Reporter's Notebook

Manhattan Cocktail Classic: The Art of the Simple Cocktail

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Keeping it simple when making quality drinks

The 2011 Manhattan Cocktail Classic, an annual conference filled with events and parties, also provided seminars for those wishing to learn more about spirits and mixed drinks. On Sunday, the second day of the five-day event, Elayne Duke hosted a seminar called "The Art of the Simple Cocktail."

Duke, a consultant who works as head mixologist for Diageo Wine and Spirits and has a consulting company called Duke on the Rocks, talked to the seminar attendees about how beverage program managers, bartenders and even hobbyists can keep it simple when creating their own specialty drinks, gleaned from her experiences providing menu additions for restaurants and bars.

1. "Every ingredient matters," Duke said. "You can't cheapen out." And by "cheapen out," Duke didn't mean only using the most expensive spirits to make a good cocktail. Using the best and quality ingredients should extend to all aspects of a drink program. Using low-quality mixers or less-than-stellar fruit or other ingredients can ruin even the most top-shelf spirits, and vice versa. Using fresh citrus is one example of where you don't have to "cheapen out" on an ingredient that is cost-effective.

Duke estimated that prepackaged sour mix costs around $5 for 32 ounces, retail.

To make that same amount in-house requires 18 ounces of simple syrup and 14 ounces of lemon or lime juice. For the simple syrup, 9 ounces of water is free and 9 ounces of sugar will cost around 6 cents per ounce, depending on the market, coming out to $0.54 cents.

For the lemon and lime juice, most limes produce about 1 ounce of juice per fruit, so taking that modest estimate, 14 ounces would require 14 limes or lemon. Depending on market price, this would come out to around $3.50. So all together, house-made sour mix would cost $4.04 for 32 ounces and ensure that quality control can happen at the restaurant or bar level.

Making every ingredient count also means that you should be aware of the characteristics and flavor profile of whatever base spirit used when making mixed drinks. Keeping in mind that the notes and flavors present in a spirit makes the job of finding ingredients to pair with it even easier. And don't throw in everything-but-the-kitchen-sink to make a drink. Think through what you are adding to a recipe. "If [an ingredient] doesn't have a purpose, don't put it in," Duke advises.

2. Keep it balanced. The three components of a drink are the base, the modifying agent and the flavoring agent. Duke said a cocktail is the balance between the flavors of alcohol, sugar and acid, crediting this tidbit of advice to Dale Degroff, a cocktail legend famous for his talent behind the bar and his work in laying the foundation for the current cocktail revolution in places like New York's famous Rainbow Room, in the late 1980's.

This means that while chasing after obscure recipes dug out from the annals of pre-Prohibition drinks lore and classic cocktails, the classics can still provide a background for creating drinks since classics are a classic for a reason.

Duke said she sometimes likes to start with classic recipes when making something new. It can be as easy as swapping out the base spirit with another, or slightly modifying flavoring agents and ingredients, but always keeping in mind the balance of flavors since the original recipe will provide the tried-and-true ratio.

As examples she listed how a caipirinha can become a caipiroska by swapping rum for vodka. She also created a Berry Smash cocktail based off of the caipirinha by using berry flavored vodka and adding strawberries and blueberries, adjusting the ratio a bit to account for the additional sweetness added by the berries and vodka.

3. Keep in mind the guest experience (for fun and profit). Even the little things in presentation can make the difference for a guest. Duke highlighted her visit to The Bar at the Dorchester Hotel in London in slides showing how the bar takes great care in how it present drinks to show how (View photos and Duke's entire presentation on Scribd) just changing the glass or ice used in a drink can elevate it in the guests' eyes. A Cosmopolitan becomes something out of the ordinary at the Dorchester because it is served in a glass with a teetering, tall stem.

The Bar at the Dorchester Hotel also has tableside martini service where guests choose what goes in the martini, after which the bartender puts on a pair of white gloves and proceeds to create a show out of his cocktail preparation. This creates a unique and entertaining experience for the guest. (See my previous story on tableside cocktails)

Duke also recounted her creation of ice spheres for her drinks at an event, which besides looking nice also melt at a slower rate. She noticed how throughout the evening, guests paid a great deal of attention to the balls of ice, going as far as moving the spheres from one glass to the next for each drink.

"Now you've created a conversation piece...one little thing can change somebody's experience with a cocktail."

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