If there is one topic we have spent a lot of time on over the years it’s that you like what you like. Your preferences are to be honored. Your cocktails have to be yours.
There is no use lecturing on the use of expensive ingredients if you cannot appreciate them to the fullest extent, or are unwilling to pay the up-charge for what they bring to the affair. And this is by no means a knock on your or my taste or culture. Matters are complicated enough without tossing in irrelevant attitudes about upbringing, education, taste, experience or appreciation.
Get what you like at a level you can enjoy within a price range that is comfortable. Period.
The idea that gave rise to this (probably unnecessary) discussion is an article in that vaunted newspaper of American capitalism, The Wall Street Journal. The author, Will Lyons, proceeds to expose how certain ingredients came to be associated with named cocktails, but the debate is not over and the discussion goes on. Likely forever.
For instance, when you order a martini, is the base spirit vodka or gin? Would James Bond, noted fictional British Secret Agent, ever order a shaken-not-stirred martini with gin? Keep in mind that Bond is British to the core.
It seems Mr. Bond’s base spirit is vodka. And the reason James Bond drinks martinis with vodka is that Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, first tasted a martini in Russia on a trip which included some American journalists. Fleming liked the martinis in Russia, and be assured no self-respecting Russian would ever use a British spirit when vodka is so available and cheap.
But in the opinion of Alessandro Palazzi, one of the finest martini mixers in all of London, holding court and managing the bar, at Dukes Hotel, gin is the way to go. “It used to be that vodka was the spirit of choice, but now it has completely flipped to the side of gin and vodka has become an outcast,” Palazzi says.
A similar argument is made by me, not that any argument I could make counts for anything, when it comes to the wonderful cocktail French 75. This Champagne-based incredibly aromatic and delightful drink seems to have, at least in New Orleans, gravitated to using gin as the second spirit. But I have always been a fan of Cognac as the additive that brings deeper flavor and not just alcohol to the mix.
Besides, my reasoning goes, any drink named French 75 would never tolerate the intrusion of an English spirit into the mix. Never mind that the first reference to this drink, created at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in the early 1930s, notes that gin was originally used in this cocktail named for the bore measurement of a powerful French cannon used in World War I.
That error of ingredient in the French 75, it seems to me, was quickly corrected in a later volume of cocktail recipes that noted the drink was a Cognac-based elixir.
When it comes to taste in cocktails, I am much more of a citrus-loving palate rather than a sugar baby. Simple syrup, that “complicated” mixture of boiled sugar and water, is not something I want anywhere near what I am drinking. Same goes for grenadine, and whatever is in that bottled sweet and sour mix used by bars all over the place in margaritas.
My logic goes that enjoying a cocktail should be a wonderful experience. I don’t drink just to be doing so. I drink for enjoyment, for pleasure.
Usually there are ways to get to the best drink without the use of sweeteners or random additive ingredients. Usually there are other spirits, bitters or fresh citrus that will add the necessary aromatics and tasting sensations that can make a drink “sing.” You may also want to experiment with Curaçao, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, St. Germain and Cognac as a substitute for cheaper sweetening in a drink. I’ve even had good results by using rum which is in itself nothing more than processed sugar cane.
By taking that path, I have also made making drinks easier as far as mixing goes. The offset is that the prep work may have expanded.
For instance, margaritas are one of the classic 3-ingredient cocktails. A very good grade of Tequila, fresh lime juice and Cointreau. Each ingredient occupies 1/3 of the space in the drink. That’s it. Now, some bars don’t want to squeeze that much lime juice for only one drink. It’s a lot of limes and a lot of work. But it’s worth it to me and on more than one occasion I have offered to do the squeezing myself. Bars are busy places and I respect that I am not the only demanding guy standing around waiting for a beverage.
While the bartender is pulling a few beers for others, I am rolling limes on the bar, slicing them open and squeezing the hard little buggers into a container that will immediately end up in my drink. It’s not pretentious. It’s just how I like my margaritas.
And there’s the point. I am not a fan of cheap ingredients that bring an artificial flavor to the cocktail. I am willing to work to get something in which I can take pleasure.
Keep in mind that adding sugar is not a bad thing; it may not, however, be the best thing. Sugar and other sweet ingredients are also contained in mixers and other spirits. Consider those sweet levels first, before adding simple syrup or cane sugar.
And know that bitters, other spirits, even citrus are your friends. Deeper flavors and fighting scurvy are reasons enough to drinking smarter.