Tag Archives: drink

Expert Drinker

Photo credit to James Martin. Pic first appeared on his blog, The Sipologist.

Photo credit to James Martin. Pic first appeared on his blog, The Sipologist.

At this time two years ago, I was wasting away in an office job to make money. It was what I thought a career had to be — grunt work with a generous helping of boredom and convoluted power structures.

When I got the chance to bartend, I jumped on it. From the outside, it seemed both nerdy and glamorous, and I wanted to be part of that culture. To catch up, I studied drink and product flashcards every day. I asked bartenders I knew for book recommendations, and read them all the time.

After a little while, I started writing about what I’d learned. It was easy and challenging all at once: I’d become passionate about cocktails, so I wanted to do their stories justice. It was a topic I’d come to know well, so it was sometimes hard to translate my knowledge into an accessible story.

But explaining product and cocktails are both parts of bartending, so I used every shift to refine my narrative about a certain drink or a technique or an ingredient. Once I started practicing, it became easier and easier to explain it out loud and in writing.

As an adult, I’ve had trouble owning up to what I am and what I want to be. It took me a long time to call myself a writer, and a few months of bartending full-time before I would call myself a bartender without a qualifier. Even now, I’m not a drinks expert. What I am is an expert drinker. I’ve developed a palate, know how to balance and re-balance a cocktail, and consult the Flavor Bible enough to figure out what liquors play well with what flavors.

I’m still learning, and I’m still putting off reading the stack of cocktail books I keep by my bed. With writing, tutoring, and regular bartending shifts, I can make time to read an article or two every day, but I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping pace with my drinks library. To become a true drinks expert, I’ll have to dive back in, and soon. I’ll start on it tomorrow.

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Cocktail of the Hour — the Aviation

Aviation line.

Flying in style.

To truly enjoy the Aviation and appreciate its name, you have to think back to when air travel was a luxury. Picture a elegant seating area inhabited by suave gentlemen and well-coifed ladies. Imagine full-service dinners on tables with real table cloths served by happy stewardesses (term used for historical effect).

In that context, the Aviation’s name and makeup makes more sense. It’s a bit of a mystery — I couldn’t find much background on this Prohibition-era cocktail other than it was inspired by the air travel available around that time. It’s a crisp cocktail with a tart bite and a dry finish. Per the recipes I found online, it’s also incredibly versatile.

Per Wondrich’s article on Esquireit’s made with maraschino liqueur, but no crème de violette. This recipe first appeared in Harry Craddock’s 1930 edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book, and makes the drink reminiscent of the icy cloudscape that passengers experience when they fly.

According to most other sources, the crème de violette is essential: it provides the drink’s recognizable hazy purple-blue color. Either way, it’s a gorgeous drink that can call up memories of a simpler — and more glamorous — time. To find your way back, experiment with the proportions until you find what takes you back.

Recipe:
1 tsp Crème de Violette (optional)
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur
3/4 oz freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice
2 oz gin

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and shake vigorously until chilled, about 12-18 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry (optional).

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Cocktail of the Hour — the Manhattan

manhattan drink 2After researching a lot of cocktails with contentious origins, it comes as no surprise that the ever-popular Manhattan has many origin legends. The drink was definitely a bar staple by the 1860s, but the details of where and when it was created are largely lost to history. One of the most interesting stories was that it was invented for a party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother at the Manhattan Club. Unfortunately, the historical record indicates that she was across the pond giving birth during the time of this party.

Other sources give credit to a bartender named Black who worked in another bar in Manhattan. If this was the case, it’s likely that this libation was created to be one of the five cocktails named for New York City’s five main boroughs. Despite its lack of historical figures, this tale is likely the most true.

Interestingly, putting together an original Manhattan is almost as  impossible as piecing together its backstory. The oldest recorded recipe calls for a few dashes of Boker’s bitters in equal parts rye whiskey and sweet vermouth. A few decades ago, the original Boker’s bitters went out of production, so unless you’re willing to shell out some serious cash for a vintage bottle, you’re unlikely to ever taste the most historic Manhattan.

