Throughout the history of mixed drinks several personalities very clearly show great influence on the evolution of technique and culture. When interest in this culture became more prevalent over the last five years or so, bartenders and drinkers look to these personalities for guidance and inspiration. The most obvious is Jerry Thomas, the 'grandfather' of the mixed drink, with "How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion" in 1862, essentially the first bartending book ever published. Later came Harry Craddock's "Savoy Cocktail Book" in 1930, which was not as forthcoming with technique or information, but contained within a wealth of fantastic drinks, many of which are today considered classics. These are the most obvious of early cocktail books, but there have been several others worthy of note, some of which have taught us very valuable lessons and recipes. Sometimes overlooked is perhaps the best bartending book for any learning bartender: David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” in 1948. It teaches passion and understanding for the craft, but more importantly the “basic principles for fashioning a quality cocktail.”
Embury was born in 1886 and actually began his adult life as a tax attorney in New York City before eventually leaving to pursue his bartending passion. His book is a must-read for aspiring bartenders and cocktail-nerds alike as it is considerably more engaging and opinionated than the typical recipe encyclopedias. It also contains the aforementioned basic principles, which are essential to improving drink quality.
The Basic Principles for Fashioning Quality Cocktails
- Drinks should be made from good-quality, high-proof liquors. Just like with food, the quality of a drink will never be better than the quality of its cheapest ingredient. Therefore, the highest quality spirits and liqueurs as well as fresh-squeezed juice is of the utmost importance.
- They should always sharpen, not dull the appetite. A cocktail by classic definition is an aperitif and should therefore never have more than a touch of sweetness. Overly sweet drinks will dull the appetite, so avoid using too much sugar, juice, cream, or egg. (Embury says drinks like the Brandy Alexander can be enjoyed after dinner "in place of a half-pound of chocolate cookies.")
- They should be dry, with sufficient alcoholic flavour, yet still smooth and pleasing to the palate.
- They should be pleasing to the eye.
- They should be well-iced. (This principle implies both the quality of ice and the amount of stirring/shaking necessary. The use of large, high-density ice cubes is ideal.)
For a better understanding of mixed drinks as a whole, Embury breaks down not only drinks into categories, but also the ingredients in each to better understand their contributions. Whether recipes are followed specifically or not, learning to separate drinks by type and component is extremely useful when bartending.
The Components of a Cocktail
- Base: The principle ingredient, usually a single spirit that constitutes about 75% or more of the total volume before ice is added. Ex. whiskey, gin, rum, etc.
- Modifying agent: The secondary ingredient that adds character, softens the alcohol, and enhances flavour. Ex. vermouth, amaro, bitters, fruit juices, egg, cream
- Special flavouring or colouring agent: Ingredients used sparingly to impart special qualities, usually a liqueur or special syrup used in place of sugar. Ex. Chartreuse, grenadine, curacao, etc.
The Categories of Cocktails
The Basic Drink Types
- Aromatic: Use bitters, aromatic wines, or spirits as modifying agents
- Sours: Use fruit juice and sugar as modifying agents. Embury recommends a 8:2:1 ratio, with 8 parts spirit to 2 parts sour to 1 part sugar (for example, 2oz to 0.5oz to 0.25oz). This shows that most cocktails are just variations of each other, and knowing the overall principle gives comprehension of a wealth of drinks. A Daiquiri is just a Whiskey Sour with rum instead of whiskey, which is just a Clover Club with whiskey instead of gin and simple syrup instead of raspberry and egg, and so on and so forth.
- 7 parts English gin
- 1 part French vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with an olive, preferably one stuffed with any kind of nut.
- 5 parts American whiskey
- 1 part Italian vermouth
- Dash of Angostura bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and serve garnished with a maraschino cherry.
- 12 parts American whiskey
- 1 part simple syrup
- 1-3 dashes Angostura bitters
In an old-fashioned glass, add bitters to simple syrup and stir. Add about 1 ounce of whiskey and stir again. Add two cubes of cracked but not crushed ice and top off with the rest of the whiskey. Twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with the lemon peel and a maraschino cherry.
- 8 parts white Cuban rum
- 2 parts lime juice
- 1 part simple syrup
Shake with lots of finely crushed ice and strain well into a chilled cocktail glass.
A final lesson from Embury is that there is no one recipe for any cocktail. The recipe you like best is the one you should use, so find what you like and stick with it. If the drink suits your palate, that's all that matters. However, this should be taken in tandem with his lesson that drinks should be dry and never overly sweet, as I doubt he would approve of a Daiquiri with more juice, syrup, liqueur, sugar soda, and blended ice than rum - even if that’s how you prefer it. Take from this the following important lessons:
- A big-picture view of mixed drinks separated into general categories to better understand all cocktails.
- An attention to detail as well as care and passion put into the drink you're making.
- Aspiration to make your drinks dry to stimulate the palate - never overly sweet.
Lastly, go get a copy of "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks." Classic bartending books are fun, but one written by a man who is so passionate and engaging about his craft is invaluable.
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