The Magazine

The Cocktail Renaissance


Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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Well, diluting the alcohol is much of the point of the cocktail. Do not underestimate the value of water in cocktails. It is what separates us from our less-civilized forebears who began the consumption of distilled spirits. The meeting of water with alcohol and flavorings civilizes the mix, allowing the spirit's rich flavors to prosper and diminishing the harsh bite of the liquor--which is after all something of an industrial byproduct. The key to making cocktails in large batches and ahead of time is to pour in water before chilling the mixture in a pitcher. It is a difficult moment, I acknowledge: a plunge into the unknown accompanied by a sense of impending disaster. But have faith and you will be rewarded. The only people who you don't want adding water to your drink are those who do it the most frequently: distillers. Many spirits are watered down from their natural alcohol level just before bottling. It's the reason to buy high-proof spirits--"bottled in bond" is a term to look for with American brown liquor--whenever you can. You can then water them down at your leisure. I generally suggest twice before dinner.

The byproducts of the "Swingers" years were innumerable varieties of flavored vodka and the cocktail menu, which graces even chain restaurants these days. Here will be your Smore'tini, your Stoli Blueberry Lemon Drop, your Cucumber Collins, and your Ruby Red Bull (from the first four hits that came up when I typed "cocktail menu" into Google). Such cocktails are a curate's egg of ingredients--only one of which you will ever be able to taste--backed by a heavy dose of some so-called premium liquor: Stoli Vanil, Grey Goose, Tanqueray Ten, Skyy. Many of these concoctions have the name of a classic cocktail, but just you try saying: "I see you make a Strawberry Caipirinha, any chance you could make me a Caipirinha?" What's lacking is any skill or knowledge behind the menu--and likely most of the ingredients that make a drink like a Caipirinha work. Tiki drinks are the butt of jokes these days, but Trader Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach were brilliant drinkmakers. A huge portion of their inventions aren't really to my taste, but I'm ever happy to hoist a fresh Mai Tai to the memory of these men. It may be kitsch but it began in skill, as anyone who has ever tried to replicate a winning Zombie or Piña Colada knows.

Bergeron and Beach were professionals in control of their venues--just like a good chef at the pass of his kitchen. They could make anything, and you could feel safe ordering your heart's desire in their bars. Every so often I'm in a random hotel bar or some downtown grill and see a fancy drinks list and order one of the very simple classics like an Old-Fashioned or a Daiquiri. These are things anyone should be able to make and involve only the simplest of ingredients. An Old-Fashioned is a sugar cube wetted down with two to three large dashes of Angostura bitters and crushed until no trace of the crystals remains. Add some water--not much, the amount depends on the quality of your brown--two ounces of excellent rye whiskey (or bourbon, of course), and three cubes of ice. Stir and let it sit for a moment while you slice a nice stripe of lemon peel--all peel, none of the white pith--to squeeze over. (You'll see the slick of citrus oil as you raise the glass for your first sip.) It's perfection incarnate. Yet if you order one in that random bar, the likelihood is that you'll be brought something involving simple syrup, club soda, maraschino cherries, orange slices, too much ice, and good god knows what else.