It’s a new year and high time to get this show on the road once again. Apologies for the prolonged break over the holidays. From early November to this past weekend, it’s been tradeshows, birthdays, and holidays. Mea cupla. So, let’s jump back in with a bang.
The whole theme of this effort is to dissect classic cocktails and present them — along with the tools required to make them — in an easily digestible and affordable format. After identifying the first six bottles and the basic tools required, it’s time to start making drinks. Yes, with only six bottles, we can make tasty drinks aplenty. So, why not the “6 Bottle Bar”? Well, you’ll just have to wait to see what we have in-store.
Now, it’s important to take a step back and address a fundamental question at the core of all this. Namely, what are cocktails? The first step in answering that question is to rephrase it slightly. Instead of “What are cocktails?” we should be asking “What is the Cocktail?”. Like Kleenex and the Xerox machine, the Cocktail has suffered from being genericized over the years. Without powerful brand attorneys to protect it, the poor Cocktail didn’t have much of a fighting chance. See, years ago, the Cocktail was a specific mixed drink, much like the Martini or the Margarita. But it was really more than just that. The Cocktail was THE mixed drink — so important in the pantheon of mixology that it overshadows all others. Intrigued? You should be.
Before we examine the Cocktail’s essential place at the head of the table, it’s first important to appreciate what the Cocktail isn’t. It isn’t the Sling, and that fact makes all the difference.
Up until the Industrial Revolution, the denizens of Western Civilization were chiefly punch drinkers. Punches had several things going for them: they could be made in advance of an event, they served lots of people, and the inclusion of significant amounts of fruit juice, spices, and water would conceal any less-than-admirable qualities the accompanying spirits might possess. Whether the event was social or nautical (the navy loved its punch), punch fit the bill. One interesting tale of punch tells of a party thrown in 1694 by Sir Edward Russell, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, at which a pool was filled with punch. A boy in a small boat rowed about the punch, mixing it and serving it to the guests. Those are the kinds of parties punch throws.
Leave it to the Americans to screw everything up. Ever industrious and expanding West, the Americans had little time to stand around waiting for the punch gondola to ferry their drinks to them. Why not create a single-serving punch to-go? Brilliant! Suddenly, you could get your drink on and mind the mill all at the same time (no offense, forefathers, but you know you did it). Say hello to the Sling.
The standard rule of thumb for a punch is: 1 part sour, 2 parts sweet, 3 parts strong, and 4 parts weak. What’s important to note here is the 3:4 ratio of strong (spirit) to weak (water). Moreover, the ratio of spirits to all other ingredients is 3:7. Punches aren’t meant to pack a wallop; at least, not on the surface.
Being the offspring of punch, the Sling followed a similar formula — minus the sour (although some recipes do include the sour as well). Sugar, spirit, water as follows:
1 tsp Sugar
1 oz Water
2 oz Spirit
A lump of Ice
While any of the three main bottles covered so far will work, if you going to try the Sling, try it with the Rittenhouse. Truth be told, it’s not much of a drink. There’s too much water and not enough pizzaz in it. Our fore-tipplers probably felt pretty much the same, because they did everything in their power to morph the Sling however they could. They heated it up and made the Toddy (where it’s brilliant, and we’ll cover that). They appropriated the medicinal concoction of macerated herbs called the Julep and invented a fine family of drinks. But, most importantly they decided to cut back the water and add another new-found elixir: bitters.
During the reign of the Sling and the birth of the Cocktail (mid 1800’s), the Americans were expanding their dominance over their new-found country. They were busy building, inventing, and pioneering — all of which gave them little time to worry about such inconveniences as visiting the doctor. Enter the snake oil salesman. “Step right up! Step right up! One drink of Dr. Siegert’s Angostura Bitters cures liver complaints, headache, biliousness, indigestion, loss of appetite, colds…”. You get the picture (for more, pop over to the post on BITTERS). Why go to the doctor when a few dashes from a self- proclaimed cure-all would set you right as rain? Better yet, mix those harsh-tasting dashes into your morning constitutional, and you’re ready for another day laying the Transcontinental Railroad, working in the Pennsylvania coal mines, or defending your country from those Southern Rebels (or Northern Yankees, as you please).
When you think about it, the birth of the Cocktail made perfect sense. With a couple of flicks of the wrist and a little less water, the Sling became both more healthful and more tasty. Sugar, water, spirit, and bitters. Say hello to the Cocktail and goodbye to the Sling.
Citrus Peel garnish.
A lump or two of Ice is optional.
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of heavy, flat-bottomed glass (old-fashioned, rocks, or double glass — whatever you choose to call it). Dash the bitters over the sugar and let them absorb. Add the teaspoon of water. Muddle this all together until the sugar is as dissolved as possible. Add the spirit (the Rittenhouse is great here, but the Remy is divine). Stir.
The magic of the Cocktail lies not only in its taste (which is exquisite, if done correctly) but also in the execution and presentation. Using the lump sugar cube, dashing in the bitters, muddling and stirring — it really transports you back to a time when bartender and pharmacist were one-and-the-same. Finish off the drink with a large swathe of citrus peel (use a vegetable peeler and get as little white pith as humanly possible). Squeeze the peel over the drink to extract the oils, then rub it over the rim a few times to add an extra layer of depth and perfume. For an extra bit of dash, serve with a spoon so the lucky soul enjoying your handy work can stir in the rest of the sugar, if needed. And that, in short, is the birth of the Cocktail and, in turn, all modern mixed drinks. With its heavy reliance on spirit and calculated use of sweet and bitter, the Cocktail is a symphony in a glass. Of course, not everyone took to all that alcohol but, never ones to miss a party, our ancestors simply took to diluting the drink with vermouth — giving birth to the Martini/Manhattan family.
In writing of the Cocktail, no one does it better than David Wondrich, and he offers this insight to its importance and ultra- Americaness: “How could it be anything but (American)? It’s quick, direct, and vigorous. It’s flashy and a little bit vulgar. It induces an unreflective overconfidence. It’s democratic, forcing the finest liquors to rub elbows with ingredients of far more humble stamp… In short, it rocks.”
If America invented the modern mixed drink, it’s all because we invented the Cocktail, an unapologetic concoction both singular enough and flexible enough to lay claim to all modern mixology. Yeah, that sounds like something we’d do.
Esoterica: A guy walks into a bar and orders a Cocktail. With a few notable exceptions, most bars would have no idea what he’s talking about (after the obligatory Abbott and Costello back-and-forth of “A cocktail? Which cocktail?” “THE Cocktail.” — you get the point). However, most any bar will make him the modern scion of the Cocktail — the Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned has done to the Cocktail, unfortunately, what cosmetic surgery has done to the concept of beauty — cheapened and diluted it and thrown in parts that shouldn’t naturally be there. For a little cultural anthropology, it is worth sampling one with regard to the original. It’s also fun to argue with the bartender that a shot of anything from the drinks gun actually makes the drink a highball, and that’s not what you ordered — fun until you get escorted out, that is.