I recently read an article about new trends in cocktails and several recipes from famous cocktail joints were featured. Always eager to try something new, I read each with great intrigue only to be disappointed by complexity of the ingredient list. The one I was particularly interested in had one ingredient that said: see additional recipe. Okay, I cook from scratch five to six nights a week, so I can handle an additional step. But, then that recipe had another “see additional recipe.” Sigh. The Sochi Olympics were over, but I had run into the Matryoshka nesting dolls again. This time the nesting dolls of cocktail recipes. A recipe for a recipe for a recipe.
So I went to another recipe. This one called out French absinthe. Hmmm….I actually had absinthe. But it was made domestically. I wondered it if would do. Certainly at over $50/ bottle for absinthe and the sparing use of the liqueur, I wasn’t going to buy another bottle. So, I fired up the lap top to begin researching if I could substitute my very high quality domestic absinthe for a French version and not ruin the drink.
I made a martini. And damned good one. I had all the ingredients on hand, and it took about thirty seconds to whip up that little piece of heaven. All of that reminded me of exactly why I started writing about cocktails. I’d been making good money as a corporate lawyer. The work was interesting, challenging, and financially rewarding. But when I left the practice of law to devote time to my family, I was bored. And, no I didn’t start drinking. I started writing.
One day, I asked my guy to make me a cocktail and he just couldn’t. Of all the recipe books I had, he felt paralyzed by the recipes within recipes and the requirements for specific types of vodka (yeah right). That’s when I started collecting simple three-ingredient recipes. My initial research lead me to David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, first published in 1948. Embury, a lawyer by profession, like yours truly, proclaimed in the preface to his book:
My practical experience with liquors has been entirely as a consumer and as a shaker-upper of drinks for the delectation of my guests. This book is, therefore, purely and distinctly a book written by an amateur for amateurs.
Yet, that amateur demystified cocktails for his generation and for many to come. His amateur’s book is now required reading is some of the most famous bars in the country!
Empowered with Embury’s basic instructions on how to “roll your own,” I started experimenting. Researching more, I eventually began a career writing about cocktails and creating user friendly recipe books. Don’t get me wrong about the complex stuff. I absolutely love it all and have the utmost respect for those bar tenders and establishments that make their own bitters and shrubs and cordials and whatnot. They have resurrected the art of the cocktail and I am grateful for that. I enjoy visiting those types of joints and chatting as much as possible with the bar tenders, culling any secrets I can.
The bottom line is that we all can’t be Julia Child or Emeril or whoever your favorite celebrity chef is. That doesn’t mean we should be relegated to a life of frozen entrees and stuff from cans for our supper. We look to the complex for inspiration, for new flavors and combinations. And so we should also with our cocktails. You don’t have to drink your cocktails from a can or pre-mixed bottle, nor to you have to slave for weeks perfecting recipes within recipes. And heaven forbid, do not spend $50 on a bottle of absinthe unless you are very very serious about creating a home bar or have money burning a hole in your wallet.
Instead, invest in a few bottles and learn to make three or four classic cocktails that you enjoy. Then, when you hear of new trends, you can start experimenting and rolling your own. Embury suggests that all cocktails are essentially three components: your base spirit, a modifying agent, and a coloring and/or flavoring agent. Take one of my favorites: the Side Car. Cognac is the base ingredient, the lemon juice is the modifying agent (it smooths or enhances the base spirit, but shouldn’t over power it) and finally, the Grand Marnier is the flavoring agent, adding some sweetness (but not too much) and some orange to the bundle. Take a recipe like that and change one item, and you can roll your own. Say, change the cognac to tequila. Oh my, that’s almost a margarita! See what I mean?!
I raise my glass to the innovators, but I happily remain an accomplished and passionate amateur. Need a drink? I’ll be back in 30 seconds!
Pictured is my version of a Clover Club. I increased the gin and substituted the raspberry syrup with pomegranate syrup (because that’s what I had). Also, I’ve seen the recipe with either lemon or lime juice. I used lime juice. Here’s my recipe:
2 ounces gin
juice from 1 lime
1 tsp. pomegranate syrup
1 egg white
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into cocktail glass.