Newly Rebellious, Part V: Knowing Your Classics
One of the best goals for the aspiring mixologist is to attempt to make as many different classic drinks as they can. Doing so might seem an obvious step, as it familiarizes you with the touchstones of cocktail culture as well as ensuring you have a good range of basic ingredients on hand. But it also has a number of other benefits.
Think of it as building a toolbox. As discussed in the last article, there are a number of different ways to actually combine ingredients; if you make a Cosmo, a Martini, and a White Russian, you’re now familiar with the three major methods to make a cocktail (shaken, stirred, and built over ice respectively). Not only that, but you’ve also got an idea of what three different flavor categories taste like: fruity/citrus, herbal/savory, and rich/sweet. As you make more diverse drinks, you learn what flavor combinations tend to work well, and you train your palate to discern the variations between different recipes in the same general flavor category.
Many forms of alcohol are an acquired taste, which is part of the point of this exercise – once the flavor of whiskey in general is less surprising, you’ll be able to differentiate between types of whiskey, levels of quality, and (eventually) methods of production. Almost inevitably, however, you will come across a classic drink (or even a whole ingredient) that you can’t stand. Don’t be discouraged; everyone is different, and very few people enjoy everything in a given category. The experience of tasting it, however, will serve you well – both in terms of advising you as to what to avoid ordering, and in familiarizing you with its general flavor profile. The latter is useful when you have a guest whose tastes run toward that particular drink or ingredient: even if you don’t have the ingredients for their favorite on hand, you can still offer something in a similar vein. (And do remember that one of the great things about alcohol is the endless variety even within a very specific definition – chances are there’s a far better version out there that you might appreciate more.)
Be forewarned that, while a drink’s “classic” status indicates it’s worth trying, it also means that the drink likely has several different variations, any of which might be labeled with the same name as the original (the Martini is the biggest offender here, but there are others). Fortunately, the International Bartender’s Association maintains a list of their official cocktails, these being the most frequently-made cocktails by bartenders around the world; this makes a great starting point for newly minted mixologists. (Note that IBA standards are written in centiliters. If you’re American and your measuring device has no markings for metric, just remember – three centiliters is about one fluid ounce.)
Once you’ve gotten a good grasp on the classics, you can start tinkering some of the better-known variations, or strike off on your own and start searching for (and inventing your own) recipes, which is where the real fun comes in. But long after that first Manhattan or Harvey Wallbanger is behind you, the tastes you’ve developed and the techniques you’ve perfected during this period will be of great use.