Food & Drinks

Cocktail College: 8 of the Best Bartender Hacks

On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy looks back at some of his favorite lessons he’s learned so far on this season of the podcast. Listeners have learned about classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Gimlet, and Martini. But some of the most notable moments came from guests’ personal preferences when making these cocktails.

How can you make sure your drink is perfectly diluted? What is the best way to garnish a cocktail with unfavorable ingredients? McKirdy takes a look at these lessons and more in this special midterm episode.

Tune in for the rundown.

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Tim McKirdy: This is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College,” a weekly deep dive into classic cocktails that goes beyond the recipe with America’s best bartenders.

We’re about a dozen episodes into “Cocktail College” now, and like any quality curriculum, we should probably take a moment to reinforce some of the things we’ve learned so far. As the host and a lover of cocktails, I’m constantly struck by the wealth of knowledge of our guests. Not just on their chosen drink, but with mixology in general. I found that in so many episodes, it’s just been so much to take in. So before we continue with our cocktail education, think of this as a kind of audio cliff notes from the season so far, filled with incredible tips and tricks and insight into the minds of America’s best bartenders. Listeners, let’s get into it.

Eric Alperin on the Art of Measurements

First up is Eric Alperin and the Old Fashioned, and the theme of this lesson is measurements. Now, when we think about cocktails and measurements, we normally think about 2 ounces of this spirit, and a couple of bar spoons of a different ingredient. But when Eric spoke about the build of his Old Fashioned, he went beyond that. His measurements went into things like the size of ice and how that impacts the glassware he uses. He got granular and discussed the size of sugar cubes, and we even explored how a given and accepted measurement isn’t always straightforward — i.e., what is a “dash” of bitters?

Eric Alperin: With just a recipe, we miss so much of the breadth and the space in between. Like, when you throw a sugar cube into that 9-ounce glass. Now, I’m going to walk you through the recipe for our Old Fashioned at The Varnish. You’ve got a 9-ounce glass. That’s really important to us. Sure, you can use a larger glass if that’s all you have at home. For us, it’s about what will fit our particular rocks of ice. We have block ice, and it’s 2.5 inches tall by an 1.75 inches width, and 1 inch wide and deep. We choose the glass specifically. Then, what is the sugar cube that we’re dropping in there? We’re dropping in a Domino Dot sugar cube. Sasha [Petrasky] was such an advocate of the right amount of sugar in an Old Fashioned. We always did it with sugar cubes. The way Domino Dot cuts the sugar loaf is smaller than what they do with a C&H sugar cube. Now, I like Domino Dot, and the amount of sugar in that particular cut of the sugar loaf compared to the C&H. So, I agree with Sasha, and that’s what we do in house. Other places don’t. They use the C&H, and they’re a bit bigger. But, those details really matter. You throw in that sugar cube and hit it with Angostura bitters. We use a Japanese bitters bottle, because when you look at recipes, a lot of the time it doesn’t talk about how bitters come out of a traditional bitters bottle. It’s the same thing with knives in the kitchen, man. There’s a certain knife to cut fish. Otherwise, you’re going to hack the meat up, right? The way you slice, the angle, whether you’re going long ways or short ways on the meat? It’s all so important. So, for us, Angostura bitters live in a Japanese bitters bottle. The way that Japanese bitters bottles are shaped is bulbous at the bottom, and then it has this piston that the bitters fly through. They then go through this particular dasher. When you shoot out three dashes from a Japanese bitters bottle, that is one dash. Three dashes from a Japanese bitters bottle is one dash, if you can get it correctly, from an Angostura bottle. The thing about Angostura bottles is that, when it’s full and you do a dash, it’s too full. You didn’t get the right dash. Then, there’s a point in the bitters bottle where there’s enough air and enough liquid where you get the right dash. But, it can be really hazardous. If you don’t have enough bitters in the bottle and do a dash, then turn the bottle over, all of a sudden it creates too much force, and you put too much bitters into the bottom of your glass. So, that’s why we use the Japanese bitters bottles for consistency in the dashing.

T: Hey Siri, go on Amazon and order me a Japanese bitters bottle. Thanks, Eric. Next up, we have Abigail Gullo on the Manhattan. Abigail arrives with some sage advice for professionals and home bartenders on the order of making cocktails specifically — which is something I worry about a lot when I’m making Martinis at home, even if I’m not a pro bartender. Abigail also shared some tips on how to make that process even easier if you’re hosting for a crowd.

