Hot, isn’t it? Well, don’t fret; I am here to help. This month, I thought I would give you some basic tips and tricks to beat the heat—cocktail-wise, at least.
The most common question I ask guests at the bar is: “Shaken and citrusy, or stirred and boozy?” Why? Well, most people generally think of drinks as sweet or not sweet, which is understandable, based on the checkered history of cocktails in the last 70 years, but not really helpful when it comes to getting you into a cocktail you’ll love. If you went into a restaurant and told the server, “Nothing too salty,” without explaining you have hypertension or something, the server may think, “OK, these people think our chef isn’t good.” If you say to me, “Nothing too sweet,” I get it, but I also can’t help thinking that you think I suck at making drinks. My attitude on my better days is, to paraphrase one famous wine-maker, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But I digress. Most of the guys (and some ladies) will answer, “Well, I want it boozy!” Of course you do, but you clearly didn’t grok what I meant. Most people, when it’s 105, actually want a citrusy and shaken cocktail—and don’t worry; it will be plenty boozy. That being said, a stirred drink can be wonderful on a hot day if prepared correctly. Let’s take the classic gin martini, for example. For the coldest and best martini, you need ice. That sounds trite, but most home bartenders (and some “pros”) don’t use enough ice when stirring a martini. Fill that baby up—like two-thirds of the stirring glass. Invest in something nice, or order a graduated Pyrex pitcher from your favorite internet monopoly; they look nerdy, and they’re cheap to boot.
Also, never make two martinis in the same pitcher; and have different ice on hand for different drinks. Here comes the science, people.
Ice, depending on how it’s cut, has different properties when used in cocktails. If you make a martini with crushed ice, due to the increased surface area of the ice, you’ll get a watered-down mess. Make a martini with one cube, and you’ll need to stir forever to achieve a properly chilled and diluted drink. What you want are evenly sized cubes, like from a classic ice tray, or in a pinch, the bags of ice from a convenience store. (If you’re looking for extra credit, get a block, and hammer it into 1- to 2-inch cubes.) Fill the glass past half after adding the desired ingredients, and use your senses to know when the drink is ready. A good guide is trusting your stir: When the ice and liquids start settling into their comfortable free states, the drink is ready. It’s as cold as it’s going to be.
Practicing your stir not only makes you look cool, but also helps you make a better drink. When your pitcher gets cold on the outside, and the stir becomes silky-smooth, you’re done. If you do want to use the fancy big cubes, stir your cocktail over smaller ice first to get it colder than a text breakup, and then strain over the big cube. Keep your stemware in the freezer while you prepare your martini as well; it looks great and helps the chill. Some people who come into the bar tell me they keep their gin in the freezer for martinis, which is fine if you want to just drink cold, undiluted gin—but that ain’t no martini, sir. Water is an ingredient. A good compromise is one I read in Japanese bar-hero Kazuo Uyeda’s book: Keep it in the fridge instead. That way, you still get some dilution, but a stiffer and colder drink. The vermouth should always be in the fridge, and you should be using it. These days, when it comes to gin or whiskey, “Skipping the vermouth is uncouth”—copyright me.
Oh, about those vodka martinis: Skip the vermouth; add olive brine; no judgement. If you stir, you’ll get a silkier drink; if you shake, you’ll get a colder, but more-watery finished product. It’s a matter of preference, and the fridge trick still applies.
Now, for the citrusy stuff. The first thing you’re going to need is what I call “basic sour.” Feel free to experiment a bit here. Start with a cup of fresh lemon or lime juice, and a cup of 1:1 simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water by volume or weight), depending on the desired drink. Let’s use lime, and say it’s a daiquiri. Using 2 ounces of rum, add an ounce of lime to the shaker and a half-ounce of the simple. Shake it really well, until the shaker frosts up, and pour. It might taste too tart, so make one with 3/4 of an ounce of simple. Try it with an ounce of simple as well, for comparison; I have seen recipes using that spec, mostly from liquor brands for some reason, but it’s a little sweet for my tastes. Play around with fine sugar, too! We use simple at bars for convenience, but a powdered sugar (not the kind you’d use for frosting with the corn starch, but the super-fine stuff) daiquiri is divine.
Once you have your proportions, you have a tool in your tool-set. Want a Collins? Use gin and lemon with your fancy new techniques, and put it in a tall glass with soda water. How about a mojito? Just add mint to the daiquiri recipe; give it a light shake with crushed ice (for Pete’s sake, don’t abuse the mint too much), and add soda in a tall glass. The list is nearly endless. Margaritas are an important exception: They use a “daisy” template, which is (and, again, play around with it) two parts spirit, one part orange liqueur of your preference, one part fresh lime, and a little sugar or simple. Find your preferred proportions, and have the best margarita on the block—but if you add orange juice, I’ll disown you.
About crushed ice … did you know you can get it at Sonic? Well, you can. Just don’t use it for everything. I know, it’s super fun, and everyone goes nuts when they see it, but it’s not fit for a gin-and-tonic or other highball-style drinks where the carbonation matters. That includes the Collins, but the mojito loves crushed ice. So do tiki drinks in general (and when I finally do a real tiki column, we’ll get into that).
I’ll finish with a shameless plug: I have uploaded videos on my Cryptic Cocktails blog showing you how to make a perfectly cold and balanced martini, as well as daiquiri, featuring two of the best bartenders in Palm Springs, as a companion piece to this column. There is also some stuff on there you might like that doesn’t fit the parameters of On Cocktails; do check it out if you can’t get enough cocktail nerdery!
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.