As well, modern palates (and bartenders) favor spirit-heavy drinks over vermouth-heavy drinks. As a result, the most popular recipe for a Manhattan calls for a 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth. Thanks to a few marketing campaigns featuring the Manhattan, bourbon has largely eclipsed rye in common recipes. Though this substitution doesn’t affect the presentation, it gives the drink a much smoother, sweeter taste overall than a rye Manhattan.

manhattan spread 4The rye Manhattan is a dark, slightly sweet cocktail with a hint of spice from the whiskey. An orange peel garnish adds a citrusy nose that compliments the wine and dark fruit of the first sip. Garnishing with a maraschino cherry, by contrast, adds a very sweet finish to a sweet, but balanced drink. Though the origins of this practice are unclear, written records would seem to indicate that the orange peel garnish came first.

Choosing complimentary vermouths and whiskeys is one of the biggest parts of making a delicious Manhattan. For example, a more bitter vermouth like Punt e Mes won’t necessarily compliment either the boldness of Rittenhouse rye or a smooth bourbon. However, a more rounded, earthier vermouth like Cocchi Vermouth di Turino or Carpano Antica Formula can bring out the best qualities in either liquor.

Since no two people have the exact same taste preferences, experimentation is the best way to find our your favorite drink recipes. Try out different combinations and see what works for you.

Recipe:
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Heering cherry liqueur
1 oz sweet vermouth

2 oz rye whiskey

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until well incorporated. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel or maraschino cherry depending on your preference.

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I’m Not a Mixologist

During bar shifts, one of the most frequent questions from customers is if I’m a mixologist or a bartender. I usually reply that I’m just a really nerdy bartender. Recently, people have accused me of selling myself short through my answer. The truth is that I just don’t like the term “mixologist.”

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a mixologist is “a person who is skilled at mixing cocktails and other drinks.” At its root, a mixologist is a craft bartender who’s good at what they do. However, the definition is vague and fails to take into account the word’s connotations.

The first problem with the term is that no standard is set. It’s unclear which cocktails are required knowledge and what skills must be used in their creation. Since craft bartending is a vibrant and evolving field, this requirement is fluid. New cocktails are created daily, and the amount of knowledge available about product and classic recipes and cocktail history is constantly expanding.

My biggest problem with the term is with the word’s connotations. A mixologist is someone who is interesting but largely unapproachable. Their quirky drinks or personal eccentricities can alienate parts of the population by making them feel out of place. In the Portlandia episode “Mixologist,” bartender Andy Samberg makes a ridiculous and somewhat off-putting cocktail that makes his customers swoon. Three cheers for a ginger-based bourbon drink with rotten bananas, egg whites, egg yellows, lime zest and much more…

Though he’s playing up the role, he’s riffing on everything that can make craft cocktails intimidating. In a city like Birmingham where the cocktail scene is still growing and developing, it’s easy to spook people who are new to the concept. That said, it’s just as easy to make customers feel welcome and answer their questions about drinks and product. To do so, you just have to be a really nerdy bartender.

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Cocktail of the hour — the Tom Collins

photo (3)Over the past two weeks, the weather in Alabama has ranged from snowy and cold to severe thunderstorms and highs in the 70s. Since we’re quite confused about whether to turn on the heat or air conditioning, I thought it would be a great time to feature a cocktail named for a troublemaker — the Tom Collins.

Cocktail historians will tell you that this drink was named for a 19th century bartender, a prank that shares his name or both. The prank was pretty simple: a mischievous chap would pick a target and convince him that a fellow named Tom Collins was either looking for him or had been taking full advantage of him. It was such a popular gag that the height of its popularity has been dubbed the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874.

