With the cocktail renaissance in full force, it's sometimes easy to overlook the basics: namely, that early 1900 cocktails were "fundamentally spirits, water, sugar and bitters."
In pursuit of drinks to impress the palates of increasingly demanding cocktail enthusiasts, some bartenders look to building complexity and flavor through piling on myriad spirits, syrups, and tinctures (ask yourself when the last time was that you grabbed St-Germain / bartender's ketchup for that little something extra in a drink). "The quality of spirits was much worse in the early days of cocktails, so you needed to do more to them to make them drinkable," comments Tommy Klus, bar manager of Kask in Portland, OR.
Rather than having to soften edges and add to the character of base spirits, Klus looks to cocktails that showcase the base spirit and "its inherent flavors and complexity."
For his opening menu, Klus looked to a “forgotten” classic cocktail, The Lone Tree, from the book Just Cocktails by W. C. Whitfield. "The Lone Tree was one of the early divergents from the classic cocktail formula, dropping both sugar and bitters from the equation. It's one of the forgotten classics that has fallen through the cracks."
The Lone Tree
1 1/2 oz Ransom Old Tom Gin
3/4 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
1/2 oz Carpano Antico Vermouth
Stir, serve up.
Historically, The Lone Tree falls somewhere between the Martinez and the Martini, with the use of vermouth and gin. There's an immense amount of complexity from three ingredients. "It's a sipping drink that goes through a number of stages as you drink it."
Klus flips through books like Cocktail Boothby's American Bar-Tender and Jerry Thomas's The Bartender's Guide for inspiration. "The beauty of the classics is they are open to interpretation." Beyond The Lone Tree (and the Negroni), Klus finds himself drawn to The Widow's Kiss and Tipperary.
2 oz. Irish whiskey
3/4 oz. Carpano Antica Formula or other sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse
Stir, serve up with a lemon twist.
"One of my favorite cocktails to make is The Mint Julep. I am jealous every time I serve one. The esthetics, the smell of the mint, and the look on people's faces when they get it - it's like a shiny new toy."
With more great base spirits available for bartenders to pull from, framing the inherent complexity and flavors rather than piling on ingredients can be a challenge, but it's a challenge worth taking.
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