Most of the cocktails I make are incorrect in terms of bartending books, the mixologists at the snooty bar down the street, and the social media glamour bar coalition of Instagram. There are lots of opinionated drinkers out there with strong drinking beliefs. It seems that everything has a specific way to do it down to making simple syrup or what order ingredients get added to a cocktail shaker.
Dad's Martini and Mom's Cookies
Too often we forget how so and so made their drinks and instead go to the rigid rules in a cocktail book written by someone you don't know. We forget about Dad's martini, Paul's Sazerac, and the way the bartender made Negronis on that train in Italy. These are the recipes I want. I want to drink cocktails that have a story more profound than their origin. We see this in the food world all the time-- grandmas beef stew or the neighbor's "famous" deviled eggs that you always say you are going to go over and get the recipe for but never do. Anyone can make chocolate chip cookies but are they ever as good as moms?
Heirloom: something of special value handed down from one generation to another.
I like the idea of drink methods being passed down like those classic recipes. For one its a whole lot better than being secretive about the methodology and I always trust drink recipes that come from someone that claimed a drink as theirs and drank it throughout their life. The methods in books are often sterile and hard to reproduce because you as the imbiber didn't live the story of the drink. Few cocktail books can capture liquid magic and heirloom quality drinks on a page.
A Drink + A Story
I remember being a guest for dinner years ago at an acquaintances house and before the meal we had congregated out in their large back yard for drinks. A bottle of bubbles was open, and I was looking forward to a splash but before it came my way the husband of the host pulled me aside. He had overheard that I was a fan of gin and wanted to make me a gin and tonic. How could I say no?
We stood at his wet bar between the living room and kitchen. He began by telling me the way he always makes a gin and tonic came from a friend of his back home in South Africa. First, he took a peeler and removed the rind from two limes and laid the peels neatly in a criss-cross pattern at the bottom of two collins glass. Then he filled the glasses with ice to hold the lime skins down and poured in a glug or two of gin. He stirred the gin to chill it down, and he explained that the gin needed to be with the peels for a little bit before adding tonic. He told a story of watching zebras (zeh-bruhs) run by and fun times with his friend. When the gin was cold enough and acquainted to the lime skins, he finished the drinks by topping them off with chilled tonic from a glass bottle that he opened right then.
It tasted like a good gin and tonic to me. To him, it tasted like being home in South Africa drinking gin and tonics with his longtime friend. I was honored to hear the story and to drink this particular gin and tonic. It meant something to him and he shared it with me.
For quite some time now I have been curious about the methods people use to make their drinks. At home when I make a cocktail, I am making more than just a drink. If I am in the mood for a Champagne Cocktail, I have to ask myself if I want to follow Colin Field and the method he employs at Bar Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Perhaps I want to make one as Chris Hannah does down in the gritty French Quarter of New Orleans (check out his new spot: Jewel of the South). Or maybe I want it the way Eric Farrell taught me at 327 Braun Ct. in Ann Arbor where my younger self used to make them for the early guests that came in on Saturday evenings. When I make these drinks I am recreating memories and in turn passing the memories on to the people that drink them.
Bittered Sling or a Cocktail
The old definition from 1806 that we all know (and a good number of us bar people have tattooed somewhere on our bodies) states that a
cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling.
I think that Harry Croswell was right then and is still right today. If you are only getting a drink that consists of spirit, sugar, water, and bitters with no story, no wisdom, and nothing special then you would be quite right calling it a bittered sling and those are a dime a dozen.
Seek out the good cocktails, the heirloom cocktails. The bittered slings are all written down in books and online. You can get a bittered sling at any bar in town. I urge you to find out how your grandparents took their cocktails if that was something they enjoyed. Yes, you may have to pick up the phone and call a parent to find out. The heirloom cocktails live in the glasses of the people that continue to drink them and pass them on to others.
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Bar To Home
A simple translation from bar to home.