The origins of the term "cocktail" may be lost to the ravenges of time, but few will argue that the cocktail came into its own in America. But before those of you who are American begin to feel too smug, Americans have lost the true art of the cocktail.
Like most other things American, quantity, not Quality has become the treasured ingredient of todays American cocktail. This is easily seen by simply looking at any popular cocktail book and look at the recipies it provides. Not only does the book seem to measure its quality based on the number of recipies it presents, but the recipies themselves are usually a simple list of ingredients, with rarely any information on the nuances of how this cocktail is properly made.
When I stop in at a new cocktail bar, I will often decide to give the bartender a little test to see if they have a good grasp of how to mix a Quality cocktail. For this test, I will order an Old Fashioned. Properly done, an Old Fashioned will have a well blended flavor that combines Orange, sweet sugar, and whiskey. Improperly done it will have too much seltzer, and the orange will be only a garnish.
Your Own Adventure
If you want to experiment yourself with the difference between quantity and Quality, I would recommend the Sidecar as a good place to start. While an Old Fashioned focuses more on the "process" of cocktail mixing, the Sidecar focuses on the ingredients themselves. Notice that the recipe I offer lists Cointreau as one of the ingredients. Take a moment to look through some of the cocktail books you might have. Chances are good that they list Triple Sec instead. Triple Sec, Orange Curaco, Grand Mariner, and Cointreau are all orange flavored liquors, and are often interchanged for one another depending on the cost conciensness of the bars proprietor.
For your experiment, buy a decent quality brandy, bottled lemon juice, fresh lemons, Triple Sec, and Cointreau. Yes, Cointreau is pretty expensive, but for a Quality cocktail. it can be a very important ingredient, which is hopefully what this experiment will illustrate. We will be mixing several cocktails for this experiment, so it might be a good idea to have a couple friends on hand to help you out.
For the ingredients of your first cocktail, use brandy, fresh lemon juice and Cointreau. Make sure you shake it well for a proper chilling, and then decant it into a well chilled cocktail glass.
Now, mix your second cocktail, but this time use the Triple Sec instead of the Cointreau. Make sure you are carefully measuring the same proportions, and mixing with the same attention to detail.
For your third cocktail, again use the Triple Sec, as well as substituteing bottled lemon juice for the fresh.
Taste each cocktail. Savour them. Notice the differences.
If your experience is anything like mine, you should notice a significant difference between these recipes. For me, the recipe with Cointreau had a velvety smooth flavor to it. It was a drink I could sit and enjoy on a cold dark night all by myself. While the cocktail with Triple Sec and bottled lemon juice was simply a mixed drink, one best enjoyed in the midst of conversation in a busy and noisy bar.