MOTHERS' LITTLE HELPERS: COCKTAILS DE-MYSTIFIED FOR THE HOME BARTENDER.
You’ll find a copy of Mr. Boston Official Bartending Guide behind nearly every bar in the US. This Holy Bible of imbibing has more than 1,400 cocktail recipes. 1,400! That’s more than the number of hairs on the average middle-aged American male’s head.
It wasn’t always this way. In bygone years, one would simply order “strong drinks for men who wanna get drunk fast.” Today, however, it seems that most cocktails have 78 or 79 ingredients and are garnished with a sous vide-simmered Birch tree twig imported from the northernmost province of Finland.
It’s confusing. It’s intimidating. It’s enough to make a person just crack open a Heineken.
But is it really? Is mastering the art of the cocktail as complex as it’s now perceived?
The answer, in fact, is “No.” Like most unnecessarily complex things in life, cocktails can be broken into little pieces and re-assembled into a simplified, understandable system. And that’s what this post is all about.
In the paragraphs below, I’ll give you a template for creating both a solid foundation of classic cocktails and your own improvised riffs on those classics.
PART I: THE HOLY TRINITY OF COCKTAIL FLAVORS.
At its most basic level, cocktails are simply a mixture of whiskey, sugar, and bitters. Sure, many cocktails employ other elements. But whiskey, sugar, and bitters form the skeleton upon which the creature is built.
And when all is said and done, creating a cocktail—whether via a recipe or improvisation—is a matter of balancing three flavors: sweet, sour, and bitter. We’ll call these flavors the “Holy Trinity.”
As you’re adding an ingredient into the shaker, think about whether that ingredient will lend a sweet, sour, or bitter flavor to the cocktail. Then, think about how that flavor will be balanced against the others.
Maybe you want a balanced drink, in which all components of the Holy Trinity are in perfect harmony. Or maybe you want a cocktail that leans toward the sweet side. Or the bitter side. Keeping the Holy Trinity firmly in mind (and believe me, not everybody does) will raise the quality bar on whatever cocktail you’re building. By the way…this technique also works when cooking.
So…by now you’re thinking, “Yeah, I guess that all makes sense...conceptually. But I still don’t know how to make a damn cocktail!”
No. No you don’t. So, let me give you a template.
PART II: THE FOUR “MOTHER COCKTAILS”
A great home bartender needs a strong foundation upon which to create his liquid masterpieces. You will have that foundation if you master the four “Mother Cocktails.” They are the (a) Old Fashioned, (b) Whiskey Sour, (c) Negroni, and (d) Vodka Martini.
Master these Mother Cocktails, and you’ll have the power to create a whole slew of “Child Cocktails” by simply tweaking an ingredient here, swapping an ingredient there, and/or adding a little of this, that, or the other.
MOTHER COCKTAIL #1 (SWEET CATEGORY): THE OLD FASHIONED
The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest, simplest, and most elegant of cocktails. It’s also one of the most abused—often looking like a fruit cocktail dumped into an ice-filled glass of brown sludge. Order one in Wisconsin, and they’ll further ruin it with Sprite and Sour Mix.
Stop the insanity! A proper Old Fashioned is (surprise, surprise) nothing more than a beautiful balance of whiskey, sugar, and bitters.
OLD FASHIONED (i.e, the Sweet Mother)4-8 parts Rye or Bourbon Whiskey
1 part Simple Syrup
2-4 dashes Angostura or Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail or rocks glass, and garnish with lemon peel
There you go! The classic Old Fashioned! Now, you can spread your wings and create some sweet (in both senses of the word) “Child Cocktails.” Here’s how:
MOTHER COCKTAIL #2 (SOUR CATEGORY): THE WHISKEY SOUR
Whiskey Sour is that cocktail that your grandfather let you sip on the sly during some family function in 1975. You were only eight years old, but you liked it.
When made correctly, a Whiskey Sour tastes great on a hot day and—as with the Old Fashioned—is the Mother Cocktail from whose loins a number of sour Children may spring.
WHISKEY SOUR (i.e, the Sour Mother)4-8 parts Rye or Bourbon Whiskey
2 parts freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 part Simple Syrup
Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail or rocks glass.
That’s the Mother. Here are her Children:
Do you see how easy this is? Let’s continue!
MOTHER COCKTAIL #3 (BITTER CATEGORY): THE NEGRONI
I was sitting in a bar in southern Italy around noontime in 2003, and noticed that most of the men were sipping a very pretty, intensely red drink. I asked the bartender what it was. He proudly informed, “Il Negroni!”
Negroni is a bracingly bitter cocktail that’s often drunk as an aperitif. It’s not always love at first sip. Acquiring the taste may take a few tries. But once you’ve acquired it, you’ll be in love forever.
And man-oh-man, is it easy to make!
NEGRONI (i.e, the Bitter Mother)1 part Campari
1 part Sweet Vermouth
1 part Gin
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail or rocks glass, and garnish with orange peel.
Mother, meet your Children:
MOTHER COCKTAIL #4 (NEUTRAL CATEGORY): THE VODKA MARTINI
And then there are those times—or those guests—that are just not up for adventure. You’re feeling bland….non-committal…neutral. And you want a cocktail that will taste great, but won’t challenge you. Who you gonna call?
“Martini. Vodka Martini.”
VODKA MARTINI (i.e, the Neutral Mother)2-4 parts Vodka
1 part Dry Vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with three green olives.
Even the plain Jane Martini bears some Children:
PART III: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
You now have the tools to be a fisherman, rather than a fish eater. Congratulations.
But your newly acquired, mad mixology skills cannot be kept quiet. They must be shared with—and shown off to—friends and family. At least, to those friends and family that agree to use Uber.
So, throw a party. Host a get-together. And when an indecisive guest hems and haws over what to order, try the following line of questioning:
Q1: Do you want something sweet, sour, bitter, or neutral?
Q2: Do you tend to prefer brown liquors or white liquors?
Q3: Do you like drinks with simple flavors, or complex?
Q4: Which type of complexity do you like most? Citrusy? Fruity? Winey? Herbacious? Nutty? Spicy? Salty? Smoky?
If (for example) the guest answers, “I want a neutral, white cocktail with simple, citrusy flavors,” then you’ll want to make a Vodka Martini with a twist of lemon peel.
If she answers, “I want a bitter, brown cocktail with complex, spicy flavors,” then she’d probably appreciate a well-made Kingston.
If he answers, “Gimme a sweet, brown cocktail that’s complex and winey,” then that dude needs a Manhattan.
If she gushes, “I’d love a sour, white cocktail that’s salty and smokey,” then duuuuuh! Hola, Margarita!
PART IV: FINAL THOUGHTS
In the end, the precise recipe for a cocktail isn’t the most important thing. It’s the care that you use when making the cocktail itself. Listed below are some nuggets of wisdom that I’ve amassed during years of research, self-destruction, and tinkering at my kitchen island:
(# of parts liquor at issue/Total # of parts all liquors) * Total size of the cocktail (in either ounces or milliliters) = Amount of the liquor at issue (in ounces or milliliters) that you’ll need to add
Example:If a Whiskey Sour is 4:2:1 parts Whiskey to Lemon Juice to Simple Syrup and you want to make a 4 ounce drink, then you would add:
(4/(4+2+1) = .57*4oz = 2.28 oz Whiskey
(2/(4+2+1) = .29*4oz = 1.16 oz Lemon Juice
(1/(4+2+1) = .14*4oz + .56 oz Simple Syrup
Feel free to round up or down. Even the OXO Measuring Cup isn’t that precise.
In the end, cocktailing isn’t rocket science. Hell, it isn’t even science. It’s art. No cocktail recipe—regardless of how long-standing or generally accepted—is gospel. If you have a cocktail recipe that you like, keep tweaking it until it becomes one that you love.
Then, share the love. You now have the skills to do it, and do it well.