Monday, January 4, 2010

Mission Accomplished (Really)!

In September, spurred on by hubris and a complete disregard for the well being of my liver, I embarked on a task - a crusade, really - to create and consume all 100 cocktails on a list of cocktails compiled by the Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. These were cocktails to be tried at least once in your lifetime, and while I had already tried a little more than a third of them already (hey, I've been drinking for a few years now), I thought making them all myself would be kind of neat. Giving myself 121 days to complete the 100 cocktails list, I thought I was giving myself enough of a cushion so that I wouldn't be drinking 15 cocktails on New Years Eve to finish. It wasn't that bad, but it definitely came down to the wire, mixing up 5 over the course of the day on the 31st. But, as I completed my Seelbach cocktail (a bourbon and champagne concoction) at 11:55PM, I also completed The List (see below) - maybe not the greatest achievement of my life (although it probably ranks right above completing graduate school), but something which I was proud to have completed - especially since I told everyone I was going to complete it and didn't want to end up looking like an ass.

Some things that I learned along the way (other than blogging about every single cocktail separately wasn't going to happen for very long):

1) I failed to notice the blurb at the top of The List about these being libations to try "for better or for worse." There are a few of these which I will definitely NOT be having again, ranging from the just "eh" (like the aforementioned Seelbach) to the truly awful (the Sherry Cobbler). Wasn't really clear why some of these made this list at all, but I can say I tried them for myself and can make an informed decision about never wanting to have them again.
2) Measurement is everything. The difference a 1/4 ounce of a particular ingredient can make in a cocktail is amazing (for better and for worse). I measured every ingredient per the recipe I was using, and will do so for any cocktail I make from now on. It guarantees a consistent cocktail (not as critical if you're not working in a bar), but also ensures you're going to experience the cocktail as the creator intended. Knowing the "base" flavor to a particular cocktail is critical if you want to tweak the recipe.
3) Proper shaking / stirring is critical. Almost all cocktail recipes call for the ingredients to be shaken or stirred with ice. This accomplishes two things - chills the drink, and dilutes it. I remember being in college and not wanting any ice in my drinks because I didn't want them "watered down". But water is a critical element to any drink - it balances the flavors, takes the hot edge of the liquor, and keeps drinks from becoming 80z liquor bombs (unless that's what you want them to be). I did realize that, for the first quarter of the list, I was overshaking my drinks - they were TOO cold, and overly diluted, resulting in watery cocktails that were too cold for me to taste the ingredients (especially ones with subtle flavors). After changing over to a 4 second hard shake (from approximately 12 seconds or more), I really noticed the difference and complexities in some of these creations
4) Cocktails are not supposed to be big. When the martini resurgence started kicking up in DC in the mid-90s, I remember all of the drinks being huge - 8, sometimes 10 ounce monster drinks, the kind you needed to hold with your whole fist just to lift them. Most were pitched as a good "value" - yeah, they're 8 bucks (remember, this was the 90's - add a couple bucks to that now), but you "get so much for your money." That's great - if your goal is to get blotto after two drinks. What usually happened was that the last third of your drink was warm (and disgusting), so you either sucked it down anyway (and got blotto), or didn't finish the drink - not much value in that. Almost all of the recipes used to create the drinks on this list came to roughly 5 ounces total, including water from the ice - some drinks had as little as 1.5 ounces of actual liquor in them. Cocktails from the late 19th century tended to be even smaller. The point is not to get drunk (although you can) - it's to enjoy a flavorful drink which takes the edge of the day away. You don't need much actual alcohol to do that.
5) Bartending is not easy. I know that bartending isn't just making drinks - a lot of what makes up a good bartender is their personality and attention to customer service. But making good drinks is definitely part of that equation, and that's not a simple task. Take the Manhattan - pretty simple from an ingredients standpoint. But it's just as easy to screw up a Manhattan as it is to make a really good one. The difference between the two is the skill of the person making the drink - and then you add volume (juggling multiple customers ordering multiple drinks) and the associated pressure and you start to see the really skilled bartenders rise above the rest. What I did was easy - I had all the time I wanted to whip these drinks up. Put me into a situation where I was doing this for 20 people, and I would crack.

Not sure what my next steps are. I think I will concentrate on making drinks I feel like making for a little while. A Manhattan sounds really good right about now...

Click the image below to see a more readable version of The List

No comments: