We are currently on hiatus until March 1st but that doesn’t mean the blog is stopping. Thanks to our friend Christa Seychew, we will have a guest post every Sunday afternoon. Today’s post is by our friend Nick O’Brien.
As much as a well-prepared meal, nearly everyone enjoys a good and proper drink. It’s no big secret that over the past decade and a half, the world of cocktails has seen a staggering surge in popularity and attention, propelling mere bartenders to heights of fame unknown since the days of Trader Vic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trader_Vic%27s ) and Donn Beach. Buffalo itself has not been immune to this trend, particularly in the area of pre-Prohibition style cocktails—as evinced by the fine talents of Tony Rials at Mike A at Hotel Lafayette and Kerry Quaile of Vera—but more often than not, attempts at “mixology” (a label that makes me shudder; who cares that it dates back to the late 19th century?) fall far short of their intended goal. These half-hearted attempts at the libationary art run the gamut of a drink that’s merely okay to one that is far less than potable.
I do not intend to offhandedly slag the majority of bars in Buffalo, heck, this concern isn’t confined to the Queen City. I’ve handed over $16 for a shit cocktail in New York City and Toronto. Recently I had a Manhattan in a very fine restaurant in Central NY that was so bad I actually sent it back. But it’s not that difficult to make a proper drink —at least it shouldn’t be.
As with food, in many instances a mishmash of too many ingredients can be a cocktail’s undoing, or, equally as often, is the lack of quality ingredients. Sometimes, it’s merely a combination of flavors that just don’t work together. Yes, I like Fernet Branca, and I understand that the elderflower liquor, St. Germaine, is incredibly popular as well, but I don’t need them in the same glass with a bunch of simple syrup. Nobody does.
All this having been said, I’d like to offer a few tips to some of the “pros” and home cocktail enthusiasts out there. As I have ventured around town and tried to be adventurous, I’ve fallen victim to a variety of bad drinks in several places around town. Take all of my advice in whatever manner you’d like; I did spend six and a half years behind the bar at Mohawk Place, which is not exactly a hotspot for any drink combination beyond a shot of Jameson and a can of Pabst.
Use fresh ingredients
Unless you’re working with an aged whiskey, or a fine vintage wine, fresher is, as with many things, better. Fresh-squeezed juice may seem like a luxury in a home bar, but if you have a couple lemons, limes, oranges, and/or grapefruit in the fridge, you essentially have the mixer for most cocktails. Word is, if you don’t mix them with booze within a week or two of purchase, you can actually eat these. Who knew?
The importance of freshness goes for fortified wines like vermouth as well. While the fortified part (generally goosed up with a bit of neutral spirits) helps shelf life, they’re still wines, and putting them in the fridge after opening will help keep them tasting fine for a bit longer. You can tell when a cocktail is made with vermouth gone bad; I’ve had those.
Don’t be afraid to spend the extra buck
Staying on the subject of vermouth, while there are bargains to be had, don’t be afraid to spend an extra dollar or two on this or any of your ingredients. I’ve had a few drinks that would have been much better had they been made with a ten dollar bottle of vermouth instead of one that cost six. You don’t need to go all out, but really, go all out. A bottle of Carpano Antica or Lillet won’t break the bank. And if you’re worried that the bottle is more than you need, just remember that these are digestivos and apertivos, which means it’s socially acceptable in Europe to drink them on their own. Why should we be any different? I’ve had many nights when there’s only a splash of bourbon but half a bottle of Punt e Mes, and I won those nights. I won them well.
The order in which you make a drink really does matter
I’m concerned specifically about when the ice comes in. It’s at the end. It’s almost always the last thing you add to the drink. Especially when halfway through mixing said drink, you realize you forgot an ingredient and need to wander back to the kitchen to look around for it for four minutes. While that drink sits there. And dies. Just like the enthusiasm of the finicky customer (me) as he watches the ice melt in the mixing glass.
For the sake of Pete, if you aren’t a pro when it comes to free pouring, take the time to measure the ingredients. As with cooking, proportions are important, and too often ignored. A well-practiced barkeep can certainly free pour all day long; they’re practiced and tested and trained. Hours are spent with bottles of water and measuring tools. But seeing a jigger in use is never a red flag in a fine cocktail bar. Quite the opposite, I am thrilled to see proper measurements being used in making my drink. Use one at home and your guests will marvel at your expertly crafted drinks. Mr. Boston, Jerry Thomas, and Beachbum Berry didn’t spend all that time coming up with all those lovely recipes for you to just pour away without regard to how much of each ingredient is in the glass.
The literal topper of your cocktail: the garnish. Nothing looks as impressive as a nice cherry in that Ramos Gin Fizz or a pearl onion in that Gibson, but after all the effort and time spent creating your fine libation, why dump some garbage in there? You wouldn’t reach into the pantry to sprinkle your homemade eggplant parm with dried parsley from an old McCormick jar that your grandmother forgot to throw out in 1950. So why would you toss an ungodly neon maraschino cherry or store-bought cocktail onion in your hand-crafted cocktail, when you can soak some cherries in cognac or find a simple pickle recipe for that onion. Even Hemingway was reportedly known to use a frozen pearl onion in his Gibsons, with the added bonus of it keeping his drink a bit colder for the few minutes it would take to polish it off. And finally, as impressive as it looks to flame the oil in orange or lemon zest, take the extra few seconds to wash the pesticides and wax off the rind ahead of time. Nobody wants a drink that tastes like burnt candles. Especially at nine dollars a drink.
Nick O’Brien worked at Mohawk Place for seven years and currently works at Bistro Europa. He plays bass once a year in a Circus Devils tribute band and writes about music for Buffalo Spree regularly.