Eat & Drink

The Cocktail Deconstructed: Choosing the right spirits for your drink

Andrew Olsen, bar manager at Bluestem Restaurant, pours a Longfellow.
Andrew Olsen, bar manager at Bluestem Restaurant, pours a Longfellow. rsugg@kcstar.com

Editor’s note: Alcohol might be the most obvious cocktail ingredient, but choosing the right spirit isn’t always easy. That’s why Chow Town’s spirits and drink columnist Anne Brockhoff explores how spirits work in a drink and what to consider when selecting them.

This is the second in a seven-part monthly series on the makings of a cocktail. Follow along as we break it down — spirits, sugar, bitters, water, citrus and other essentials — to arrive at the modern classic.

[Read Part 1: How the classic cocktail fits into the craft cocktail movement]

The cocktail long ago shed its original definition of strong spirits dosed with sugar, bitters and water to embrace an astounding variety of ingredients, flavors and forms. Yet for all the drink variants now enjoyed, one component remains as constant as it is essential: alcohol.

Alcohol, technically known as ethyl alcohol, is produced by certain yeasts and is generally toxic to living cells — so much so that Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” terms it a chemical weapon deployed by yeasts against microbial competition. It doesn’t do us any favors, either.

“The pleasant feeling that (alcohol) gives us is a manifestation of the fact that it’s disrupting the normal function of our brain cells,” McGee writes.

True, but we humans like that pleasant feeling. We like it a lot.

People began making alcoholic beverages around 6000 B.C., or perhaps even earlier, according to “Drink,” by Iain Gately. Those nascent versions of beer were more sustenance than fun, but that changed over the millenniums. Alcohol now is undeniably a social thing, and a well-made cocktail is (or should be) about savoring flavor, connecting with friends and sharing experiences, says Bluestem bar manager Andrew Olsen.

“Drinking, socializing, relaxing — (alcohol) is a huge part of that,” Olsen says.

Choosing high-quality spirits (which I define as the point where personal preference intersects with the price you’re willing to pay) is trickier than ever, though, given the proliferation of brands in what is now a $72 billion market, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Expensive, heavily advertised or highly rated spirits might not be right for the moment. How do you figure out what is?

Begin by tasting everything, bartenders suggest. Many retailers, bars and restaurants host tasting events, as does the Culinary Center of Kansas City. Local distilleries including J. Rieger & Co., Union Horse Distilling Co. and Tom’s Town Distilling Co. also offer samples during tours. (Tickets and reservations are often required; be sure to check first.)

Sitting at the bar and asking about unfamiliar products — especially while traveling — is another great way to learn, says Kate Brubacher, co-owner of the Myers Hotel Bar in Tonganoxie, Kan.

“I love to taste,” says Brubacher, who discovered Cabin Still bourbon while sitting at a bar in Minnesota. She now combines it with mezcal, sherry and maple water for her Cherrywood cocktail. “Going to different parts of the country and tasting what they have there is the most exciting thing.”

Part of a distilled spirit’s character comes from its chemical nature. Distilling in its loosest sense begins with fermented grains, fruits or even vegetables, and then concentrates the alcohol as well as volatile and aromatic qualities. The resulting spirit might seem a bit sweet, because the alcohol molecule resembles that of sugar, or feel oily or viscous, since some alcohol molecules behave a bit like fats. (“On Food and Cooking” provides an excellent, succinct explanation of it all.)

Alcohol irritates as well, creating the familiar “hot” sensation, and it carries its own aroma. Add the unique qualities of the fermented liquid the distiller began with, the techniques used in distilling, aging, infusing and so on, and you have a vast world of spirits to choose from. Just think how different the oaky caramel of bourbon is from rye’s spice, and mezcal’s smoke from the myriad herbs, flowers, spices and fruits that now join juniper in gin.

It all comes through in your cocktail, and the alcohol itself also transforms other ingredients and binds them into a cohesive whole. That’s because it’s a flavor enhancer that dissolves water- and fat-soluble compounds to release flavors as well as aroma molecules like fruity esters, McGee writes.

