While the state of the American cocktail is better than ever, you’d think you need an advanced degree in mixology to decipher the drinks menus at some of the more pretentious lounges. You know, places where olives are “spherified,” eyedroppers are used and the bartenders take 15 minutes to mix your drink. We’re going to let you in on a little secret: The old ways are the best ways and are easy enough for you to be your own bartender. To give you the essential tips and tools that are the foundation of a good drink (principles that have remained relatively unchanged since the 19th century) we checked in with some of our favorite bartenders from around the country, people who know how to maximize a drink with minimal fuss.
In the bartending boom a new cocktail is born every minute (and usually involves impossible-to-find ingredients such as house-made sea-buckthorn tincture). But few can top the classics collected in Jerry Thomas’s 1887 Bar-Tenders Guide. Handsome reprints are available for about $10.
FLY THE COUPE
As cocktail king Dale DeGroff, pioneering bartender at New York City’s Rainbow Room and author of The Craft of the Cocktail, has said, “the oversize martini glass has ruined many an evening.” For more reasonable portion sizes and the option to try more than one kind of cocktail without getting soused, buy a set of 8.25-ounce Libbey Retro coupes, $44 for a set of 12, amazon.com.
THE CLOVER CLUB
Dev Johnson, head bartender at New York speakeasy Employees Only, suggests you try a flip, a classic cocktail made delightfully frothy with nothing more fussy than an egg white. Herewith, the clover club…blowing minds since 1911.
• 2 ounces gin
• ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice (about half a lemon)
• ½ ounce raspberry syrup or grenadine
• ½ ounce simple syrup
• 1 egg white, very fresh
Combine ingredients and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for 10 seconds and strain into a martini glass. To give this drink some Playboy flair, cut a Rabbit Head stencil from a margarine lid and spritz Angostura bitters on top with a vermouth atomizer.
Bitters are one of the easiest cheats a bartender can use to add complexity to a drink. Mix classic Angostura with gin to make a pink gin, one of the simplest traditional cocktails around. And stock up on modern versions such as Regans’ No. 6 orange bitters to add citrus essence without sweetness or acid, and Bittermens mole-flavored bitters for a chocolaty spin on a margarita. Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters, $25, amazon.com
CHERRY ON TOP
No red dye no. 5 was used in the making of the real-deal Italian maraschino cherries from Luxardo. The intense syrup is an ingredient in its own right. Stir into a tom collins for subtle sweetness. Luxardo cherries, $17, kegworks.com
STIR THINGS UP
James Bond was wrong; the rules of cocktail making are thus: Shake cocktails that include fruit juice (shaking blends the juice and alcohol better). Stir cocktails that are simply spirits over ice (e.g., a martini or a manhattan). For the latter category, this mixing glass from Japan is just the right size. Thirty revolutions with a stirrer will blend and chill all the ingredients. Yarai mixing glass, $39, cocktailkingdom.com
With equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, this is a drink for all tastes.
• 2 ounces rye or bourbon
• ½ ounce sweet vermouth
• ½ ounce dry vermouth
• Angostura or orange bitters
• maraschino cherry
Combine liquid ingredients over ice in a mixing glass. Stir 30 times. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with maraschino cherry.
MAKE N-ICE There’s no easier way to ruin a glass of expensive liquor than to add a few shriveled ice cubes from your malodorous freezer. “Good ice is a crucial ingredient,” says Craig Schoettler, the 26-year-old prodigy who launched the groundbreaking beverage program at Aviary in Chicago. “Whatever you put into your drink is going to get consumed.” Schoettler, who now runs a less high-concept setup at Drumbar in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, recommends making ice with the best water possible and not storing it in the freezer for too long. You want the ice to taste pure, not like last month’s leftovers. Schoettler also gets creative with cubes: For the Cape Cod fizz he freezes organic cranberry juice into cubes and pours vodka and soda over them for a twist on the vodka cranberry.
If your tap water tastes off, skip the ice maker and freeze your own cubes using neutral-tasting water. “No one is going to be able to discern if you use Evian,” Schoettler says. “Filtered water is just fine.” Tovolo ice cube tray, $7, cocktailkingdom.com
When Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender at Clyde Common in Portland, poured a negroni into an empty whiskey barrel on a lark, the ultrasmooth result sparked a nationwide trend. “We barrel-age only cocktails that have some sort of fortified wine in them, like vermouth or sherry,” Morgenthaler says. When a spirit-driven cocktail (read: no fresh ingredients) sits in an oak barrel, the wine oxidizes and picks up notes of grass, citrus and mushroom. The aging also pulls out hints of vanilla, caramel and wood. And the process is remarkably simple: Just dump the ingredients into a barrel and wait. Morgenthaler recommends using a one-liter Tuthilltown Spirits barrel, $60, tuthilltown.com.
• 11 ounces Tanqueray or Beefeater gin
• 11 ounces green Chartreuse
• 11 ounces Cinzano sweet vermouth
• 1 teaspoon orange bitters
• lemon peel
Soak barrel in warm water for 48 hours to swell the wood. Combine liquid ingredients and pour into barrel using a funnel. Seal barrel and let ingredients age for three weeks. Decant barrel through a double-mesh strainer into a large bottle or pitcher. Shake ingredients and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with lemon peel.
Muddling (a.k.a. smashing) fresh fruit and herbs in a glass infuses a drink with the flavors of the season (think lime- and mint-redolent mojito). Matthew Biancaniello, the L.A.-based mixologist who holds court at Cliff’s Edge, uses his muddler as much as his cocktail shaker. To create the drink below, he mined a farmers’ market for botanical inspiration. The result is spicy, sweet, herbaceous and bracing. TAG bar muddler, $18, barsupplies.com
• 3 sage leaves
• 5 raspberries
• 1 slice ginger root, 1/8 inch thick
• ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
• ¾ ounce agave syrup (1:1 ratio water to agave)
• 2 ounces vodka or gin
• 4 blackberries
Muddle sage, raspberries, ginger root, lemon juice and agave syrup in a mixing glass. Add vodka or gin and shake. Strain into a collins glass over ice. Garnish with blackberries.
THE BARTENDER’S BOTTLE
Many spirits are designed to be smooth and sippable, but bartenders Dushan Zaric, Simon Ford and Jason Kosmas yearned for liquor that would stand up for itself in a well-made cocktail. They tweaked recipes, upped the proof, designed an oversize yet ergonomic, bartender-friendly bottle and launched the 86 Co.