Far too many people are mixing cocktails simply by following a recipe, without really understanding the role that the different ingredients or methods play in the final product. I'd like to use one of the focus points of Molecular Gastronomy, and by association Molecular Mixology, to perhaps provide some additional insights on the art of the culinary cocktail.
Previously, in "On Molecular Mixology", I provided some details about the fundamentals of "Molecular Gastronomy", as put forth by one of the founders of this discipline Hervé This. My hope was (and still is), to illustrate how there is a lot more to Molecular Gastronomy, and Molecular Mixology, then pretending you are "Mr. Science".
Hervé This proposes three focus points that represent Molecular Gastronomy:
- Investigate the social phenomena linked to culinary activity
- Investigate the chemical and physical aspects of the artistic component
- Investigate the technical component
And the third point "Investigate the technical component" he breaks down into two sub-points:
- Modeling definitions
- Collecting and testing culinary precisions, as well as the reason for their appearance.
It's these two sub-points I want to try to draw your attention to this time. Let's start by looking closely at what these mean, especially in relationship to cocktails.
This is, well, the definition of the cocktail. What a particular cocktail "needs" in order to "be" that cocktail. By definition, a sidecar is brandy, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. If it is missing one of those ingredients, or if an ingredient is replaced with something else, then it conceptually is no longer a sidecar. Up to a point, I see the actual ratios of the ingredients as not really part of the definition. If the goal is to create a well balanced drink, then it would be hard to change the ratios of a Sidecar too much and still be "well balanced".
Every aspect of the "definition" of a particular drink is there for a very specific reason. It is something which by its very nature plays a significant and important role in the drink.
These represent the added methods, ingredients, techniques, etc. which you might use in order to fine tune, perfect, or improve upon the cocktail in question. For the sidecar, rimming the glass with sugar would be a "Precision". As would using Metxa brandy in place or ordinary brandy. It could be argued that even using a "Sour Mix" which would take the place of the orange liqueur and lemon juice could be considered a precision, although the "improvement" it would be adding, would be to make the drink cheaper and/or easier to make, but would decrease its quality.
While sometimes a precision might be expected, they are not required. You can make a Sidecar without the sugared rim, and it would still be a Sidecar. You can serve a Manhattan on the rocks, and it is still a Manhattan. There may however be some elements of a cocktail which walk a fine line between being part of its definition or being a precision.
I would like then to suggest, that by breaking down a cocktail into its definition, and its potential precisions, you would arrive at a better understanding of the recipe. Not only would you have a minimalistic "recipe" for the drink, but you would also have a better understanding of the scope of flexibility for adding your own touches and style to the drink.
As way of an example, and also a discussion, let's try reflecting the definition/precisions in a few cocktails. We've already started with the Sidecar, so let's flesh that one out a little more.
The original recipe for the sidecar, first appeared in "Cocktails: How To Mix Them" by Robert Vermeire, printed in 1922. As listed, the recipe called for equal amounts of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Such a drink doesn't come across a being properly balanced, but with a bit of work can be an excellent cocktail, as well as a great drink to use to introduce people to cocktails as well.
- Orange liqueur
- Lemon Juice
- Chilled and slightly diluted with ice.
The art of this drink comes in through some of the special touches that are at your disposal.
It is common to see "Cognac" simply listed as the ingredient, but frankly I find that to be a little misleading. Cognac, as we all know, is simply brandy from the Cognac region of France. It can be assumed that Cognac is going to be of higher quality, but this isn't always the case. There are many fine brandies which are better than some Cognacs on the market. So as long as you are using a good brandy, I find that it works quite well in this drink. Especially if you are paying more attention to the other ingredients.
Here, we start finding it important to pay attention to exactly what you are using. I always use Cointreau. While technically Cointreau "is" a triple sec, most products which are listed as triple sec on the label are quite inferior to Cointreau, the original triple sec. For a slightly different twist on the drink you could use Grand Marnier (technically a premium orange curacao), but I still feel that Cointreau fits this drink the best.
Is there any question here? Freshly squeezed lemon juice of course.
Ratio of Ingredients
Most important perhaps is exactly how much of each ingredient you use. As indicated, the original recipe was simply equal parts. In "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks", David Embury recommends 8 parts Cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, and 1 part Cointreau, which frankly doesn't work for me. Others recommend a 2-1-1 ratio, or various other combinations. Myself, I feel that the perfect ratio for my palate comes in at 4 parts brandy, 2 parts Cointreau, and 1 part lemon juice.
For easy of measurements, we can use 2 ounces of brandy which results in a recipe of:
- 2 ounces brandy
- 1 ounce of Cointreau
- 1/2 ounce of lemon juice
My goal for balance here is to end up with a drink which isn't too sour, nor is it too sweet. I don't just want the first sip to be pleasing, but I want the last one to be pleasing as well. Sometimes a tart drink will be appreciated at first, but by the end of it you are ready for something else.