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Abigail Gullo on Batching Cocktails

Abigail Gullo: Well, it’s still a huge issue, of course, people getting their drinks fast. It’s how we make money, so our businesses make money. And the guest’s expectations are that they get their drinks quickly as well, and you want to get that drink out there so they can order another one. I approach it most importantly for speed, which is when you get a Manhattan in and there are other drinks on there, you make that Manhattan first in the mixing glass with the ice and then you make all the other drinks and then you stir it and pour it. It’s resting on the ice, so it’s not getting over- diluted. You’re not agitating it; there’s no way it’s going to get over-diluted while it’s just sitting there in the ice. But it is getting colder, which is what’s important for that drink to take on that smooth, velvety cold texture. So that, to me, is really important to get that drink built first in the glass, then make your other rounds so you have all the drinks ready at the same time. If you have time to let it sit, let it sit, man, and get that other work done. When you watch old movies, they have a Martini or Manhattan pitcher, which they make for their guests. Those drinks are just sitting in the pitcher, and they’re not being stirred. Sometimes, they have a stick just to stir it around, but they’re just sitting on ice and then they just keep adding booze to it as the night goes on. Then, they’re pouring out little Martini glasses and little Manhattan glasses. Those glasses are small. That’s why people had three-Martini lunches because the glasses used to be really, really small. You just keep it cold on a pitcher. I don’t see this anymore now, everyone’s doing frozen Martinis. If you’re batching for a party, there’s no reason why you can’t do a frozen Manhattan. Batch it diluted ahead of time. Stick it in the freezer, and then when you’re ready to, pour.

T: Batch, dilute, freeze, pour, repeat. Thanks, Abigail. Next up, we have Neal Bodenheimer and the Sazerac. This was an episode that I got so much great feedback on from listeners. Thank you for that. And just on the detail that Neal went into on the history of the drink and also his preparation of it. Now, Neal has gone into as much detail as anyone on his search for the ideal Sazerac recipe, which is fair enough given that his operation is in New Orleans. And at this point in the clip, he’s already told us that he’s using an atomizer to mist the inside of the glass with Herbsaint. You can also do it with absinthe. Now he goes on to talk about the lemon twist garnish, and this thing blew my mind.

Neal Bodenheimer on Garnishing the Sazerac

Neal Bodenheimer: You’re going to cut your lemon peel, and you’re going to express it from about three to four inches away on the outside of the cocktail glass. That’s not to say that a little bit can’t go in the cocktail, but your goal is to put as much of the oil on the outside of the glass as possible because you want it to get on someone’s hand. Because when you put oil on top of a drink, you really are going to drink that within the first two sips. So we want that lemon oil to really stick around and to stay on your guest’s or your hand. What we’ll do is dab it on different parts of the glass. That’s not a rub, it’s just taking this like oil-laden peel and trying to get as much of that oil on the glass as possible. And then we’ll roll the peel. There’s a tradition of that in New Orleans, so you roll the peel and you mount it on the edge. Fate intervenes; sometimes they fall in. Sometimes they fall out, big deal. But you have, once again, this peel that’s full of oil and acid. If that peel goes in the drink, that drink will be lighter and brighter with a little more acid. If that drink goes out, it’s richer and rounder. So we really think that should be a guest’s decision unless, of course, fate intervenes.

T: I love that idea of leaving it up to fate to decide how my drink is garnished. Wonderful stuff, Neal. Next up, we have the Ramos Gin Fizz with Lucinda Sterling. In this one, Lucinda echoes the sentiments of many people during our questions at the end of the show when talking about the importance of the jigger.

Lucinda Sterling on the Importance of the Jigger

Lucinda Sterling: Because there are so many different styles of jiggers out there, this is really important. If you use a Japanese jigger, you have to fill it all the way up, so you get the meniscus. The meniscus can go either way, it can be negative or over the top. You’re going to get a lot of waste. As a bartender and a bar owner, I don’t like that. I want to be pretty exact. I like my graduated jiggers. Of course, you have to find one that is actually on point. So I buy graduated cylinders from McMaster.com, and I actually measure out each of the jiggers to make sure that they’re on point. That way, we never have to worry about over- or under-pouring. Sasha [Petrasky] said this: “You’re never going to really ruin a drink if you add too much alcohol. But if you add too much sugar or if you add too much citrus, you might have an imbalanced cocktail.” Obviously, an Old Fashioned can never have too much bourbon. But if you have too much sugar or lime in your Daiquiri, it’ll throw it off, and you’ll be able to taste that.

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T: I can honestly say I have never complained about a drink having too much alcohol. Next up, it’s the Gibson with Meaghan Dorman. She approaches one of my favorite subjects, which is stirring. You probably noticed I’m always trying to get some little tips out of our bartenders on their particular technique and often mis-assigning some. During this one, I love the way that Megan describes the art of stirring. I took a lot away from her process, especially the order in which she builds the drink with the ingredients. Which may seem obvious to some, but then again, probably not to others.

Meaghan Dorman on the Elegance of Stirring

Meaghan Dorman: I call stirring the ballet of bartending because I think it should be one of those things where it’s quite elegant. You get a great result, but when you’re really good and your technique is good, you don’t actually see the effort. You can still have a conversation over the bar. When I’m training bartenders, I work a little backwards as in, this is the result we want. How do you get there? I’m not going to tell you 10 seconds or 12 seconds or exactly how long you shake because it is a little different per person. What we’re trying to get to is this result. So I think it can vary a little bit for people. But when I’m making a Gibson, first I’m going to start with our small, affordable ingredients. So that would be our onion brine first. In case I mess up, I’m not going to throw a bunch of Tanqueray No. 10. So I’m going to start with that, then I’m going to do 1 ounce of bianco vermouth. Then, I’m going to do 2 ounces of Tanqueray No. 10 in a mixing glass — which is also a little bit cold, not freezing, but from the fridge. I always do four whole cold draft cubes and three cracked ones. Then, I stir for about 10 seconds. That’s just me; that’s how I get the result I want. When I see it, I pretty much know every time when it’s done. We have a frozen cocktail glass for it, that chilled onion on a nice toothpick. Strain it out, no floating icebergs or anything. Nice, beautiful, cold Gibson.

