Cocktails are fascinating. They’re great markers of social and economic history – there’s a TV series in there somewhere – and a frequent footnote in literary history. But in the end cocktails are about making drinks that delight and impress. Preferably while wearing a tied black bow-tie and foiling super-villains.
What won’t delight is a heavy-handed mish-mash of whatever comes to hand – a (non)-recipe for disaster. And what won’t impress is a home-bartender working from an open textbook. So Selectism would like to offer a brief guide to 10 cocktails really worth knowing, though if you only master (and have the ingredients for) a couple you’ll still be ahead of the game. New York molecular mixologist and one-time MIT molecular biologist Eben Klemm offers a few of his favorites, and one major pointer: “You amateurs don’t have enough ice on hand, ever.” Got it.
The Martini – The most argued over, written about, and adapted drink in the cannon (the chi-chi term alternatinis used by some without shame). Working on the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid), a basic Martini is dry gin and dry vermouth, shaken with ice then strained into the classic V-shaped glass. The ratio of gin to vermouth varies – heavy on the latter makes it ‘wet’, a waiter merely saying the word vermouth nearby makes it gin, whatever Dean Martin thought; 5:1 is popular, but 1:1 subtler. Vodka can replace gin if you really must, and you can add garnishes of lemon or cocktail onions or olives – FDR liked his with two: the Martini is a canvas for the creative.
Eben’s choice for a variation on the Martini theme is The Twentieth Century, named after a New York to Chicago express train: “I’ve been recently re-interested in the complex gin-sours from roughly the 1920s to -30s. I’m struck by their relative ease and incredible balance. The Twentieth Century is a great drink to have in one’s quiver.”
In a shaker:
1 1/2 ounces London dry gin – I’d like to get fancy here, but Beefeater is the best.
1/2 ounce white crème de cacao
1/2 ounce Lillet
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
Shake (with ice) 20 times. Strain and serve.
The Gimlet - More mouth-puckering but less complex, my personal poison, its pedigree doesn’t hurt, thought to have originated in the British Navy where the use of lime juice as an anti-scorbutic yielded the term Limey. Plus Raymond Chandler made the drink a leitmotif in The Long Goodbye, though the version suggested to Philip Marlowe by Terry Lennox is dubiously tart: “A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else.” Those are the ingredients, shaken with ice then strained into a Martini glass, but aficionados opt for somewhere between 5:1 or at most 2:1 gin/cordial.
Eben’s versatile second foundation-level offering is The Improved Cocktail: “Less a recipe than a format, originally an upgrade over the Old Fashioned, when that was still simply named ‘cocktail’.”
In a shaker:
2 ounces whisk(e)y or rum or gin or brandy
1/4 ounce sweetening spirit such as Maraschino or Curaçao
1/4 ounce simple syrup [sugar syrup made with 2 measures of sugar to one of water, heated gently and stirred until the sugar dissolves, then cooled for later use]
Bitters of your choice
Stir cocktail 20x and strain over fresh ice into a tumbler. Garnish with lemon or orange zest.
“The ratios for this are nearly infallible and can absorb a great deal of personal investigation. I’ve swapped out the simple syrup for maple, for example.”
Most cocktails – the Martini for sure – are drunk before a meal, but it’s worthwhile having an after dinner drink in your range, the Brandy Alexander may be the best (and simplest). This dates from Prohibition when the original version was made with bathtub gin, so the creamy additions smoothed over some very rough edges. It is simply two measures of brandy to one of crème de cacao and another of heavy (double) cream, shaken over ice and strained (as so often) into a Martini glass.
And while most cocktails are served chilled, if your guests have just come in from the cold they’d probably prefer something warming. The Hot Toddy (aka Whisky All-In) is another simple but satisfying classic: a generous measure of Scotch, the juice of a whole lemon, two teaspoons of sugar or one of honey, top up with boiling water and stir. If using a glass warm it well first. This is to Scotland what chicken soup is to Israel.
The Margarita is up there with the Martini as both a standard and something about which historians and mixologists will argue endlessly – cocktail guru Simon Gifford cites six potential originators with generally exotic Mexican links. Again, keeping to the KISS route it is simply two measures of (good) tequila with one of Cointreau and the juice of half a lime, shaken with ice and strained into a tumbler or coupe whose rim has been dipped in water then salt. Eben offers words of caution about some of the baser Margarita offerings out there which result in: “The transmogrification of a classic cocktail into the most popular piece of swill in the world.” You’ve been warned.
To drag ourselves back towards cocktail cool we harness The Manhattan, minimalist as a Swedish hermit’s kitchen. It entered this world in late 19th century New York and still exudes classy muscle and bustle. Two measures of either bourbon or rye, one of dry vermouth, and a dash or three of angostura bitters, stirred with ice and strained into the ubiquitous Martini glass.
New York merits a mention again in the penultimate cocktail in our little list, The Bloody Mary, as it’s likely that Fernand Petiot originated it in Harry’s New York Bar in Twenties Paris, the tomato juice a rare source of nutrition for drink-sodden expats writing the Great American Novel. It remains a liquid snack: equal measures of vodka and thick tomato juice, a good squeeze of lemon, plenty of Worcestershire Sauce, plus salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. For the adventurous add Tabasco or horseradish. For the abstemious omit the vodka and enjoy a Bloody Shame or Bloodless Mary.
Last of our 10 is The Sidecar, its name, legend has it, derived from the motorbike attachment needed to ferry a WWI captain to and especially from a bar in Paris where he enjoyed this mixture of equal measures of brandy, Cointreau and lemon juice. Modern makers tend to add a dash of mineral water.
And back to Eben Klemm for a bonus: “Everyone should be able to make the Ramos Gin Fizz,” he reckons. The most complicated recipe I know for this has nine ingredients to mix before club soda is added, but a simpler version has just seven: two ounces of gin to one of heavy cream, an egg white, lemon and lime juice, sugar, and a few drops of the orange flower water we all have to hand. It has to be shaken over ice for an age, poured into a tall glass, and topped up with selzer or soda. The point, I think, is that if you have the patience and skill to make this one, you can make anything. Cheers.