So, what’s in a cocktail? My dictionary defines it thusly:
cock·tail |ˈkäkˌtāl| noun an alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or several spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, lemonade, or cream.New Oxford American Dictionary via the MacOS X Dictionary app v. 2.3.0
By this definition, a rum & coke is a cocktail. So is a 7&7. A fuzzy navel, too. But in my book, these are mixed drinks. They definitely aren’t the kinds of cocktails I photograph and celebrate here.
No, what I’m celebrating here is the art of the hand-crafted cocktail. Anyone can throw some ice in a glass and fill it with a mix of rum & coke and hand it across the bar. Mixed drink. No particular skill needed.
An Old Fashioned, on the other hand, is a classic cocktail with a rich history; made properly, it is work of art and its quality depends entirely upon the skill and commitment of the craftsman making it. So, too, the French 75. The Blackberry Rickey. The Sazerac.
Mastering the art of the cocktail is no small feat. Those who do it well have mastered an impressive library of recipes, techniques, ritual, and lore. They know precisely how long to shake a Ramos Gin Fizz. They know which gin goes best in a Negroni. When to shake and when to stir — and why, and for how long.
They understand that ritual is important in making some drinks. The Mint Julep is not simply a bourbon-based mojito. You don’t just muddle some mint in a glass, throw in some ice cubes and mix in some bourbon and simple syrup. There’s a ritual, and the magic of the julep arises out of that ritual, not just the ingredients. (Pro tip: do NOT order a mint julep when your barkeep is in the weeds.)
The best of the best go beyond mastering the recipes. They use their knowledge of their ingredients, the recipes, and the techniques to create great new combinations to tailor cocktails to their patrons’ tastes. When in the presence of a master, do what you would do with a great chef — ask them to make you something special. Tell them a few parameters: base spirit; savory or sweet; citrus or floral; boozy or light; then get out of their way. In a sushi bar, this would be called omakase. “I place myself in your hands.” In the hands of a cocktail master, it’s a real treat.
In the end, great cocktails, like great food, are prepared by true artisans committed to their craft. I have been lucky to make friends with a number of truly talented cocktail masters, and I have tasted some truly exceptional creations, both classic and newly created. It is those artisans and their cocktails that I celebrate here at HD Cocktailian.