T: That right there is one of those many instances for me where a bartender has just finished describing their drink, and I want to have one in hand straight away at that moment. Don’t know about you listening. Next up, we have Toby Cecchini and the Gimlet and a lesson that I need to constantly remind myself as a drinker and when I’m making cocktails. And that’s not to be afraid of dilution. Toby’s speaking about this within the context of his lime cordial, which he rediscovered or reinvented for his historic Gimlet.

Toby Cecchini on Mastering Dilution

Toby Cecchini: Some people get very, a little bit hinky about that. People say, “Oh, you’re supposedly making a real Gimlet, but it’s not even up.” I’ve searched and searched for a proper spec on how the Gimlet is made. Nobody can point to an absolute here. I see it in all kinds of different ways. You can certainly have it up, and lots of people order it up. But we serve it on the rocks because it’s so in-your-face; it’s such an intense drink. The Italians had this great word, agrodolce, which means sweet and sour. It’s so sweet and sour, but it’s also just so intense that I feel like it benefits from that dilution. Obviously, it gets diluted from shaking maybe 20 to 25 percent or something like that. But if you pour that over ice, you can get something like a 30 percent dilution on that. I feel like it needs that to open up and become palatable.

T: That makes so much more sense and so much more compelling than someone saying, “Yeah, you need to serve this up because it’s this style of drink or whatever.” No. You’ve thought about that. You tasted it, and that’s your preference.

TC: Some things are just too intense. Since the cocktail renaissance and turn of the century, that was the mode of doing everything. You’re shaking it for very little time on large ice and keeping the concentration and strength with as little dilution as possible. That is completely anathema to the way I think. I want a lot of dilution and a lot of water to open up a cocktail and make it palatable, make those aromas volatile and just make it more user-friendly. So many drinks are way too concentrated for me.

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T: One person who loves to wax lyrical on dilution is Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge and his drink The Pink Gin. I can tell you right now: It’s gin and Angostura Bitters, stirred. It’s simple. One thing that I did take away from his episode and found absolutely fascinating was the concept of the drink being served in or out, which is a term I’d never come across before in my life.

Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge on Serving Drinks In and Out

Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge: Legend has it they drank it for seasickness, and it also created this phrase that we are comfortable with the Martini. You’re thinking about how dry you’d like it, how much vermouth you’re going to have for a dry Martini. With the Pink Gin, you would ask, “In or out?” If you find an old-school bartender in New York or in London and you order a Pink Gin, those that know their stuff will ask you, “In or out?” This is a throwback to whether you were an officer or a sailor. Officers were basically allowed as much as they liked. They would add it to their glass of gin, and they kept all the Angostura stored in their glass. The old sailors didn’t have access to as much, so they would add it to their cup and swirl it around and then tip out the excess into their buddy’s glass and so on. So they would just put a coating of the bitters. So you either drank it in, which was a heavy amount of Angostura, or out, which was just a rinse and flick the excess out.

T: So how do you take your Pink Gin? Personally, I think I’m an “in” guy, but I’m still exploring. Last up, we have Simon Ford and the Gin & Tonic. As I mentioned in the episode, this is a drink that I’ve struggled with over time. That’s basically because I don’t like tonic water. But after talking with Simon and in particular hearing his approach to garnishing the drink, I’m ready to give it another go.

Simon Ford on Garnishing the Gin & Tonic

Simon Ford: Something I often do with Fords — because that’s made with grapefruit, lemon and orange — is I do a wheel of all three of those citrus. The reason I do that for Fords is because that’s what’s in the recipe. But that’s what I liked about the Spanish style. If you take the art seriously of garnishing the Spanish G&T, you’re looking at the flavors within the gin, and then you’re pairing it with the different garnishes that you can put in. Or, you’re picking garnishes that accentuate those flavors, turning it up a notch. I always love putting just one star anise into my Spanish Gin & Tonic. The great thing about the Spanish Gin & Tonic is that it lasts a while, so the flavors do infuse into the overall drink, which starts to develop and change. The star anise just adds this refreshing nature to it. I also like putting things like cinnamon in it — things that will not automatically be noticed by the palate. But as I go on, they start to soak in and the flavors start to come out. I do like putting in herbs, mint, and citrus because it makes it pop as a whole. I like that by nature of making a Gin & Tonic in the Spanish style, you get to essentially have creative license over your Gin & Tonic. And I think that’s a lot of fun.

T: Simon Ford there refreshing our podcast feeds. That’s it, folks. We are done with the recap and ready to continue on our cocktail education journey together. Thanks a lot for tuning in. Until next time.

If you enjoy listening to the show anywhere near as much as we enjoy making it, go ahead and hit subscribe, and please leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts — whether that’s Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher. And please tell your friends.

Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

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