Awoman walks into a bar and orders a Mojito. The bartender moves off to make the drink, and as she settles into her seat the sound of a blender snaps her back to attention. Looking around at the fairly empty bar, she realizes, horrified, that what’s in the blender is mint for her Mojito.
What? Mint for a Mojito in a blender?
Yes, this is a true story. Scarier still, consider that the establishment is a highly reputable Cuban restaurant on Miami’s famed South Beach. A sip of the cocktail revealed that the blenderized mint gave off a bitter edge, not desireable in a Mojito, and the flecks of mint proved less than palatable. The final insult: the drink was made with not-quite-premium rum and cost $14.
The woman (okay, it was me—and yes, I’ve always wanted to begin a story with that particular line) inquired whether the bartender possessed a muddler and might employ it in the making of another Mojito, this one with premium rum. He did, and promptly presented a glass containing the equivalent of mint salad for $16 (I upgraded the rum, remember).
The Mojito is the classic Cuban cocktail, and the restaurant’s colossal corruption of such an important part of my dining experience put me off the rest of the night. Dinner didn’t live up to my chef friend’s glowing review; perhaps I was too disturbed by the echo of the blender whirring in my head to detect any positive qualities in the meal. (No offense meant to blenders here; there is a time and place for them behind the bar.)
A significant lack of appreciation for the care and technique required to create my classic cocktail was the culprit for the soured evening. Mojitos undoubtedly are a volume drink at the establishment, which tempted the bartender to employ the fastest prep method he could discern, the blender. The restaurant’s cocktail list included a number of creative drinks, but the mint faux pas gave me little confidence the cocktails would be executed well.
Top mixologists and mixology instructors agree that mastering classic cocktails such as the Mojito is crucial because doing so teaches bartenders meticulous attention to spirit selection, ingredient proportion, drink-making technique—and simple quality craftsmanship. Having a strong foundation in the classics helps bartenders avoid events such as the Mojito Mint Massacre, freeing them to creatively mix drinks of all types with confidence and competence that never disappoint the guest or the bottom line.
“Bartenders today are encouraged to be creative more often than they are to be correct,” laments Dave Wondrich, cocktail historian, author, consultant and partner in the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) education program. “Creativity is great, but you have to learn the art and the craft first.”
“You need to know the roots of a drink before you start to build anything fancy,” agrees Charles Joly, chief mixologist at classics-oriented The Drawing Room in Chicago. “There are a handful of cocktails at the base of the drink family tree. They’re the foundation of everything you see today, and you need to execute the originals properly.”
But, what are the drinks a bartender must master before moving onto contemporary renditions or attempting something original? Cheers consulted several leading cocktailians and mixology instructors, identifying six drinks, in no particular order, that every bartender worth his muddler should execute well.
I’ll Take Manhattan
The drink created at the Manhattan Club in 1876 when socialite Jenny Jerome requested a special cocktail to toast politician Samuel Tilden may have survived more than a century, but it is the “drink that is made wrong the most,” according to Las Vegas-based Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim. The two biggest offenses: shaking it and leaving out the bitters.
Composed simply of whiskey, vermouth and bitters, and traditionally garnished with a cherry—the original recipe calls for rye whiskey, Angostura bitters and sweet vermouth—the Manhattan is a great test of technique, ingredient selection and ingredient proportioning.
A proper Manhattan should be stirred, not shaken. “Most will want to shake it, and that’s how I know they don’t adhere to the philosophy that if a drink contains one spirit only, it should be chilled by stirring,” says Abou-Ganim.
Beverage educator, consultant and author Robert Plotkin notes that the question of shaking or stirring requires consideration of the specific gravity of the ingredients. In his book, Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails (BarMedia, 2007), he writes, “The basic ingredients [in a Manhattan] are sufficiently close in specific gravity as to not require shaking to ensure that they fully integrate,” and also allow the drink to reach optimal serving temperature.
Abou-Ganim adds, “If they stir, thumbs up, and if they reach for the rye whiskey, my hat’s off.”
Next, “it’s really a question of proportion,” adds Wondrich. “A Manhattan requires vermouth. Not just a splash, but a considerable amount. Put in a dash and you wind up with a big glass of whiskey.”
Bitters is the other crucial ingredient. “A Manhattan is not a Manhattan without bitters,” says Jack Robertiello, drinks writer, previous editor of Cheers and a former bartender himself. “The Manhattan is the true test of whether they know how to use bitters. Period.”
Ice—or really, the water imparted by ice—is the fourth ingredient in a good Manhattan, Joly submits. He prefers ¾-inch cubes; “they’re the right size to get the right amount of water going.” He also advocates the use of house-made maraschino cherries as garnish.
Martini, Plain & Simple
The first thing a good bartender must understand about the Martini is that “it’s a drink, not a category,” says King Cocktail Dale DeGroff.
The Martini is widely believed to be the creation of Professor Jerry Thomas, bartending pioneer of the 19th century and author of The Bartender’s Guide and other seminal tomes on the craft, although Wondrich notes in his latest book, Imbibe! (Penguin Group, 2007), that the origins of the drink may never fully be known.
The earliest recipes involve Old Tom Gin and sweet vermouth, and many call for shaking. Wondrich notes, however, that the proper preparation is to stir. Plotkin explains that shaking a cocktail composed exclusively of a spirit and an aperitif risks over-dilution. Both experts recommend gentle stirring as a means of combining these two ingredients, which boast different specific gravities, and allowing the ice to chill the drink and impart the appropriate amount of water.
