Slowly but surely over the past several years, a change has been happening in bar culture. Once upon a time in America, the bartender was a skilled trade. A bartender was a bartender for life, not just until they got the next acting gig, or graduated from college.
A bartender had to build up knowledge of the delicate balance and interplay of the flavors of different spirits and the proper ratios and preparations to craft an excellent drink. He (at that time it was pretty much always a he) also had to learn a social language that dealt with when it was appropriate to serve certain drinks, which was the appropriate glassware to put them in, and what was the appropriate way to deal with customers. He had to become an expert on ice and how different types of ice interact with a beverage.
That art seemed lost for a while in all but the fanciest hotels, but it’s been coming back with a vengeance and cities across the country have seen new bars open in the last few years with young mustachioed bartenders sporting the classic garb of vest, button down shirt, and bowtie and armed with reprints of classic bartender manuals such as Jerry Thomas’s Bartending Guide (from 1887) and the slightly more modern Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). They know their way around a bottle of gin and, while they’ll happily serve you a rum and coke, they’d jump at the chance to make you a Last Word or anything with the word “flip” in its title.
Admittedly, this trend is approaching critical mass and that makes it dangerous. Just because a bar carries the trappings of a serious cocktail-oriented bar doesn’t mean the bartender knows their stuff. And these bars are expensive. No one wants to pay $14 for a drink that’s not exceptional, so let’s learn some things about cocktails. Let’s arm ourselves with knowledge before setting foot in the latest speakeasy wannabe.
Welcome to the Cocktail Primer, in which I will go through the basics of the art of making a great cocktail in order for us to better appreciate or even make an excellent cocktail for ourselves. Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s start with what to order when you walk into a bar. It’s sometimes intimidating to order anything but what you know, and what you know is often what you learned in college. So let’s remedy that.
David A. Embury pronounced the six basic cocktails in his 1948 book “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.” Any of the six basics would make for a good arsenal of go-to drinks to order, but times have changed, and we have some new spirits, and in addition we don’t so much have some old ones. Try to order a Jack Rose and many bartenders will look at you blankly, and if they do, you can be sure they do not have apple jack behind the bar to make a drink for you. So I’ve taken four of the basic six: the Sidecar, the Martini, the Daiquiri, and the Manhattan, and substituted the others plus added one more to outfit any bar-goer with a nice modern repertoire of basic cocktails to pull out for ordering. Now that we’re grownups, we should be ordering grown up drinks, and these are sophisticated and mature choices to get you out of your rum & coke/gin ∧ tonic rut.
1. Sidecar: The first type of spirit is brandy, and for brandy fans I have chosen a Sidecar. The Sidecar only has three ingredients: brandy or cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. It is served in a martini glass with a sugared rim. The Sidecar has been around since Prohibition times and is a good choice for those who prefer a sweeter drink. It has a nice balance of sweet, sour, and the fullness and warmth of the brandy. Be careful though, as the palatable flavor of this drink disguises a fairly hefty punch. It’s easy to drink too many of these.
2. Martini: The gin martini is pretty much the classic cocktail. It would probably the number one answer for “Cocktails” on the Family Feud. It is also a cocktail that many people are afraid of. For one thing, it is pure alcohol, and the mixer is just vermouth. If you are drinking this, then you are not afraid of the taste of booze. However, what you should know is that there are many variations to a martini and they are easily accomplished. If you like your drinks sweeter, consider the original, a Martinez. A Martinez adds Maraschino liqueur and a dash of orange bitters. For those who want the real deal, don’t be afraid to go for it! There is a lot of debate on what consists of a “proper” martini, but a good bartender will make you what you like, whether it’s shaken stirred, with a dollop or just a pinch of vermouth. Figure out how you like it and have it made that way, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks.
3. Daiquiri: For rum, we have a daiquiri, which is one of the more simple but delicious drinks that can be made with rum. It’s a little more fancy than a rum and coke, so if you want to look a bit more sophisticated, but also want to drink rum, this is a good choice. Mojitos are also a popular rum drink, but they are more complicated to make. Your bartender will like you better — or at least get you your drink quicker — if you choose this instead. A daiquiri is just rum with sugar and lime juice. Made famous by El Floridita bar in Cuba, this drink was a favorite of military men, Hemingway, and JFK, so it’s also an incredibly manly choice, if that’s what you are going for.
4. Margarita: Margaritas weren’t always made from a mix, nor is there any reason for them to be. A classic Margarita is made with tequila, lime juice, and Triple Sec. Every bar should have these things and be able to make a Margarita from them. A higher quality margarita may use Grand Marnier rather than Triple Sec. The most famous tequila master alive today, Julio Bermejo, makes his with agave juice rather than the orange liqueur. If you ever have a chance to get a Julio-style Margarita, go for it. Take some time to taste some different tequilas and find out which kinds you like best. A good tequila makes all the difference.
5. Manhattan: Manhattans are for the whiskey lovers. Manahattans go back to the 1860s and they are still around because they are great. Modern Manhattans are made with bourbon, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a Maraschino cherry for garnish. Traditionally, Manhattans were made with rye whiskey and I would urge you to try it that way if available. Manhattans are also a great way to test a bartender, because a skilled one will often have a favorite variation, or their own homemade bitters to add.
6. Moscow Mule: It is difficult to discover classic cocktails made with vodka, as vodka was not really used in American cocktails at the time when most of the classics were created. David Embury’s six basic cocktails do not include a vodka cocktail among them. The most common vodka cocktail -– the Cosmopolitan — was not invented until the 1980s. Besides the vodka martini, another eminently classic vodka cocktail is the Moscow Mule. The Moscow Mule was created in Los Angeles in the 1940s to boost sales of something, although it’s in dispute as to whether it was ginger beer, vodka, or perhaps both. Maybe even copper mugs, who knows? Moscow Mules are made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice. Traditionally they were served in copper mugs. They were tremendously popular with Hollywood stars in the 1940s and a sign of being a regular at a bar was having your own Mule mug there.
7. French 75: For champagne lovers who feel like a cocktail, it’s hard to get more elegant than a French 75. Named for a lightweight French gun that packed a heavy punch in World War I, the French 75 is light and bubbly but likewise packs a powerful punch. Ingredients are champagne, gin, lemon juice and sugar. As with the daiquiri, don’t be too quick to write this off as a feminine drink. The French 75 was popular with the “Lost Generation” of American expatriates who lived in France, including our old pal Hemingway. (Although I suspect that anything alcoholic was popular with Hemingway . . . but that brings up a good tip! If anyone questions your choice of drink, be it a Cosmo or the fruitiest Tiki concoction, just tell them it was popular with Hemingway. They can no longer question your masculinity, or alcoholism.)
So there’s an updated version of the basic drinks. Any one of those could make a good default drink, and from there you can branch off to explore variations and other libations, featuring your spirit of choice. Next time in the cocktail primer, I’ll discuss the hidden secret that really makes a classic cocktail shine—bitters, as well as provide some insight into some cocktail terminology.