My father drank Manhattans whle my mother favored Old Fashioneds (water, not soda please). These were stalwart drinks of the type favored in the post-war era. The liquor was out front, only slightly modified by other liquors.
Sours became the gateway cocktail for the baby boomers. Lemon and sugar masked the stronger flavors of the whisky. With the gently tapering glass on a short stem, topped with an orange slice and a cherry, you hardly knew what you were drinking.
Cocktails, though, became victims of the crusade against the three martini lunch and the constant search for the next big thing. There were a couple decades when pulling a wine cork was the only skill a bartender needed.
That’s not the case now. Driven by an explosion of interest in spirits, new flavorings, and a thirst for mixology, cocktails are pushing wine by the glass and craft beer to the bottom of the drinks menu. The standards are being revived and updated, while creative new combinations challenge our taste buds.
Small batch distillers are the pioneers of the liquor biz, following in the footsteps of winemakers and craft brewers. It’s fun to experience and collect these new spirits and even visit the distillery, but then you need cocktail ideas to keep the ball rolling.
There’s nothing like an expertly restaurant-made cocktail – the bartender (mixologist if you must) pouring the liquor, adding the bitters and syrups, shaking or stirring with a flourish, and pouring the finished drink into a prepared glass. All of this just for you. But it can be just as rewarding to make cocktails at home.
For a home bar, you’ll need some spirits – vodka, gin, bourbon, scotch, and maybe rye. Then you’ll need the fun stuff: bitters and syrups, along with fortified wines, aperitifs, and specialty liquors that add the flavor and zing.
Tony Broom, who with his wife Julie hosts the Thimble Islands Bed and Breakfast in Stony Creek, CT, is a connoisseur of the Manhattan. He’s flexible on the brand of bourbon and the source of the sweet vermouth, but insistent on the formula. The Manhattan area code says it all for Tony – two parts whisky, one part sweet vermouth, and two shakes of bitters – 212. He likes it served on the rocks, no fancy glassware needed.
We’re currently working our way through a bottle of Ginger Zap, a ginger flavored vodka that we picked up at the Asylum distillery in Bridgeport. Their website has ten recipes for drinks using the Zap, everything from a Ginger Cosmo to a Ginger Fizz. We loved the
refreshing Ginger Sidecar, but added a little extra simple syrup to tame the razor sharp edges of the Zap.
Simple syrup is the bartender’s trick to sweeten while ensuring that all the sugar dissolves in the cold drink. Simmer equal parts of water and sugar, a cup of each for instance, and keep it in the frig for anytime you need a splash of sweet. Simple syrup can also be flavored with mint, black pepper, lemon, honey, or even hot peppers for an added dimension.
Bitters are, well, bitter, but flavorful too – the other side of the cocktail coin from simple syrup. Angostura, with its aromatic herbal kick, is the best known, but there are many others. A whole industry has sprung up to create flavors like orange, peach, and smoked chili. The Hudson Standard makes four flavors from locally harvested Hudson Valley ingredients: Catskill Masala, Spruce Shoot, Ginger, and Love Struck.
Fortified wines including vermouths and aperitifs like Campari or Aperol are essential for making classic cocktails. The Martini and Manhattan both call for vermouth, although there is much debate about the proper ratios. Add some Campari to a Manhattan and you’re in Negroni territory.
I enjoy building a collection of spirits and flavors, then practicing and perfecting the recipes. Cocktail ideas can come from restaurant experiences, magazine articles, and books. My latest concoction involves fresh apple cider, dark rum, Fruitlab ginger liqueur, and a squeeze of lime. It’s a delicious drink in search of a name.
Whenever I get involved in something new, I like to have a book on the subject. In this case it’s the New York Times Book of Cocktails. There are drink recipes, of course, but past columns on cocktails are included here too. Writers, including Rosie Schaap, Mark Bittman, Pete Wells, Frank Bruni and many more, weigh in on their favorite drinks – history, lore, and musings – the perfect kind of stuff to read with a cocktail in your hand.