Saturday, 7 June 2014

"Basic" Cocktails

This morning, before going to confession, I had an old fashioned. "What's that?" I hear some folk ask. An old fashioned is a cocktail. To be more precise, it is one of the six "basic cocktails" listed in David A. Embury's classic book "The Fine of Mixing Drinks."

After having drunk my first old fashioned, I've now tried five of Embury's six basic cocktails. My list, as follows:

The Martini:

Arguably the best known cocktail in the world and the classic before dinner drink. While variations on a theme obviously exist, I think the simplest form is the best. That simplest form involves a mix of six parts gin to one part of dry vermouth. I know that some people substitute vodka for gin. If such people enjoy drinking vodka mixed with vermouth, I wish them well, but I'm traditionalist enough to think they should call it something other than a martini. The classic garnish is an olive (or group of olives) but I personally prefer a twist of lemon peel.

Interestingly enough, the original recipe called for equal, or almost equal parts. Over time the ratio of vermouth has shrunk. I believe someone said that the ideal martini was made by waving a glass of gin in the general direction of a bottle of vermouth, but, I think the current ratio is actually pretty good.

I assume most people know that James Bond orders his martinis "shaken, not stirred". In season three  "West Wing" episode, "Stirred", fictional President, "Jed" Bartlet proves that even the most heretical of Catholics will occasionally get something right when he points out that the reason for stirring the martini is to prevent the ice breaking and the martini from being watered down. Bartlet doesn't quite go so far as to call the most famous of fictional spies a wimp, but it's pretty strongly implied.

My thoughts; the Martini is my second favourite among the basic five and one of my favourite before meal drinks. The great thing about it is that because it is so well known, you can order it just about anywhere and feel reasonably confident that it will be well done.

The Manhattan:

I'll always think of this as the drink which Bart Simpson acquired a reputation for his skill in making, in the Season 3 episode "Bart the Murderer". The basic recipe consists of a mix of North American whiskey (most commonly rye but others are acceptable) with sweet vermouth, between one and three dashes of bitters and a maraschino cherry as garnish.

The exact ratio of whiskey to vermouth can vary with taste but will normally be somewhere between two and three to one. My personal preference is for a relatively large amount of vermouth, but I'm, perhaps, a little weird.

Variations on a theme include replacing the American Whiskey with Scotch (making a "Rob Roy"), replacing the vermouth with port wine (making a "ruby Manhattan") or replacing the sweet vermouth with dry and the cherry garnish with a twist of lemon peel (to make a "dry Manhattan").

My thoughts; my experiences with this drink have varied. I've had some Manhattans I've really loved, and others where the aftertaste was far too bitter for my liking. The multitude of variations possible means that each Manhattan drinker will probably need to make sure that he or she knows what he/she likes and be sure to tell the bartender making it. I should add, I've tried the dry Manhattan only once, when the bar I was drinking at was out of maraschino cherries and found it very enjoyable.

The Daiquiri

Perhaps the most open to variation of the basic six, the daiquiri is famously mixed with various forms of fruit drinks to create the "strawberry daiquiri", "peach daiquiri" and many other variants, ad nauseam. The basic daiquiri, however, consists of a reasonably simple mix of white rum, lime juice and sugar syrup.

As with the Manhattan, the exact ratios will vary; Embury suggests eight parts rum to two parts lime and one part syrup, but more modern authorities seem to advocate mixes with relatively large amounts of lime juice and syrup, although the rum should always be the single biggest component.

My thoughts; I don't have a lot to say. This is my least favourite among the basics that I've tried. I once attempted to improve it by adding a dash of egg white, but this didn't help.

The Old Fashioned

The one I tried today. Perhaps the simplest among the basics, this is a mixture of American whiskey, sugar syrup and bitters. As with other drinks, exact ratios will vary but the classic recipe calls for a single sugar cube with just enough water to dissolve the cube, two dashes of bitters and a jigger of whiskey. The traditional recipe calls for this to be stirred over ice and served "on the rocks" with a twist of lemon peel. I wasn't watching as they made mine today, so I can't tell you how closely they followed the traditional prescription, although they did substitute a large twist of orange peel for the traditional lemon.

My thoughts; Obviously, I'm judging this based on only one try and, as I said, I don't know how closely they followed the traditional recipe, but I liked it. They garnished it with an unusually large twist of orange peel which stuck up out of the drink. The fragrance of the peel was noticeable and its citrus scent provided an enjoyable context for the flavour of the drink. The after taste was a little bit bitter for my liking, but not so much as to spoil the experience. Overall, I recommend it.

The Jack Rose

The only one among the basics I haven't tried. Unfortunately, it requires Applejack, a drink made from distilled apple juice, which does not seem to be widely available these days. If anyone knows a bar in either Sydney or Canberra where they serve the stuff, you'd go several rungs up my favourite people list by drawing it to my attention.

The Sidecar

Saving the best (or at least my favourite) till last. The sidecar is made of a mix of brandy (preferably cognac) some form of triple sec, and lemon juice. I prefer Cointreau as the triple sec of choice but Grand Marnier is a perfectly acceptable alternative.

As with many of these drinks, ratios vary with taste. The traditional French recipe calls for equal parts of the three ingredients, while Embury says eight parts brandy to two of lemon and only one of triple sec. My personal preference leans to the traditional side (equal parts) but that does produce a very sour drink. If you don't like sour as much as me then you might prefer a mix more in line with Embury's prescription.

My thoughts; my favourite among the "basic six" and my second all time favourite before dinner drink. This is simple to make, even bar tenders who don't know it will generally be willing to make it up since the directions are pretty easy to follow. If you haven't tried one of these, I defiantly recommend it.

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