Shaking up classic cocktails
"Don't mess with a good thing."
"There's no need to reinvent the wheel."
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
However many adages there are that extol the virtues of the classics, there is always room for minor tweaking -- especially when it comes to matters of taste, like cocktails.
According to Adam Bernbach, the bar manager of Proof and Estadio restaurants in Washington, D.C., there are a couple of things experimental imbibers should pay attention to when riffing on the classics.
Five Tips on Getting Creative with Classic Cocktails: Adam Bernbach
The most important aspect to cocktails, in general, is knowledge of the ingredients. Tasting the individual ingredients on their own is an essential step to this knowledge. Often, a familiarity with the flavors of a particular whiskey, vermouth or type of bitters will give a good abstract of the flavor of a mixed drink.
This can, of course, be prohibitively expensive in practice. However, keeping on the lookout for tastings held by restaurants, bars and the like will help accelerate the "studies."
The multiple lifetimes of experience contained within the pages of the classic cocktail books is a never-ending gift to those of us who enjoy the craft of mixing drinks.
Classics like Harry Craddock's "The Savoy Cocktail Book, " David Embury's "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," and newer classics like Kazuo Uyeda's "Cocktail Techniques," Jim Meehan's "The PDT Cocktail Book" and David Wondrich's great Jerry Thomas biographical recipe book "Imbibe" are major sources of exposure to different techniques and ideas, new and old, in mixing drinks. Many of these books contain recipes for various syrups that will be irreplaceable in reproducing the classic cocktails.
3. Visit a bartender
Visits to a few friendly bartenders to try their different takes on the classics is, perhaps, the most enjoyable aspect in this pursuit. After all, these drinks are to be drunk. The addition of a little bit of critical focus to the pastime of imbibing will help illuminate the details of the classic cocktails.
Polite, well-timed questions are welcome. Bartenders who are genuinely interested in the craft and history of mixing drinks are more than happy to share their opinions, their experiences and what they've learned. Naturally, there is a time and place for these Q&As. A busy Saturday night is not the ideal time to elicit pearls of wisdom from a bartender. Earlier in the night and the week tend to be the best times to chat.
4. Build your home bar
A basic kit of bar tools is available through online sites like The Boston Shaker. If purchasing piecemeal, the absolute essentials include a Boston shaker, a Hawthorne strainer, a mixing glass, a bar spoon, a fruit knife, a jigger (or another measuring device), a citrus juicer (always use fresh juice) and a muddler. Cocktail Kingdom and the aforementioned The Boston Shaker are great places to order bar gear.
Building up a nice collection of spirits can sometimes be a tricky endeavor. Some of the ingredients common in the classics are not common now. That doesn't necessarily mean they're unavailable. Usually, it's a small percentage of stores that carry these ingredients. It might require some calling around. If a local store doesn't carry them (and they can't special order them), sites like Astor Wines have a nice selection in which to find a missing ingredient. Procuring the ingredients to a cocktail, one cocktail at a time is an efficient way to build the home bar.
5. Adjust and swap
Once a comfort level is achieved. Adjusting the common ratios of the classics is an interesting experiment in drink-making. A quarter ounce more simple syrup or lime juice can massively affect a drink's profile. This is particularly revealing in comparing the tastes of two different eras.
Another great variation is to replace one ingredient with another. A seemingly small switch from sugar to honey will create a different drink entirely. In one Manhattan, rather than simply using angostura bitters, I chose to accentuate the lighter, floral qualities of red vermouth (I use Dolin Rouge) mixed with rye whiskey (I use Old Overholt) by utilizing the anise, fennel, herbal notes in Peychaud's bitters. This creates a bright, lively version of the rich classic we know.
2.25 oz. rye whiskey (Recommended: Old Overholt)
1.25 oz. red vermouth (Recommended: Dolin Rouge)
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Stir. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry. (Rub a bit of lemon zest on the rim of the glass.)
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