It’s fairly well known at this point that I know a lot about beer. Whenever anyone has a question about beer, they make a small pilgrimage to find me. Upon passing a series of physical and mental challenges designed to fend off wastrels, they push past two large heavy doors to find me sitting cross legged on a slab of limestone, bathed in warm candlelight and the soft clattering of chimes. I then offer them a brew and answer any and all questions they may have about said holy concoction before returning to my sacred duty of playing video games and watching YouTube.
But my alcohol knowledge doesn’t stop at fermented barley. I even wrote a wine class once for work. But today I’m here to tell you why you’ve been doing cocktails wrong. Well, probably. Based on statistics. I don’t want to make any assumptions about you personally as an individual.
And when I say “wrong,” I don’t mean to sound accusatory. It’s not entirely your fault. The post-prohibition cocktail scene is fucking stupid. Huge, quarter-gallon drinks saturated with sugar and half a fruit basket are the standard now, and while a few very dedicated snobs are working hard to bring the “craft cocktails” back into popularity, chances are your favorite mixed drink still contains Malibu Rum or that Vodka that tastes like Froot Loops.
“But Alex!” You protest, licking your sugared and chocolate marbled glass rim clean, “I like those drinks, and I refuse to apologize for that!” Well, feel free to calm down, my soon to be diabetic friend. I firmly believe you’re allowed to like whatever you want without being judged. If you knew half the stuff I liked you’d either be horrified or turned on or both. My point is you may find you really like some simple, classy drinks with the help of Science and a little bit of thoughtfulness.
The daiquiri is a good place to start to illustrate my point. This poor bastard has been tortured and brutalized beyond recognition. You usually see these in family restaurants served in enormous margarita or hurricane glasses (wrong), often strawberry flavored (also wrong) and frozen like a slushee (make it stop). The real drink is a refreshing balancing act of sweet, sour, and alcohol. Its simplicity is so beautiful as to make entire armies lay down their arms and weep for their loss of innocence. Observe:
2 oz rum
1 oz lime juice
½ oz simple syrup
Shake and strain into a normal fucking glass
The 4:2:1 ratio of alcohol, sour, and sweet makes this drink taste way more complex than it is and allows all the flavors to meld seamlessly. Traditionally you’d use a light rum, but you can use whatever rum you like as long as it’s not flavored or spiced. Leave that shit for highschoolers and your future midlife crisis. As far as the lime juice goes, fresh squeeze it. The pre-bottled stuff tastes like windex and really shouldn’t be used for anything except, like, sanitizing sponges or something. Finally, the simple syrup. It really is simple, it’s not an ironic turn of phrase for a complex recipe. It’s literally just sugar disolved in an equal volume of water, which goes faster if you simmer it while stirring. The resulting liquid is twice as sweet as normal sugar and doesn’t recrystallize thanks to Science, so it’s perfect for mixing into cold liquids like cocktails. You can even infuse the syrup with herbs or fruit, or even just use raw or demerara sugar to make a dark, rich syrup that you can use for this daiquiri variant I call a Shadow Daiquiri:
2 oz dark or black rum
1 oz lime juice
½ oz demerara simple syrup
This version is darker and richer, but it’s still way more balanced than that pink slush they serve by the bucket at Applebee’s. I usually just strain mine into a rocks glass, but if you like stemware use a coupe. Margarita glasses are usually gluttonously huge and martini glasses are garbage in every single way. Don’t even make martinis in a martini glass. Use a coupe and look sophisticated as fuck.
Speaking of martinis, here’s a segue into talking about them. Much like the poor daiquiri, the martini has been swarmed by an entire fleet of imposters. Here’s how to tell if your martini is a malicious fake:
- There are more than three ingredients, including the garnish.
- You are using vodka instead of gin.
- No, seriously, stop using vodka instead of gin.
For those of you who think you don’t like gin, first stop getting bottom shelf swill. Gin is made in almost the exact same way as vodka but has some botanicals added, and as a result different brands can have wildly different flavors and dryness, but all of them add an important level of complexity to a martini that vodka can’t accomplish, especially since real martinis look like this:
2.5 oz gin
½ oz vermouth
Stir (don’t shake) with ice, strain into a not-martini glass, garnish with an olive or citrus peel
That’s it. There’s not much to it, so you’re trusting the gin’s botanicals to round out the experience. The vermouth is there to soften the edges and add a bit of depth and texture, but you don’t need much. And don’t skip the garnish, it contains oils and aromatics that change the drink slightly but noticeably. Also, since gin is highly aromatic, you really don’t want to shake this drink because it will get way too cold for any of those flavors or scents to come through. Just stir gently but purposefully with ice in a shaker tin and strain. If you’re really feeling wacky, throw in a dash of bitters, possibly while laughing maniacally and lightning flashing in the background. Despite my three ingredient jab earlier, this won’t make your drink garbage.
Actually, since you brought it up, bitters are pretty important in the cocktail world. It’s just a bunch of tree bark and roots or whatever infused in an alcohol solution that makes a liquid so bitter as to be non-potable by itself (in theory, though I can pote them just fine so to each their own), but can lend astronomical balance and complexity to your drinks. Bitterness is one of the five basic tastes we can perceive and can be detected by almost every part of the mouth, even the gums. And we all know bitterness is a flavor that transpires from the interaction of a G protein called gustducin and TAS2R taste receptors blah blah blah we’ve heard it a million times in casual conversation so why repeat it all here when we could just get to drinking an old fashioned:
Ye Olde Fashioned (you don’t have to spell it like that, I’m just obnoxious)
3 oz Bourbon or Rye
1 tsp simple syrup
3 dashes of bitters
Build over ice in a rocks glass, garnish with a twist of lemon zest
You’ll notice there’s no muddled maraschino cherries or orange wedges or bananas or whatever the fuck your local bar insists goes in an old fashioned. That’s because they belong in a fruit salad and not in your fucking drink. I mean, look at the ingredients: the sweetness of the sugar balances the bitters and the booze, and the water in the ice slightly mellows everything and ties it all together. Adding a bunch of fruit throws the sugar content way out of proportion, and even if your sweet tooth approves at first, by the end your palate will feel dulled and the flavor will seem cloying. Trust me, it’s Science.
Alright, I think I’ve fixed enough ruined drinks for today. I’ll probably be back again soon, though, based on the fact that my job is a daily reminder of the defilement of the beautiful drinkable chemistry of cocktails. Now, get out there and start drinking. Just not from a martini glass.