When you order a margarita at a bar, do you know what is going into it? Will it be true to the classic recipe, with fresh lime, sugar, top-shelf orange liqueur and the sweet nectar of the gods, 100 percent de agave tequila?
Or will it be well tequila, cheap triple sec and some bag-in-the-box sour mix with a brown lime wedge garnish? The fact that we don’t quite know is something that dedicated bartenders everywhere are trying hard to fix, one good cocktail at a time.
The cocktail culture today has gone through a renaissance of sorts, and the catalyst was really those who chose to pay homage to the classic recipes, making them with the correct ingredients and not taking any pre-mixed shortcuts.
The first drink book published in the United States was by Jerry Thomas in 1862, “How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion,” earning Thomas the title “father of American mixology.” His book documents the now-classic cocktails that he made and served behind his own bars. They weren’t complex recipes, but they used fresh citrus, real sugar and quality hooch.
In the ’50s and ’60s, cocktails were associated with status and prestige. Manhattans, old-fashioneds and martinis were king. It was glamorous and sexy to have a strong, boozy cocktail in hand. The ’70s did away with spirit-forward libations as everyone turned to highballs and easy-to-mix drinks like vodka sodas, fuzzy navels and midori sours.
The ’80s were all about color and flair, with pre-mixed, high-fructose corn syrup purees ruling the roost. Flair bartending became a trend, and with bartenders juggling, spitting fire and balancing bottles, no one was really paying attention to what was going in the glass — they were there to enjoy the show!
One man, however, thought there was more to making a drink than throwing rum and daiquiri mix into a blender. Dale Degroff of the Rainbow Room in New York was inspired by Thomas’ book and started resurrecting the recipes, adding his spins to make them unique. He is credited as being a modern savior of mixology, playing a pivotal role in changing the entire cocktail scene by simply going back to basics.
Here are some examples of the classics for you to discover all over again. They aren’t difficult cocktails, but they are balanced, sometimes a little boozy and just perfect.
The mojito is synonymous with refreshment in a glass, but also tends to have a bad rap with bartenders who use recipes that are very labor-intensive. The classic recipe, though, can be simple and shouldn’t take a lot of time at all.
This is a built cocktail, meaning ingredients go right into the drinking glass. Start with fresh lime and simple syrup. Press about 10 mint leaves into it with a muddler; don’t overdo it or you will be staring at the mint stuck in your date’s teeth all night. Add aged rum, fill with ice and top it with soda.
So simple. So refreshing. Hard to beat on a hot day.
Pour lime juice and simple syrup into highball glass. Add mint and press using a muddler (no more than 3 to 4 turns). Add rum, fill with ice and top with club soda; stir to combine.
Garnish: Mint sprig and lime wheel perched on rim
Note: To make rich simple syrup, dissolve 2 parts sugar in 1 part water.
The original “cocktail” was spirits, sugar, bitters and water (meaning ice). This is what the old-fashioned was meant to be.
During Prohibition, however, the booze that was available was crude. To mask its harsh edges, bartenders started adding fruits and whatever they could find to make the liquor more palatable, making it more into a cobbler than a true old-fashioned. We are finally getting back to the roots of this cocktail, and the fruit salad is being left at the bar.
As with all cocktails that have no juice or fruit, this drink is meant to be stirred rather than shaken in order to preserve the integrity of the spirit being used.
Douse sugar cube with bitters. Add water and break up the sugar with a muddler. Add whiskey, fill with ice and stir about 40 rotations. Strain over a large ice cube into bucket.
Garnish: Wide orange swath, expressed oils and Luxardo cherry on bar pick
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no place in a margarita for Rose’s lime juice, orange juice or high-fructose sour mix.
The recipe below is a little different from those you will find by Googling the drink, but it is pure, clean and truly highlights the tequila (so make sure you are using the good stuff).
When I make margaritas for my family, this is my go-to recipe.
Add all ingredients to mixing glass. Fill with ice, shake and strain over fresh ice into pre-rimmed bucket.
Garnish: Red alaea salt on half the rim and a wide lime peel
The whiskey sour is one of the most bastardized drinks of the bunch. Many versions use a preservative-laden sour mix shot from a soda gun, garnished with a cherry doused in red food coloring. If the creator of the whiskey sour knew what it had come to, I think he would be rolling in his grave.
The classic recipe calls for egg whites. I know this might sound strange, but think about a meringue and what egg whites do to it. They add viscosity and texture that pair beautifully with fresh lemon and bourbon.
I like to employ something called the reverse dry shake to maximize the froth on the drink. You shake very hard with ice, strain out the liquid, then shake again without ice to further emulsify. This produces a nice, thick froth, sturdy enough that you can float some dashes of bitters on top.
Finish with a quality Luxardo maraschino cherry from Italy. Your guests will thank you.
Combine lemon, syrup, egg whites and bourbon in mixing glass. Fill with ice, shake vigorously and strain back into mixing glass. Dry shake and strain into martini glass.
Garnish: 3 drops of bitters on top of the cocktail, swirled on top of froth, and a Luxardo maraschino cherries on a bar pick
The martini was meant to be an aperitif, not just 3 ounces of pure vodka, tainted with a little olive juice and shaken till the cows come home.
It was meant to incorporate high-quality vermouth that enhanced the gin and moved the guest onto wine with dinner.
If you still like your martini as a glassful of vodka, there is no judgment here — life is too short to drink anything you don’t like. But just consider the classic recipe, stirred and NOT shaken. You might be pleasantly surprised at how crisp, clean and silky it is.
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Stir about 40 rotations with bar spoon and strain into chilled martini glass
Garnish: Wide lemon peel, squeezed to draw out oils
Chandra Lucariello is director of mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits.