Sep 17, 200912:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Equal Time: It’s the Law!
Cocktails, like wine, are much more enjoyable if you know your preferences. They are better still if you can instruct your bartender on how you'd like them made.
OK, so that strange “equal access” rule does not apply to Internet media outlets, but that does not let us off the hook to provide balanced reporting, even when that reporting comes with a heavy dose of personal opinion.
(Yes, you read that right; one of us has finally admitted it.)
Anyway, last week, we discussed some excellent ways to learn more about wine, including naming a few books that will set you in a nice direction.
And in the interest of fairness, this week we will look at some ways for you to better understand spirits. No, not that kind, though Halloween is right around the corner, and year-round, New Orleans treasures her other-world residents.
In my little corner of the Internet, spirits are defined by alcohol content and the differences that result from the distillation of certain raw ingredients, such as grains, grapes, potatoes and the like. Lucky me.
Just as in the approach to wine that we suggested last week, you will derive much more enjoyment with spirits if you possess knowledge of what you are drinking rather than just diving in and concentrating on where the next one is coming from.
But spirits are a way more diverse topic than wine, so it gets a bit more complicated. Spirits come from so many resources and can be created using so many different processes –– and then there’s the smell and taste deviations that occur to the same spirit, such as vodka, when it’s from Mother Russia or France or Sweden or any of more than 100 other places. After you have moved beyond that piece of knowledge, you are now faced with the infusion factor.
Do you want your vodka infused with cherries or strawberries, blueberries, lemons, limes or … well, you get the idea. There are plenty of decisions.
Yet in spirits, you are allowed, according to the International Code of Tim, to have favorites and stick to them. I don’t condone that kind of behavior in wine, but in spirits, you can drink your Black Jack all night long if you desire.
This makes tasting an interesting issue when it comes to spirits –– and one I have often wondered about. Good, law-abiding citizens sidle up to the bar all the time and blurt out their favorite concoction, and they do this over and over again, without regard to telling the bartender how to make the drink, what ratios of liquor to mix are preferred and what garnish of fruit or citrus to add.
Now it seems to me that if I had a favorite cocktail, and more on that later, then I would communicate that preference and want it that way. But I don’t really see that behavior very often with bar patrons. It’s “scotch and water” without further comment. Which scotch? How much water?
Those on the patron side of the bar often don’t identify the base spirit in the drink, only the broad category. The liquid in the drink that provides the reason for having the drink is left unrequested.
Again, if I liked a particular spirit, I would have a favorite in the category and ask for it by name –– not always, but more often than I see that kind of behavior in others.
I guess it’s also true of wine when the watering hole offers wine by the glass. You sort of have to choose from a broad range of varietals rather than naming a particular winery label.
Anyway, learning about spirits, what it is you like and what each brings to the rocks glass, is fun and adds to the enjoyment of the festivities. With this topic, there is much to grasp. Then there is the ability, after the fundamentals are clear, to head off into a completely different direction. And that brings us to the Joy of the Cocktail.
Dale DeGroff is the ultimate cocktail educator, innovator, definer and refiner. He is known as King Cocktail in those circles that recognize excellence in this field. His books, The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail, are literally college educations in this expanding field.
DeGroff not only defines the classic methods of making drinks you have heard about all your life but also tells you the history of those drinks and provides the recipes for other variations. It’s fun reading, even if you have no plans to pick up a shaker and a strainer and do something about it.
drink'-ol-o-gy by James Waller is also an excellent starting point. At close to 400 pages, this compact yet very full volume provides cocktail-information-overload. You will be hard-pressed to come up with a cocktail question or situation that is not addressed here. And you can take the notes that accompany the recipes and use them to make small talk while you correctly fix your guests the drinks. It’s just about the next best thing to actually being in a bar with a truly professional and highly trained mixologist, an all too-rare occurrence these days.
Finally, please allow me to recommend The Ultimate Bartender’s Guide by Fred DuBose. This no-nonsense spiral-bound 250-page book contains 1,000 cocktail recipes from The Four Seasons restaurant in New York. If you are seeking historical perspective or tidbits of chatter, this is not your book. But if you want solid, time-tested recipes, look no further. The author provides easy-to-follow instructions with well-defined ingredients and quantities. You simply follow what has worked at The Four Seasons, and that means learning from the best.
Now to the point of ordering a drink and allowing a complete stranger to make it so that you’ll like it. The more you know about ingredients and how they work together in a glass or cocktail shaker, the better you will enjoy the experience. That’s what knowledge does for you: It adds to your quality of life. I learned that after I left college … I did not know it when I was there.
Anyway, find out what you like or find out precisely how a drink is supposed to be constructed, and then insist that your drinks follow that recipe. My wife and I are notoriously fussy about margaritas, hating the insipid, classless sweet syrup frozen mess that passes for this classic and wonderful drink in most bars.
We demand that the drink be made correctly. In truth, the classic margarita is not about sugar, not about sweet syrup and just about the easiest drink in the world to make. But unless you provide the recipe to the bartender in most establishments, you will continue to be served the syrupy-sweet version.
Anyway, learn the right way to make your favorite drink, and then, using your personal preferences, experiment and find the right combination of ingredients for you.
But, as we say before heading out for the evening, lay a base. In this case, the base is knowledge. Then there’s the other base, too, eating, which is always a great idea.
And this probably goes without saying because you are such a responsible citizen: When you have overindulged, call a cab. Don’t go driving on the streets after you have had a night of perfect cocktails, made to your liking. It does not take long for a nice night to go awry.