Some commerce-minded bartender proceeded to name a drink after the hoax. After that point, unsuspecting victims who barged into pubs clamoring for Tom Collins would find themselves served a rather delicious beverage. Credit for the drink’s creation is where the story gets murky. Many sources give this honor to John Collins, a waiter from London’s Limmer’s Old House. If the drink originally bore his name, it’s likely that the change came from substituting Old Tom gin for another style.

Though its exact origin may be unclear, the Tom Collins first appeared in Jerry Thomas’s 1876 The Bartender’s Guide. Since then, it’s become one of the most iconic and refreshing summer cocktails. Like the French 75, its light, fizzy, citrusy deliciousness is built around a potent base spirit that packs a wallop. As the Girl Scouts say, be prepared.

Recipe

1 oz simple syrup
1 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 oz gin (preferably Old Tom gin)

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake for 12-15 seconds or until cold. Strain into a chilled Collins glass over ice. Top with club soda or sparkling water to taste.

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Cocktail of the hour — the Harvard

Photo credit to Brent Beachtel

Photo credit to Brent Beachtel

Before high fructose corn syrup was king, colleges had cocktails. Not the sugar-soaked-violently-neon-OMG-Spring-Break cocktails, but more sippable drinks that packed a wallop. During the early 1900s, the Harvard was one such cocktail. This cognac-based Manhattan variation has a rich, earthy and spicy from the brandy that’s balanced by the warmth and sweetness of vermouth.

The Harvard first appeared in print in George Kappeler’s 1895 Modern American Drinks. Like the Manhattan, the Harvard’s original recipe calls for equal parts liquor and vermouth. After these ingredients are mixed, the Harvard’s recipe diverges with a splash of soda water. In the original proportion, the brandy gets lost under the additional dilution.

Within the first 20 years of the 20th century, this cocktail was rebalanced to be more spirit-forward. This newer recipe has endured to present, and changes the ratio to two parts cognac to one part vermouth. Changing the ratio balances the liquor content with both the vermouth’s sweetness and prevents over dilution, leading to a much more balanced drink.

Interestingly, Harvard variations including Chartreuse, citrus juice, maraschino liqueur and other sweeteners are occasionally mentioned in pre-Prohibition documents. That said, these Fancy (or Improved) Harvards have mostly been lost to history. Besides, this solidly balanced cocktail needs very little tweaking; it’s lush and delicious in its original form.

Recipe
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz sweet vermouth

2 oz brandy

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir for 12-17 seconds or until well combine. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and top with some club soda. Garnish with an orange peel if feeling citrusy.

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Cocktail of the hour — the Pimm’s Cup

Pimms2In the craft cocktail world, many drinks can fall under the umbrella of a single name. The Pimm’s Cup definitely belongs in this category, but it’s also special because the name only comes with two requirements: it must contain Pimm’s and it must be served in a cup. As a result, it’s rare to find two bars — or even two home bartenders — who make this libation the same way.

Many variations on this theme are tangy, sweet and refreshing. Originally, Pimm’s made six different liqueurs from different liquors that were infused with their proprietary blend of herbs, spices and juices. Due to changes in management and demand, Pimm’s No. 2 – 5 were discontinued about 40 years ago. Now, the only Pimm’s available in the U.S. is Pimm’s No. 1: a tea-colored, gin-based herbal liqueur.

This citrusy liqueur does well when combined with citrus, spice, berries or herbs. Thanks to its deep flavor, each of these different ingredients brings out unique qualities in its taste. Though the first Pimm’s cup is thought to have been created by a British bartender named Pimm’s, the historical record is entirely fuzzy on its origins. Historically, New Orleans and Britain have both claimed the Pimm’s cup as their quintessential drinks, so you should create your own house Pimm’s cup to suit your own taste.

Recipe:

1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 oz simple syrup
2 oz Pimm’s No. 1

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Add ice and shake for 12-15 seconds or until chilled through. Strain into a chilled Collin’s glass full of ice and top with ginger beer to taste.

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