Twenty-five years ago, I ordered my first classic cocktail. It was a mistake, actually. I had something fruity in mind but for some reason asked for a Manhattan. It arrived perfectly chilled, silky from the vermouth, with the spicy rye bite I’ve loved ever since.
It was a happy accident, to be sure, and one that spurred my curiosity. I wanted to know more, not just about cocktails, but about the people, places and stories that transform mere ingredients into the exceptional. And clearly I wasn’t the only one.
The late 1990s offered a glimmer of hope for those craving well-made Manhattans, martinis and Old Fashioneds, and the craft cocktail movement that followed brought with it a flood of spirits brands, products, techniques and ideas. Now Kansas City is one of the country’s best places to drink, thanks to our bartenders, distillers, distributors, craftspeople and consumers.
Gone are the days of the anything “-tini.” Current cocktail menus from across town feature local whiskey and gin, habanero cordial, house-made liqueurs and marshmallows, all manner of vermouths and amaros, half a dozen tonic waters, fresh beet juice, oleo-saccharum and banana gomme — and that’s just a start.
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How do bartenders keep it all straight? The best know more than the difference between amontillado sherry and Pedro Ximénez. They understand each ingredient’s characteristics and which play well together, much in the same way a chef knows which flavors will combine into a satisfying dish.
And just as chefs appreciate their own culinary traditions, so too do good bartenders. Learning how punch, cobblers, flips, fizzes, daisies, sours and all the other drink families evolved and relate to one another isn’t about historic dogma, though. That much quickly became clear during a recent chat with Eddie Crane, who last year opened Ollie’s Local at 31st Street and Gillham Road.
“You can’t create something without understanding how the pieces work,” says Crane, who describes his spot as a “bar-flavored bar” that’s as much about a comfortable atmosphere as it is tasty food and drinks.
Are the whiskey, rum and sangria punches Crane serves exact replicas of an early 19th-century flowing bowl? No. They do, however, largely hew to the original punch formula of spirits, citrus, sugar, water and spice. Likewise, his Hemingway, with its bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and soda water, follows the basic spirits-sugar-lemon-water formula of a sour.
Certainly you could also order something that would fit the original definition of the cocktail, as explained in the wonderfully updated “Imbibe!”
“In the nineteenth century, when the word first became joined to a drink, it denoted something far more specific: spirits or wine, sweetened with sugar, diluted (if necessary) with water, and spiced up with a few dashes of bitters,” author David Wondrich writes.
Within that basic framework, though, lies tremendous variation, as anyone who’s sipped more than one cocktail in her life knows. That’s why I will in the coming months explore those components — strong, sweet, bitter and sour — as well as modifiers (think vermouth and sherry) and water (an essential, yet often forgotten, ingredient in all cocktails).
What role does each play? How do you select the right base spirit, balance the sweetness of Cointreau or keep Fernet Branca from overwhelming drink? What proportions work best when experimenting, and how do award-winning bartenders develop their own recipes?
I plan to find out by asking the pros, but you don’t have to wait to read what they tell me. The next time you order a cocktail, ask about its ingredients and how it’s made, sample unfamiliar distilled spirits or liqueurs on their own and think about everything from the drink’s aroma and appearance to its nuanced flavors.
Bartenders are often happy to recommend their favorite products and introduce patrons to new drink styles. (Of course, be respectful of your bartender’s time, go at an off-peak hour if you hope to ask lots of questions and remember to tip.)
If you’re a cocktail book junkie like me, there’s plenty of reading to do, too. I pored over Barnaby Conrad III’s “The Martini” when it came out in 1995, and “The Craft of the Cocktail,” “The Joy of Mixology” and “Straight Up or On the Rocks” have long been considered essential reading. Newer resources include “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails,” “The Bar Book,” “Liquid Intelligence,” the “PDT Cocktail Book” and anything written by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Kara Newman, David Wondrich or Wayne Curtis … well, you get the idea.
The point isn’t to replicate what someone else is doing, though. Mastering the classics, or a favorite bartender’s recipe, is an excellent aim. But such recipes should only serve as guides, jumping-off points to create your own drinks.
So ask questions, taste, read and think about what has inspired you. If there’s a drink you want to tinker with, try substituting similar ingredients — what some bartenders call the Mr. Potato Head approach. Certainly it worked for the creator of the Rob Roy, who swapped Scotch whiskey for rye.
And this is one place where home bartenders have a distinct advantage, Crane says. While professional bartenders must create drinks that appeal to a broader clientele, individuals can tailor their creations to their own tastes.
“For someone at home, the sky’s the limit. If you like it, make it,” he says.
Eddie Crane of Ollie’s Local in Martini Corner created the Hemingway because it reminded him of the whiskey sours (or what Ernest Hemingway called whiskey sours) that the author and F. Scott Fitzgerald drank throughout “A Moveable Feast.” When Crane was younger “I wanted to be cool like Hemingway,” he says. “Later when I wanted to feel nostalgic, I built this around that idea.”
Makes 1 drink
1 orange slice
1 good quality cocktail cherry (Crane uses a house-made bourbon-soaked cherry)
1 1/2 ounces bourbon (Crane prefers Four Roses Yellow)
2 ounces fresh lemon juice
2 ounces simple syrup
Splash of soda water
Place the orange slice and cherry in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass and lightly muddle. (“You don’t want orange juice in there. Just loosen it up,” Crane advises.) Fill the glass with ice, add bourbon, lemon juice and simple syrup and top with a splash of soda water.
Per drink: 186 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 22 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.