Since this drink includes a pulpy juice, shaking it with ice to chill and dilute is perfectly fine. Use plenty of ice, and a good solid shaking to get it chilled to the point where the tin hurts your hands.
Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. With our above listed recipe we have 3 1/2 ounces of liquid to start with, after being mixed with the ice, this should increase to about 4 1/2 of total liquid, so a 6 ounce cocktail glass is recommended.
In the 1930's people started serving the Sidecar in a sugar rimmed glass, I suspect that somebody might have noticed a similarity in the recipe to a "crusta", and so borrowed the typical service method from that drink. Myself, I find that the sugared rim simply results in getting your fingers sticky, and so prefer the glass to remain unmolested.
This is then my treatment of the Sidecar, starting with the core definition, and then upon that adding my own precisions in order to execute what I feel is a perfectly balanced drink.
Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail
As we have regularly discussed, the "Old Fashioned" is simply a cocktail made the way cocktails were when they first came onto the scene. In 1806, the definition for a cocktail was "spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters". Nothing could be simpler, and so we have a very easy definition for an "Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail".
- Built "on the rocks" in the same glass it will be served in.
When made poorly, an Old Fashioned tends to be a bit of a labor intensive drink to make, which makes no sense at all. It actually can be made quite quickly if done properly.
As reflected in the original definition of the "cocktail", you can technically make an "Old Fashioned" with any spirit, but it has become common practice to make it with whiskey, and American whiskey at that, although in and around Minnesota it apparently is common to make it with brandy for some reason. Rye whiskey would probably have been the common spirit used prior to Prohibition, but post-Prohibition it is more common to use Bourbon. I find that both work equally well, and as long as you are using a quality product, you'll have the foundation for a quality drink. Maker's Mark has become my personal go-to whiskey for this, and most whiskey drinks.
Sugar / Water
One of my biggest issues with how most bartenders make their Old Fashioneds, is when they finish off the drink with a heavy-handed dosing of water, or worse soda water. I suspect that this started simply as a way to "fill up" the glass so the customer thought they were getting a full drink. Almost all of the old recipes for an Old Fashioned listed water as an ingredient, usually without any indication of how much to use. However they also listed it in conjunction with the sugar, and my culinary training makes it seem obvious to me that this is just there to help dissolve the sugar before adding the spirit, since sugar doesn't dissolve well in alcohol. Even so, you usually don't get all of the sugar dissolved anyway, which leaves some grit in the bottom of the glass. Myself, I see no reason not to simply use simple syrup. If you do need to use granulated sugar, or a sugar cube, then you will need to add a splash of water to help dissolve the sugar before adding the whiskey. In which case you should only use as much water as you are sugar.
Once seen as the defining ingredient in a cocktail, bitters tend to be seen less and less these days. Thankfully the Old Fashioned is one of the few remaining cocktails in which you should always see it coming into play. I typically add two dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters, but other aromatic bitters can also work well. You can even add more than just a couple dashes to crank things up a bit.
For reasons now lost in obscurity, it has become common practice to muddle a slice of orange and an imitation maraschino cherry in the bottom of the glass along with the sugar and bitters. I personally have several problems with this. First is that the muddled cherry really doesn't do anything for the drink at all, except perhaps add a little additional sweetener to it. The carcass of the cherry isn't appetizing to look at, nor is it appropriate for the customer to dig it out and eat. The orange, while introducing a flavor element that actually blends well with the whiskey (specifically Bourbon), it also introduces a pulpy liquid which ends up clogging the sip straws which the drink should be served with. Muddling also makes this a more time-consuming and labor intensive drink to make, so I say just leave them out.
I start by adding a "puddle" of simple syrup to the bottom of the glass, by measure, it is about a teaspoon. I keep my simple syrup in a squeeze bottle, which makes it easier to control the amount being added.
I then add a couple dashes of bitters, followed by the ice. I stir this briefly, which will introduce a little water to loosen up the syrup and combine it with the bitters.
Next, using a vegetable peeler, I'll cut about 2 inches of orange peel over top of the glass, which will introduce some of the essential oils from the skin into the glass atop the ice.
Placing the orange peel down on the cutting board, I'll then pour in about 2 ounces of whiskey into the glass, and give it a quick stir to chill and combine the flavors together.
I'll start by using a paring knife to straighten the edges of the orange peel that I cut off, and then twist this overtop of the drink and drop it in. Next I'll add a fresh and unmolested cherry, if the cherry is stemless, I'll pierce it on a pick.
Finally I'll add two sip straws, and the drink is done.
If I want to add just a little extra flair to the drink, instead of using a vegetable peeler to cut the orange peel, I'll use a paring knife and cut a large "coin" of orange peel. And then instead of trimming the edges, I'll flame the orange peel over the drink at the very end, and in front of the customer.
