any vermouth whatsoever.

In fact, let's take a moment to review all the ways in which people insist on soiling the Martini's good name, shall we?

The Herzog Cocktail School's Official List of Martiniological Heresies

  1. Serving a "Martini" that's just gin, or gin with a garnish. Often cutesily accompanied by a "solemn look" in the direction of France, Italy, or the vermouth bottle; equally often served on the rocks in a cocktail glass. Even worse if you do this with vodka.
  2. Failing to assume that gin is the standard base spirit unless otherwise specified. If someone asks you for a Martini, respect them enough to assume that they'd have asked for a Vodka Martini if they'd wanted one. If you ask for a Martini, respect the bartender enough to assume they'll make it with gin; if you want vodka, ask for it specifically. "Gin Martini" should be as necessary a phrase as "Whiskey Manhattan" or "Rum Daiquiri."
  3. Assuming that anything served in a cocktail glass can be called a "Martini." For pity's sake, I see menus all the time that list the Sidecar or the Cosmopolitan under the heading, "Martinis." In fact, I can't count (or conceive of!) the number of times I've seen a "Martini Menu" on which not a single drink contained gin, vermouth, or any other kind of fortified wine.
  4. Ever applying the "-tini" suffix to a drink. Ever.
  5. Shaking your Martini without a very good reason. It won't "bruise the vermouth," as is often claimed, but it will dilute the drink needlessly and take away some of the delightful crispness the Martini naturally possesses. Unless you're drinking a Vesper, can explain why I made an exception for the Vesper, or are James Bond, stir.

But why all these rules, and what's the deal with the Gibson, anyway? Well, all that history is part of what makes this such a complicated drink to write about. But with thanks and apologies to David Wondrich, who covers a lot of this in more detail in Imbibe!, I'm going to give it a shot in a second Martini post (I did tell you I had a lot to say, didn't I?). Stay tuned for Part II!

    Levantine Martini

    Levantine Martini

    2 oz. Boodles gin
    1/2 oz. Noilly Prat dry vermouth
    1/4 oz. Kassatly Ajyal Lebanese tamarind syrup
    Twist of orange

    It amazes me, in hindsight, that this wasn’t the first thing I thought of when that bottle of tamarind syrup walked through my door. Truth be told, it came to me because I was trying to devise a drink as visually interesting as the Yale in a different color palette. It isn’t quite, but it’s tasty enough that I don’t mind.

    This result should be surprising to no one. Both this and the Yale are essentially variations on the classic Martini, and this one hews much closer to a Martini flavor. The tamarind hits sour and savory notes, both of which complement the gin and vermouth that are the cocktail’s bread and butter. In the Martini, you ordinarily get one or the other: a twist of lemon, or a cocktail olive.

    Someday I’d like to visit a bar where the “Martini Menu” contains nothing but honest-to-God members of the Martini family. The Yale, the Vesper, the Martinez, the Gibson - it’s a surprisingly robust group, and there’s still more that can be done with it. Unfortunately the market for such a place is on the small side. Do let me know if you find one.

    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…