With your bar stocked, your glasses sparkling, and your shaker in hand, you are ready for the adventure to begin. Of course, procuring all the fixings and equipment is only the first step. Now you will need some basic skills plus a few tips and tricks of the trade. Just as chefs set up their ingredients before cooking, what they call mise en place, you should have your preparations all laid out and your basic bar techniques down. Follow the guidelines below, and you will be creating drinks —and smiles —in a relatively short time.
Ice was a precious commodity, available only to the rich, prior to the second half of the twentieth century. Even when it became widely available, there were no ice machines, and bartenders hacked at large ice blocks, breaking them into small chunks—hence the name “rocks.” Home freezers were previously small or nonexistent, and ice simply was not as cold as it is today. We may take ice for granted, but it is an essential building block of almost every cocktail and must be regarded with the same care as the spirits. It is paramount that ice must always be clean and be kept away from any contaminating odors. The size of the ice also makes a big difference. Because there is more chilled surface to many little cubes than to one very large one, a drink will chill faster with small cubes. Unfortunately, the ice will also dilute the drink more quickly. Apart from cocktails that call for cracked or crushed ice, opt for medium-sized cubes.
For the coldest cocktails, chill the glasses in the refrigerator for several hours before using them, and store Martini glasses in the freezer. In a pinch, you can always add ice and water to an empty glass to quickly chill it. To frost a glass, dip it in water and put it in the coldest part of the freezer.
Shaking, Stirring, and Rolling
The debate over shaking versus stirring was around long before James Bond uttered his immortal line. In all honesty, it really does not matter as long as the drink is well mixed and ice-cold (as expressed by Lowell Edmunds in this classic book Martini, Straight Up). Although a consensus may never be reached on how to best serve a Martini or a Manhattan, some simple guidelines may be applied. Generally, any drink made with fruit juices, sugar, eggs, or cream should be shaken. Use a Boston shaker for this, and always add ice before the other ingredients. Hold the shaker well in front of you, then shake it vigorously in a diagonal motion. Most drinks need no more than ten seconds; after that, the shaking may dilute them. A small amount of melted ice, however, is a vital part of a shaken cocktail. Strain with a coil-rimmed strainer. If you have room, store the shaker in the freezer.
Those who favor stirring do so because they believe stirred drinks maintain their clarity. Even if shaking imparts a cloudiness to the cocktail, it soon dissipates and will not adversely alter the taste. When mixing cocktails in a pitcher, fill the pitcher halfway with ice and stir at least 20 times with a glass stirrer or bar spoon. Stir longer if you prefer a colder drink. Carbonated drinks, such as a Gin and Tonic, need only be stirred twice, in their glasses.
Rolling, a milder form of shaking, is used with tomato juice-based cocktails. Holding a Boston shaker at a slight angle, gently rotate the ingredients until incorporated. Shaking tomato juice too hard produces a curiously foamy concoction recalling low-budget horror flicks.
Muddling is the mashing or grinding together of such ingredients as mint or limes in the bottom of the glass. This releases all the flavors and allows them to meld before you add the rest of the ingredients. You can purchase a wooden muddler from a specialty store, but the back of a large wooden spoon will do in a pinch.
It is a capital mistake to shake or stir a cocktail then let it sit. Pour the drink immediately, and place any leftovers in a separate container to avoid dilution. Some people enjoy the “dividend” left in the shaker, but it is always best to mix a fresh batch rather than drink a diluted cocktail.
For Margaritas, gingerly dab the top outer edge of a glass with a piece of lime. Then turn the glass on its side, lightly sprinkle coarse salt over it while rotating the glass, and shake off any excess that may have fallen into the glass. Follow this procedure for all rimmed drinks.
For lemons and limes, wash and dry the fruit as you normally would, and slice the nubs off each end. Cut the fruit in half lengthwise; then cut each half lengthwise into three or four equal wedges, depending on the size of the fruit. Remove any seeds. Quarter the wedges crosswise for muddling. If you prefer wheels or slices to wedges, cut off the ends and thinly slice the fruit crosswise for whole wheels. Cut them in half for slices. You may refrigerate the fruit, covered, up to one day.
To make twists, start by cutting the ends off the fruit as described above. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully slice from top to bottom, creating 1/2-inch wide strips of zest. Avoid cutting too much of the pith with the peel. Bear in mind that it is called a “twist” for a reason: Always twist the peel over the drink to release the essential oils directly into the drink. Do not smear the peel along the rim unless a recipe specifically calls for this. After a little bit of practice, you will also be able to dazzle your guests with a bit of pyrotechnics by using the combustible oil in the peel to flame it. Cut the peel into 1 1/2-inch by 3/4-inch ovals. Light a match and pick up the peel, holding it by the shorter side between thumb and forefinger a few inches above the glass. Place the match between the peel and the drink, and snap the peel sharply backward so that the oil jettisons across the flame and into the drink.
You can vary the size of the peels depending on the effect you want. There is also a garnish called a “horse’s neck.” For this garnish, remove ends of the fruit. Starting at the top, use a channel knife of paring knife to cut one continuous ½-inch swath around the fruit.
The Martini is the exclusive province of the olive, and since the Martini is the paragon of cocktails, the olive is as vital to the bar as any ingredient. The goddess Athena is said to have presented the olive to ancient Greece, and it is difficult to imagine life—or the Martini—without it. But which olive? For sheer aesthetic appeal, some favor the pimiento–stuffed olive, while others shudder at the thought and advise using only a pitted green olive. Unlike a lemon peel, which imparts a particular flavor to the Martini, green olives are brined differently throughout the world and each type has its own flavor. For plain, whole green olives, French Picholine and Lucques are excellent, meaty choices. Greek Peloponnesian, Ionian, and cracked olives are also exceptional, as are any number of Californian varieties. Black olives are a definite no-no. Whether you prefer your olives soaked in brine or vermouth or stuffed with capers, jalapeno peppers, anchovies, or blue cheese is a matter of personal taste. But at all costs, avoid olives packed in olive oil. You don’t want an offshore oil slick floating atop your Martini.
Always look for the juiciest of fruit. Size is not an indicator, but texture is. The fruit should have some give when squeezed. Lemons or limes that feel like baseballs will be mealy or pulpy. A good electric juicer or a metal hand juicer is an ideal, and essential, tool. Fruit that is pliable and thin-skinned is best for juicing. Roll it on a flat surface with the palm of your hand prior to cutting to make juicing easier. Do not refrigerate the fruit, but keep the juice in the refrigerator until ready to use it later the same day.
Although superfine sugar can be substituted, simple syrup is an easy, convenient way to sweeten drinks without the granularity that may linger from sugar. Combine 2 cups each of sugar and water in a small saucepan (the CHOW version is a sweeter 2:1 ratio), and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Let the mixture cool, place it in a bottle with a drink pourer, and refrigerate it. Simple syrup may be used wherever superfine sugar is mentioned in the recipes in this book, but I have also indicated a substitution of simple syrup when a truly smooth drink is desirable.