It was in the latter half of the 1800's when a new style of "cocktail" started appearing, ones made with vermouths, and various other ingredients. These new cocktails not only energized the category, but also prompted the need to refer to what came before as "Old Fashioneds". The Martini was not the first of these drinks, but it is perhaps the best known. Whether it is a variation of the Martinez, or the Manhattan (both of which predate it), is difficult to tell.
- Vermouth (sweet or dry)
- Orange bitters
- Chilled, and slightly diluted with ice.
As the old joke goes, if you find yourself lost in the wilderness, just start making a Martini and you'll instantly be surrounded by people telling you you're making it wrong. No doubt, several people will find something to argue about with what I present below, to which I simply say "tough".
Originally, the Martini would probably have been made with what was known as "Old Tom" gin, which was slightly sweetened. Later, the use of the new "London Dry" style of gin became the common ingredient. Myself, I am a big fan of Plymouth Gin, but any quality gin can be used in this drink. These days however we are seeing some pretty wide variations in gins coming out, so it is necessary to understand how each of these presents themselves in this drink.
The first Martini was made with sweet vermouth, and this indeed makes an excellent cocktail. Later, customers began to become aware of dry vermouth in cocktails, and when wanting the bartender to use that instead of sweet, they would ask for a "dry Martini cocktail". Good quality vermouth is important for a good Martini. I personally use Noilly Prat for dry vermouth and Martini & Rossie for sweet vermouth. There are other quality vermouths on the market (such as Carpano Antiqua, Vya, etc.) but some of these may be a little too forceful for this drink, or more difficult to find, or both.
Most bartenders these days don't realize that up until Prohibition, the Martini always included a dash or two of orange bitters. I feel its use continues to play a critical role in this drink. It used to be exceedingly difficult to find, but thankfully we now have several options available, Fee Brothers, Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6, and Angostura orange bitters. The diligent will also be able to find several other specialty brands from places like The Bitter Truth, Hermes, and other sources. Between Fees, Regan's, and Angostura, each has a very unique profile, and each produces a very slight difference in this drink. Frankly any one of them works well.
Ratio of Ingredients
Here is where things can get a bit dicey. Most people these days seem to believe that the best (dry) Martini is the one which includes almost no vermouth at all. While this might be what their palate has grown accustomed to recognizing as a Martini, it is frankly just a glass of cold gin, and a far cry from what a true "cocktail" is all about. Properly made, a cocktail should present a balance of flavors, which means adding enough vermouth so that the drink doesn't taste "ginny", but not so much that the vermouth becomes predominant. A lot here can depend on the gin, and the vermouth, being used. But my typical ratio here is 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. Which I think works really well in almost all cases. Our recipe then, using a 1.5 ounce pour of spirit, comes in at:
- 1-1/2 ounces of gin
- 1/2 ounce of vermouth (sweet or dry)
- Dash of orange bitters
Since this drink consists of all clear ingredients, it is best to chill by stirring it, and not too aggressively either. With this much vermouth in the drink, shaking it up will result in a drink that is cloudy and fairly ugly looking. You should always use a good amount of ice, and stir it for about 40 good stirs. Technically, stirring can get a drink colder than shaking, but not by anything significantly measureable.
Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. With our above listed recipe we have 2 ounces of liquid to start with, which will turn into about 3 ounces of liquid once it is properly chilled. A nice and small cocktail glass works wonderfully here, I prefer a 4 or at the very most 5 ounce glass. Just imagine how insignificant this drink would look in one of the monster 10 or 12 ounce glasses.
For the garnish, I personally prefer a lemon twist, even on a sweet Martini, but it is also common to use a cherry on a sweet Martini, and a green olive on a dry Martini. I think these are fine, but I do not at all recommend "loading" a Martini with olives. If the customer asks for "plenty of olives" what they are really wanting is something to nosh on. The garnish is first and foremost a decoration, or slight flavor embellishment, and should never be considered for its dining attributes (except perhaps in the case of a Bloody Mary). I recommend serving one olive in the drink, and then three more in a small cocktail glass, or amuse bouche plate on the side.
Properly done, a Martini can be an excellent and enticingly subtle cocktail. Using quality ingredients, and proper preparation, will provide an illustration of exactly what culinary cocktails are all about.
Long winded for sure, but I think the above captures one of the facets of "Molecular Mixology", at least as it's predecessor Molecular Gastronomy was originally envisioned by Hervé This.
Before heading too far, or too quickly, down the path of incorporating flashy scientific apparatus behind the bar, I think it is first important to grasp the core concepts, methods, and approaches to what it takes to simply make a great cocktail. Once that is understood and perfected, you have the foundations to grow from and can really understand what it takes to make a great cocktail.