Swank cocktails and lounge culture in Seattle.
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With Christmas fast approaching, a guide to basic cocktail crafting is probably the most appropriate first article for a cocktail culture blog. The intent here is to give you some basic skills so you can dive in at a party and help the host out by making some drinks. It is written with the assumption that you’ll be in a kitchen with some liquor, not a fully stocked and equipped bar. The closest thing to a specialty item it assumes you will have is a bottle of Angostura bitters, which every home liquor cabinet should have. So, let’s get on to the drinks.
The Old Fashioned
This is the original cocktail. Before it was the Old Fashioned, it was the Whiskey Cocktail. It is the most complex of the drinks we will look at in this article, but it’s not too difficult, especially if you make it the traditional way. Traditionally, the orange slice and Maraschino cherry was a garnish for the drink, and not muddled into the drink.
To make the Old Fashioned, take an “on the rocks” glass, or any short, wide mouthed glass of around 6-8 ounces capacity, add a very small splash of water. Don’t add too much, a tablespoon or so will do fine. To that, add a ½ teaspoon of sugar, or one sugar cube, and mash and mix with the back of a spoon until the sugar is dissolved. If you have a twist of orange peel, you can mash it in with the sugar, but the drink will be fine if you don’t have it. Then add two dashes of Angostura bitters, and two ounces of whiskey. While it is traditional to use rye whiskey, Bourbon has become more common since the repeal of Prohibition. Blended whiskey will even work, if that is what the crowd is drinking. Now, stir that up with a spoon, and add a little ice, preferably just one large piece of ice, if you have big cubes. The key is that the smaller your ice, the faster it will melt. As we are leaving the ice in, we want to chill the drink, not dilute it.
If you see that the host has a bottle of sweet, or red, vermouth in addition to the whiskey and bitters used in the Old Fashioned above, you are in luck. You will also need a large glass to mix it in. When you realize that the vermouth is replacing the sugar water in the Old Fashioned, you can see how drinks evolve. Like the Old Fashioned, this was originally made with rye whiskey, but is now most commonly made with Bourbon. When the same recipe is followed with Scotch, the drink becomes the Rob Roy.
To make the Manhattan, take the mixing glass, and fill it half way with ice. Here smaller ice works better then large chunks, you just have to work faster as the ice gets smaller to keep the drink from getting diluted. You want just a hint of water in the drink. To the ice add 2 ½ ounces of whiskey, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, and two dashed of Angostura bitters. Quickly stir to thoroughly mix and chill the ingredients, and then strain into a cocktail glass. If available, you can garnish the drink with a Maraschino cherry or a bit of orange peel.
H. L. Mencken considered the Martini “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”* One of the most popular of the classic cocktails, it can also be the hardest drink to get right for someone. It is not a difficult drink, there is just such a wide range of taste in Martinis. While the traditional Martini is made with gin, many people enjoy them with vodka. Regardless of the base spirit, the even more contentious issue is how much vermouth to add. With the stronger gins that were common before prohibition, the ratio of gin to vermouth was often as low as 2:1. Many people today like extra dry Martinis, and use only a drop, or even less. The vermouth needs to be dry white vermouth, not the sweet red vermouth of the Manhattan. What I enjoy about the Martini is how the flavors from the botanicals in the gin interact with the flavors from the botanicals in the vermouth, so I do want to taste that there is some vermouth in my Martinis. I usually make mine 5:1.
To make the Martini, take a clean mixing glass and fill half way with ice. Pour 2 ½ ounces of gin over the ice, followed by ½ of dry vermouth. Stir until well chilled and mixed, and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel, or an olive on a cocktail pick. A dirty Martini is a regular Martini with a splash of the bring from the olive jar added while mixing. A Gibson is just a standard Martini garnished with two silver-skin cocktail onions on a cocktail pick.
Not a single drink, but an entire category of drinks. A highball is a base spirit with a larger proportion of non-alcoholic mixer, served in a highball glass or tumbler, with ice. Some highballs might also include a lime wedge to squeeze in it, or already in it. Rum and Coke, 7 and 7, and Scotch and Soda are all popular highballs, as well as such drinks the Dark and Stormy (dark rum and Ginger beer), the Cuba Libre (rum and Coke, with a squeeze of lime), and the Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer, and a squeeze of lime).
While all highballs are almost as easy make as they are to drink, there is a trick. With highballs, the key to a good drink is to always make them in the correct order: mostly fill the glass with ice, add your measure of base spirit, then add your mixer, and then stir gently. The secret is to make sure the spirit is evenly distributed in the drink, so that it does not taste weak.
*Edmunds, Lowell (1981). Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5971-9.