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January 28, 2015

Four years. That’s how long it took to get through college. Man, that felt like a long haul at the time. Four years is longer than I spent at any one of the advertising agencies I worked for in California.

Time feels like it’s moving faster and faster as I get older (and older). Thankfully we have Facebook, and I can see that this same feeling is common among many of my contemporaries. So that’s comforting. Additionally, as I’m in the ramp up phase of this new job, the hours of the day just zoom by.

All of this is to say that I got caught up in a couple of different projects last night, so I’m resorting to desperate measures.

As it turns out four years ago today, I wrote a pivotal post. Well, it may not have been pivotal to you, unless you are the person who lives out in Los Angeles and recently wrote a book on classic cocktails. Because I’m told, this was a very influential post to that project.

Given the way readers continually cycle in and out of this blog, and how rarely anyone delves into the archive, it’s probably not the end of the world if I repurpose this manifesto. Incidentally, it has nothing to do with time. Although if after all this talk of life flittering away has made you glum, the post below contains instructions for a suitable antidote.

The Unfussy Cocktail
Originally posted on January 28, 2011

TV is wonderful stuff. Most of the commercials are crap, but there are really some great shows being made these days. The thing is that I rarely ever watch them when they air. It’s a combination of many factors, none of which need to be addressed right now.

Instead of watching TV live, for serialized dramas I like to bide my time and wait. Then I can watch multiple seasons in the span of a couple of months. It saves me from counting down the days to the next episode and dealing with the disappointments of reruns and preemptions, not to mention the annoyance of commercials.

That said, I’m in the middle of the third season of Mad Men, and really enjoying the hell out of it.

There was one scene where Don was mixing himself a drink at Roger’s wedding. He was making an Old Fashioned. And for the most part, it was an effortless affair. Sure he had to muddle a sugar cube with some bitters, but the drink was quick to prepare, and he could hold a conversation while assembling it.

This is the gold standard of cocktail making, and it’s within your grasp.

Cocktails are all about making booze palatable. Seriously. Cocktails are cold, which dampens their flavor. Cocktails add a spoonful of sugar, which as Mary Poppins has taught you, “helps the medicine go down.” Cocktails are also diluted with water, regardless of whether they are shaken or stirred, and this dilution reduces the heat of the base spirit’s alcohol.

The basic components to make a cocktail are a base spirit, something flavorful, something sweet, and ice. Things start getting complicated when fruit or some other produce is involved. So let’s leave anything that was recently alive out of the equation for right now.

The thing that is flavorful and the thing that is sweet can sometimes even be the same thing. This is the advantage of liqueurs and flavored syrups. A liqueur is like a flavored syrup that will last indefinitely. They are wonderful, but can be expensive. Any fool can make a good flavored syrup, using sugar, water and a flavoring agent. And making a ginger syrup with fresh ginger root and black peppercorns is certainly mere economical than buying a bottle of Canton Ginger Liqueur. But that stuff is fabulous and worth every penny of its $30 price tag.

In the gripping cold of an upstate New York winter, warming drinks are in demand.

Both ginger and bourbon play nicely together. So one simple drink would be to combine the two. My go-to proportion for liqueurs is 1:4. That means I would add 1 tablespoon of liqueur to 4 tablespoons of base spirit. You may want a touch more sweetness, but that becomes a matter of personal preference. And for God’s sake, if you are combining two spirits, stir that drink.

Only shake if you are using citrus, eggs, or other ingredients that need extra help being incorporated into the drink.

These kinds of simple combinations can provide you with a different drink for every day of the month, and then some. Gin with a bit of Chartreuse. Scotch with spoonful of Drambuie. Bourbon with a hint of coffee liqueur. Vodka with a touch of Chambord. Brandy spiked with crème de cacao. You get the picture.

And from there you can play around with bitters: The anise of Peychaud’s, the warm sweet spice of Angostura, or the deep orange of Fee’s.

Remember, the goal here isn’t necessarily inventing a drink that’s going to be the next Martini. The goal is to make something good without working at it too hard. It’s important to understand the tools at your disposal and the role they play. And trust your instincts about what tastes good together.

Then you can start serving up delicious cocktails, without breaking a sweat. Just make sure to keep it simple, and you’ll be just fine.

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