Here’s how I learnt to make cocktails. Some years ago, I discovered mojitos, which I liked a lot, at least when they were made well. But they varied wildly when I ordered them in bars and restaurants. So I began tinkering at home and found my way: dark rum, a little simple syrup (half water, half sugar, heated until the sugar melts), loads of lime, not much mint. No club soda (a weakening aberration, even if it’s “correct”). No muddling (too much work, too showy, and I don’t even like the sound of the word). No white rum (unconventional, but I like rum with flavour). After a while, I would go to bars and ask for “a mojito made with Barbancourt rum, a little syrup, a lot of lime and a little mint”.
Sweet sour: Mix sugar, mint and lime juice for the perfect mojito.
When I got sick of mint, I switched to margaritas. In general, you can’t find a good one in a bar, not in Mexico and not in New York. So I took the same approach. I figured out how I liked my margarita and ordered it that way: good tequila, a teaspoon or so of triple sec, and lots of lime (some bartenders acted like that was a novel drink. Others said I wanted a traditional margarita. I suppose).
Then I did some thinking and reading about cocktails. It turns out that if you use vodka instead of tequila, the margarita becomes the kamikaze. Swap cognac for the vodka and lemon for the lime and you have a sidecar.
Look at the pattern — you might call it the basic recipe — of these drinks, many of which might be grouped as “sours”: They combine liquor with water (usually in the form of ice), a sour flavouring (usually citrus juice) and a sweetener (simple syrup, or something more expensive and flavourful, like Cointreau). You might add a splash of soda or, if you like, fruit juice, which gets you into beachcomber or cosmo territory.
Master this pattern and you can mix hundreds of cocktails at home without a book or recipe. For me, most cocktails look like this: A stiff pour of alcohol, say, a quarter cup, over ice; very little sweetener, a teaspoon or at the most two; a tablespoon or more of lime juice (which I find more refreshing than lemon juice); and, if suitable, a garnish like mint (which I chop), or an orange slice. Not only can the proportions change to your taste, they should.
The parallels with cooking are clear. You can start with good ingredients, or not. You can start with someone else’s recipe (on which there are usually a score or more variations) or make the cocktail your own. The point — and this clearly comes from the perspective of cook, not bartender — is this: Why not make cocktails from scratch, ignoring the names and acknowledging your preferences? Why not treat the margarita like a dish of pasta with tomatoes, assuming a few given ingredients but varying them according to your taste?
Here are some drinks that follow this pattern:
Gimlet: Gin (traditionally) or vodka (more recently), with sugar and lime.
Tom Collins: Gin with lemon instead of lime, sugar and club soda.
There are also bourbon, rum or vodka collinses.
Daiquiri: Gimlet with rum, more or less.
Cosmopolitan: Kamikaze with a splash of cranberry juice.
Sidecar: Margarita with cognac and lemon instead of lime.
By now you get it. This pattern does not cover all cocktails, of which there are thousands. Those made with bitters, egg white (a nice addition to anything you’re shaking or blending), combinations of different liquors, rose water or flaming orange zest mist get a bit more complicated.
But if you consider this an approach for creating classic, simple, personalized cocktails, using pure ingredients; if you put aside the recipe book and think about this as you would cooking — combining flavours you like with imagination guided by experience — you’re well on your way.
As for the silly names, make them up, or forget about them. If one of your guests asks for an old-fashioned (bourbon, bitters, sugar, maraschino cherry and orange), you can always look it up.
©2008/The New York Times
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