The result is even tastier cocktails, but tasty can be treacherous. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines recommend men consume no more than two drinks daily, and women just one, while defining one drink as 12 fluid ounces of 5 percent alcohol beer, 5 fluid ounces of 12 percent wine or 1  1/2 fluid ounces of 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume) distilled spirits.

Trouble is, spirits often contain more alcohol than that. Gins run around 90 proof, as do some whiskeys, and high-proof spirits including the 126-proof J. Wray & Nephew Ltd. rum are finding their way into cocktails. Add vermouth or a liqueur, and you’re over the Dietary Guidelines mark.

One way to keep an eye on things is to run your recipe through a cocktail calculator like Rethinking Drinking (rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov). If you don’t know the exact proportions, “Liquid Intelligence” by Dave Arnold helpfully lists cocktail styles in order from booziest to lightest. Built drinks, or those like the Old Fashioned that are almost entirely spirits, have the most alcohol, followed by stirred drinks (ice melts, adding some water to the drink), shaken (typically these contain juice, egg whites and other ingredients) and then blended or carbonated drinks.

When in doubt? Ask your bartender. Olsen created Bluestem’s cocktail list to appeal to a variety of guests, with both spiritous offerings like the Longfellow (gin, vermouth, Benedictine and grapefruit bitters) and lighter ones, including his take on the Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s No. 1 Cup and seasonal sodas from Little Freshie).

Olsen’s list also features Lillet, one of a number of aperitif wines gaining in popularity. Traditionally served neat, over ice or with soda, these are increasingly taking a starring role in aperitif cocktails, which “The Cocktail Chronicles” by Paul Clarke calls “the Boom Boom Mancinis of mixology — lighter on their alcoholic feet, but still packing a formidable flavor.”

Brubacher and other bartenders are also using bona-fide healthy ingredients in their drinks such as the fresh-squeezed beet juice in her Sweet Earth (it combines perfectly with gin and passion fruit juice) and turmeric (a spice known for its anti-inflammatory properties) in her Turmeric Tea Julep.

Brubacher focuses on nurturing her guests, and she prefers brands like Craft Distillers and Suerte Tequila that she believes demonstrate similar concern for their products, partners and consumers. The next step is simply crafting drinks to showcase that care.

“Distillers have spent their lives doing this,” Brubacher says. “It’s about honoring what they’ve presented and then finding these subtle partners, these small ways of enhancing what is already truly beautiful.”

Surely McGee, who appreciates good food and drink as much as the science that makes them so, would agree.

Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist: ninmilefarm@gmail, @BlitheSpiritsKC

Longfellow

Andrew Olson, bar manager at Bluestem in Westport, updated the classic Martinez with locally distilled gin and Benedictine, an herbaceous liqueur, to create this cocktail.

Makes 1 drink

1 ounce gin (Olson used J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin)

1 ounce sweet vermouth (such as Dolin Rouge)

1/2 ounce Benedictine

2 dashes grapefruit bitters

Lemon peel, for garnish

Combine gin, vermouth, Benedictine and bitters in a mixing glass. Fill partway with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

Per drink: 172 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 3 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Negroni Sbagliato

Lower-octane cocktails such as this one from “The Cocktail Chronicles” by Paul Clarke are in keeping with America’s growing appreciation for amaros, vermouths and aperitif wines.

Makes 1 drink

1 ounce Campari

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1 ounce chilled Prosecco or other sparkling wine

Orange wheel, for garnish

Fill a rocks glass partway with ice. Add Campari, vermouth and wine. Stir to combine and garnish.

Per drink: 146 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 3 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Pimm’s Cup

Lower-octane spirits and liqueurs can still pack a flavorful punch in cocktails, like the Pimm’s Cup served at Bluestem. Bar manager Andrew Olson likes using whatever Little Freshie sodas are in season (most recently the local soda maker’s prickly pear flavor), although the traditional version below is also refreshing.

Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup

3 to 4 ounces lemon-lime soda

Orange twist, strawberries, cucumber slices or other fruit, to garnish

Combine Pimm’s and soda in an ice-filled glass and garnish.

Per serving: 146 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 10 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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