With the advent of modern mixology, I can see why many people would be inclined to think of cocktails as too complicated and inaccessible to replicate at home. Between the infusions and transfusions, the smoke and the mirrors, the emperor’s several different costume changes, the jewel-cut ice cubes inexplicably poised to stab you in the eye should you take a sip…who can blame them?
So often, complicated is conflated with elevated. I’m not here to be the definitive arbiter of cocktail culture, but when it comes to making and drinking them, my personal philosophy does make a distinction between ostentatious spectacle and thoughtful mastery, the latter of which need not be mystifying.
To be clear, I’m not disparaging any of you who enjoy the pomp and flare. (The circus does, after all, seem fun.) But I don’t want those of you at home to think you have to start infusing expensive bottles of gin with rosemary, or buying every tincture of bitters available just to make a nice drink at home. More often than not, what distinguishes a “just ok” cocktail and a “really good” cocktail has more to do with a little knowledge and care than with elaborate festooning.
So in the spirit of back-to-school season, and in sharp deviation from my usual column, this week we’re going to cover some basics.
Respect tradition (and then break from it)
Almost every cocktail you come across belongs to a cocktail “family.” Think of these as templates, equations towards elegant boozy solutions, or an actual family tree with multiplying extending branches.
I’ve chosen the “Non-Traditional Sour” (or NTS) for this week because it’s a big, foundational, pre-prohibition branch of the cocktail tree. It’s also very simple. The formula is:
56.70 g spirit + 21g lemon juice + 21g modifier = Non-Traditional Sour
“Spirit” refers to your boozy-boozy-booze, lemon juice (always fresh, please don’t break my heart) provides acidity, and your modifier — most classically simple syrup of 1:1 sugar and water — provide the sweetness and balance, but also helps bring out and/or offer up a depth of flavour.
The most standard NTS would be 56.70 g gin, 21gounce lemon juice, and 21g simple, shaken up and served in a coupe (some variations, like this week’s cocktail, are better suited shaken up and poured over ice). Add an egg white, you have a Traditional Sour. Add club soda and serve tall, and you have a Collins. Add an egg white and club soda, and you have a fizz. A sidecar is basically a drier NTS with Cointreau being the set modifier. Muddle fruit in a glass and serve on crushed ice and you have a Fix. Swap the lemon juice to 28g lime juice and you have Gimlet (the sister branch of the Sour).
Start with the basics (and then level up)
The Gold Rush is a beautiful example of the simple yet effective creativity one can achieve within the NTS parameters. The formula is:
56.70 g Bourbon + 21g lemon juice + 21g honey syrup* = bright and soothing deliciousness
It’s also the precursor to its even more famous offshoot, the Penicillin, which itself has become an oft riffed upon template:
Make the base:
49 g scotch + 7g Islay scotch (floated on top) = 56 g spirit base
Then your modifier:
11g honey syrup + 11g sweetened ginger juice = 21g ounce of the modifier
Then put it all together:
All of the above + 21g lemon juice = a smoky gingery variation you could almost convince yourself is medicinal
(For the honey syrup: Combine 3 parts honey to 1 part hot water. Stir thoroughly.)
Now that you know the formula, you can start spreading your at-home bartending wings. Try Rye instead of Bourbon, or split your base with 1:1 with Calvados or Applejack. Add some dashes of Angostura. Use a different syrup or use a liqueur instead of syrup. Perhaps you prefer a higher proof whiskey to offset the honey. Maybe you have some blackberries you could muddle and add. You know, have fun with it.
Tips for sour success:
Use a Jigger: Or some measuring tool. No free pouring, no eyeballing, no honky tonk. There’s a precision to making a good cocktail, and you cannot reliably wing being precise.
Upgrade your ice: If you’ve been using the chips from your freezer, consider buying large square mould ice cube trays. Or freeze a block of ice in Tupperware and cut it using protective gloves and a serrated knife (you can get both at the dollar store) or just chip large chunks with an ice pick (but this is a more squirrely, less uniform affair).
Shake Like You Mean It: Unless you’re pouring your beverage on crushed ice, shake that shaker like you are trying to recreate the big bang, and not rock it to sleep like a baby — let’s say for about 14-16 seconds. If you’re pouring your cocktail over ice or Collins style, shake it for a shorter 8 seconds.
Glassware: Chill that shit.
Juice: Your lemon and lime juice should always be fresh. Always.
Taste for balance: Keep extra juice and some simple syrup close by. Once you’ve strained your cocktail into the glass, taste it for balance. Some days the citrus is extra sour, or the syrup a little sweet, or maybe the pour was a wee bit off. In any case, all is not lost: a bar spoon of simple syrup or a dash of juice can bring on that equilibrium.