June is in full swing, summer's on our doorstep and, most impendingly, my wife's birthday draws nigh. This year it shall be something special, because she has asked me to create a cocktail in her honor. Lo, what fortune! A gift wherein everyone wins, says I.
So, how does one tackle that proposition, exactly? Good cocktails blend art and science, and show how different and often disparate ingredients can come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. An easy thing to just throw out there, but how about a little help? Experimenting behind the bar is tons of fun, but liquor ain't cheap.
A good place to start (as I have done in preparation for my wife's present) is to get a general understanding of the taxonomy of drinks, at least at a basic level. A simple way to organize cocktails out of the gate is a two kingdom arrangement:
- Shaken drinks - daiquiris, sours, collins, etc.
- Stirred drinks - manhattans, old fashioned, negronis, etc.
Elementary, my dear Watson, as Holmes would say. Shaken drinks are concoctions of alcohol and other ingredients that are shaken in a mixing tin filled with ice for various reasons. Most notably it serves as a means to combine (through emulsion) liquids of different composition and viscosity. Generally, you will get far better results shaking a daiquiri with ice than you will stirring the same drink. When working on a whisky sour, you just can't get the egg whites all velvety smooth without shaking. Martinis you can take or leave out of this category - honestly, there is no compelling reason to shake them unless it is cool in your town.
Stirred drinks, on the other hand, are generally combinations of a base or multiple base spirits and maybe an additional liqueur, bitters, sugar, or something. Drinks in this kingdom are 'built' over ice, or stirred with ice in a mixing glass to combine the ingredients and chill them to the proper temperature.
Now, before you start poking holes all into my classification system, just consider it as a useful way to begin your work. Of course there will be some fungi that are neither plant nor animal, so just think of this as a filter through which you can pass your decisions: Do you like fresh, bright, citrusy drinks? Then your gonna be developing a shaken drink. Are you more of a spirit-forward, on the rocks kind of cat? Stirred drinks are your highway to flavor country.
Ok, I get it. Now how exactly is this useful? Let's walk through an example. If you want to get started and create the next great American stirred drink, you simply have to pick a favorite base spirit. How about we use Laird's Apple Brandy for this example? It's a low cost, tasty spirit that has a very distinct flavor profile which, as the name suggests, includes a bit of apple. So, what goes well with apple...hmmm....what could I add to this to make it interesting...Aha - spice!. Apple pies are delicious, and they have hella spice in them. Maybe cranberries, or raisins? Why not get a little crazy and think about ginger or rosemary?
Since we're talking about stirred drinks, how could we introduce some of these flavors to our base spirit without having to juice, shake or blend? Well, if you're like me, you've got some homemade cinnamon tincture (recipe below) hanging out in your liquor cabinet. So a few dashes of that and 1/4 oz of maple syrup stirred with 1.5 oz of Laird's gives you a tasty Old Fashioned variant that is new to this earth - Congratulations, daddy, you just gave birth to your first cocktail! (You see what I did there, a pun on parenting and drinking. Baddum pssshh!)
A wonderful side effect of any culinary hobby is how you are encouraged to experiment according to your own predilections. Some of you will naturally gravitate towards a certain flavor profile and want to hone in on that perfect, archetypal "taste" that defines a genre, obsessing over ingredients and arcane preparation methods. Conversely, you free spirits might be more inclined to run a bunch of disparate flavors up the flagpole to see who salutes. Creme de menthe and mezcal? It's your world, burn it down.
No matter what your approach, it's time to take your love of the game to the next level and build a true classic for your time and place. Cheers!
Cinnamon Bourbon Tincture
350 ml decent bourbon (say, Buffalo Trace)
4 inches of cinnamon stick
Combine both ingredients in a 12 oz mason jar. Let steep for 4 days. Taste, and if it meets your desired cinnamony-ness, strain into 2oz glass dropper bottles. if not, taste each following day until it does, then strain into dropper bottles. Keeps pretty much forever. This is an easy way to get introduced to the world of tinctures and bitters. Plus, it makes a ton and the 2oz bottle make great gifts!