Advanced Craft Cocktail Theory: Context
We’ve spent a long time in this series talking about how. How the basic building blocks of flavor combine in appealing ways. How to maximize or minimize aroma in a drink. How to change the texture of a cocktail and how those ingredients work. All of these things are quite important in order to make a craft cocktail, but are completely unhelpful in deciding when to make a craft cocktail, or what might be an appropriate drink to make in a particular situation. Gathering important information and utilizing it to narrow the available cocktail choices deals with context.
Utilizing context can be a powerful tool to reduce the number of possible cocktails from the infinite to the most appropriate one for the task at hand, even before ingredients on hand are considered. It is easiest to pass the infinite number of potential cocktails through progressively more severe filters and arrive at an appropriate drink. We will look at each of these filters in turn, and the end result will not only be better cocktails, but ones that fit their sense of place. To this end, we will discuss seasonal drinking, situational drinking, reading the needs and wants of your guests, and drinking locally.
The high temperature tomorrow where I live is going to be 90 degrees. We’re just getting into May, and it’s beginning to feel like summer. My desire for warm drinks, flips, and sweeter, heavier cocktails has dropped to nothing, but my stash of gin is starting to look like a roasted chicken from those old Looney Tunes cartoons where Bugs Bunny is starving. Utilizing this seasonal drinking filter excludes hundreds of drinks from the realm of the possible. In warmer weather, citrus juices, lighter amari (think Gran Classico versus Ramazzotti), carbonation, and white spirits are much more pleasant than heavy liqueurs, dark spirits and texturizers like dairy or eggs. Drinks that are lighter in texture versus heavier are necessarily more refreshing, which also means a preference for lower proof cocktails over higher proof ones.
As a non-professional cocktail drinker, the vast majority of the cocktails I drink are made by me, at home. I live an hour away from a good cocktail bar, so I’ve been forced to make do. Luckily, this means that my collection is full of things that I love to drink, and ingredients for cocktails I love. It also means that I don’t have to be concerned about costing out ingredients, hitting price points, or covering a wide customer base. For example, I have one bottle of inexpensive vodka in the bar (Monopolowa, if you’d like to know). I don’t drink the stuff straight, but it’s nice to have it around for infusions. I’m not going to spend the evening churning out drinks with Apple Pucker or Midori in them, so I don’t have them.
There are often times, though, where serving others will be necessary. Hosting a dinner party where a cocktail is expected either before or after dinner explores a new set of variables. Here, both carbonation and bitterness stimulate the appetite while sugar decreases it. Lighter cocktails that are lower proof, but that have some sort of bitter or sparkling ingredient are pleasant before a meal. After dinner, higher proof alcohol or sweeter, heavier drinks signal to the body that it’s time to stop eating. It is also important to think about batching cocktails in advance, especially at a larger party where as host, there are other duties to manage. It is also quite important to understand the wants and needs of your guests.
I have a friend who is horribly allergic to citrus, including citric acid. When I make a drink for her, my available cocktails drops to a very low number. She usually drinks vodka sodas, and I’ve actually aromatized wines with herbs and spices and used them as the flavoring agent for a vodka and soda for her. If my guests include people who are serious about cocktails, I’m much more free with pulling out more challenging ingredients and drinks. A nice touch (and one that will be remembered) is to quietly ask about the favorite brands of your guests, then make them a drink with that brand. Understanding allergies, likes and dislikes, and how adventurous your guests are can go a long way toward reducing the world of cocktails down to a manageable amount.
The obverse of this is that there are times when challenging someone’s preconceptions about cocktails can be rewarding. If your guests dislike strong alcohol flavors but are willing to experiment, perhaps a 2:1 Martini made with a softer gin would open up the world of gentle herbal flavors. Likewise, the Intro to Aperol can be a good starting place if your guests are amarophobes. Being familiar with the contents of your bar and the stylistic differences between different types of alcohol can go a long way toward being a trusted guide to the world of craft cocktails.
Finally, let’s talk about drinking locally, or at least having a point of view about the creation of cocktails. Utilizing ingredients from local distilleries, fresh fruit and herbs from nearby farms, and even garnishing with edible flowers from the garden go a long way toward making a drink appropriate not only for the climate and weather, but creates a link to the place in which it is made. Yes, cocktails should display their terroir, or sense of place. There’s a reason that some Scotch distilleries sell bottled water from their water source so that the consumer can add a bit of the “home waters” to their dram.
The homework for this week is simple. Think about what filters you have when deciding to make a cocktail, and come up with a drink that exemplifies your location, situation and weather. I’d love to hear about anything delicious.
This is the third in a series of advanced cocktail construction tutorials by Kindred Cocktails editor, Zachary Pearson.
Want the introductory series? Start with acidity.