I enjoyed several libations during the 2nd Annual Midtown Cocktail Week, but I am a “hands-on” guy. When I taste a great cocktail, I immediately think, “How can I do that?” Luckily, the organizers created an educational event with burgeoning bartenders like me in mind.
During the two-hour seminar, bartender extraordinaire Erick Castro shared many of his professional secrets, which I will now share with you. Besides these individual tips, the overarching theme of the lesson was that bartending is a serious craft that requires, if you want to be great, an encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of liquors, cordials and mixers; most bartenders make drinks, but only a few are shaking and stirring up liquid art and revitalizing a lost piece of uniquely American culture.
Castro is proud of America’s role in inventing the cocktail, which was first designated as a mixture of spirits, bitters, sugar and water in 1806. Before prohibition, we had world-famous bartenders who mixed twenty-two different categories of drinks, such as swizzles, daisies, cobblers, punches, toddies, shrubs, flips and punches. After prohibition, America’s great bartenders either retired or emigrated to Europe and most of America’s great drink recipes went with them. For years, the only commonly available cocktail was a sour, which is spirits, fruit juice and sugar in the standard ratio of 2 parts booze, one part juice and sugar to taste. Castro claims that this basic recipe can yield thousands of different cocktails, depending on the specific ingredients and methods of preparation. Small pockets of cocktail aficionados still existed in larger cities, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the general public became aware of the martini through James Bond. Other cocktails have slowly permeated the public consciousness through media trends, including the recent craze for Cosmopolitans created by Sex and the City.
Castro’s advice to those who want to create their favorite drinks is to have fresh, high quality ingredients. Bottled mixers are a new invention and are an insult to the booze that you are using. Instead, go back to basics, which is easy in California. We have access to fresh fruit 365 days a year, so there is no excuse to use sweet and sour mix when we can juice our own lemons and limes. The difference is clear and delicious.
High quality mixing ingredients are not only readily available, they are inexpensive in California thanks to slow food, thousands of farmers and the trend in healthier eating. Did you know that table sugar is bleached? In a cocktail with only three or four ingredients, you can taste the difference that turbinado (raw) sugar makes. High quality cola or ginger ale that is sweetened with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup results in a completely different flavor profile. Flavored spirits, such as lemon or raspberry infused vodka pale in comparison to a good vodka with a squeeze of real juice or freshly muddled fruit, which is why beverage companies spend millions of dollars annually to convince you to buy into gimmicks and trends. Garnishes like onions, olives and other produce are all available from local sources that practically guarantee freshness and quality. Freshness is also important in knowing that some of your ingredients spoil, especially vermouth! Castro commanded the entire audience to throw away all open bottles of fortified wine (such as vermouth and port) because he could guarantee that they had gone bad if they were not refrigerated.
And the lessons went on and on. It is impossible to impart all of the knowledge passed along to participants, so keep an eye out for this event next year during the 3rd Annual Midtown Cocktail Week. I am now going to go juice a lemon, shake vigorously with turbinado, ice, and Maker’s Mark, which I learned is the only widely available bourbon made with non-GMO corn, and is sweeter than other bourbons so it requires less sugar.