Judicious use of vermouth is crucial to a well-made Martini since vermouth imbues the drink with smoothness. French, or dry, vermouth is the classic choice, although the ratio of spirit to vermouth can vary, and the trend has been toward drier (less vermouth) renditions. The menu of Mortini’s at Morton’s of Chicago locations cites a “whisper of vermouth” as the amount in use, although the extra dry Martini dates back several decades; Sir Winston Churchill is said to have prepared Martinis by filling a pitcher with gin and giving the bottle of vermouth a cursory glance.
The Martini not only demands well-honed portioning and stirring skills, but it also puts the bartender’s knowledge of garnishing under scrutiny. The lemon peel twist is traditional, and the skewered olive came into vogue in the 1930s. Olives, which add a briny flavor, need to be selected properly; Plotkin recommends swapping the traditional pimento-stuffed olive for a blue cheese-stuffed one, although this alters the taste of the drink significantly.
Therein lies the rub. The Martini is a very personal drink, “so, you have to ask the right questions,” says Wondrich.
“Just as French chefs test aspiring youngsters by asking them to make an omelet,” recalls Robertiello from his days working behind the stick, “I’d order a Martini to see if [a potential bartender] knew all the right questions to ask, such as, ‘How do you like your Martini, sir? Up or on the rocks? Dry or with more vermouth presence? Olive or a twist? And I presume you prefer gin—any brand preference?’ [If] they don’t ask every question, no job.”
Don’t Sour the Margarita
“Sours are the most difficult—always,” says DeGroff, referring to the category of cocktails that call for fresh lemon and/or lime juice. “Making a good sour demonstrates the ability to balance sweet, sour, bitter, strong and weak, which is the cornerstone of being a professional bartender.”
Lemon and lime juice are volatile, and balancing them with appropriate sweetness is the key to making classic sours. “It’s really important that bartenders know how to make a basic sour,” says The Drawing Room’s Joly, “because you build off it and balance your Margaritas, even your Sidecars, in that way. These three-ingredient drinks, where you have your lead spirit, your balance spirit and your sour, teach you balance.”
Tequila, triple sec and lime juice is the Margarita ménage à trois, a drink created by wealthy socialite Margarita Sames while living the high life in Acapulco in 1948. She married one part Cointreau, three parts tequila and one part lime juice, hitting upon what’s now considered a classic sour. Top cocktailians agree that sours require precise measurement to replicate the balance Sames achieved with her ratio.
“You must measure lime juice; you can’t just splash it in with gay abandon,” Wondrich warns. “With these cocktails, suddenly a half-ounce versus three-quarters of an ounce is quite noticeable. This is where jiggers come in. Someone like Dale DeGroff can free pour and make a perfect sour or Margarita, but newbie bartenders and even good seasoned ones need to measure.”
One also needs to shake the Margarita, and shake it well. Today’s bartenders are recognizing the need for artistic, yet effective shaking—and many are perfecting their own signature styles. The most important element of shaking a cocktail, however, according to Francesco Lafranconi, director of mixology at Southern Wine & Spirits of America, is “the smile, always the smile!”
Another classic sour, the Daiquiri, cranks up the difficulty level, “because there are no liqueurs to hide behind,” says Wondrich. Light rum, simple syrup and fresh lime juice comprise the drink. “I know if a bartender understands this cocktail and can make it properly, they can master all of the sweet-and-sour style drinks,” notes Abou-Ganim. The Hemingway Daiquiri takes it one step further with the addition of grapefruit juice balanced with a touch of maraschino liqueur.
“Make me a proper sour and the sky’s the limit; you can get into savory herbs or fruits, you can tweak and play. But, you’ve got to get the sour right first,” Joly implores.
Call Me Old Fashioned
Technique comes to center stage with the Old Fashioned, the classic combination of bourbon, bitters, sugar, maraschino cherries, orange slices and soda water. Most experts favor muddling the cherry and orange slice with the simple syrup and bitters, then adding ice, bourbon and soda water followed by a cherry garnish and an orange slice.
“This is one of the test drinks in London, where making a proper Old Fashioned is required,” Wondrich says. “There are special little bits of technique here—like building it in the glass and muddling—and some very bad habits to avoid, like drowning it with water. It’s a bedrock drink.”
“The minute the soda water tops the glass we have a lack of understanding,” notes Abou-Ganim. “You don’t ‘top’ this drink with soda water, you build it.”
Again, guests’ personal preferences play a role. The original Old Fashioned was made with blended whiskey and branch water at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky. for a retired Civil War general; cocktail author and instructor Gary Regan calls for a sugar cube and Wondrich mentions a lemon twist as a garnish in place of the orange wedge. “There are 100 minor variations, but there are non-negotiables,” says Joly. “No sour mix from the gun here.”
Make Mine a Mojito
Trendy though it may be today, the Mojito is a classic cocktail that originated in Cuba during the latter 1800s. Duggan McDonnell, proprietor and mixologist at Cantina in San Francisco (see his Cheers Rising Star profile on page 38), counts the Mojito as a must-make drink for those wishing to tend his bar. Wondrich also includes it as a requirement in the classic repertoire, again because it demands balancing rum and the sweet and sour elements, along with a well-honed technique: muddling.
DeGroff considers a muddler a mandatory tool behind the bar; he prefers one at least six inches long and made of unvarnished, natural hardwood, such as fruitwood. The purpose of muddling mint is to open the veins and release the oils, which creates flavor. The leaves, he instructs, should not be torn into tiny bits—which may impart bitterness and are difficult to strain—but gently muddled for a few seconds.
Just to make sure I wasn’t too much the drink snob in turning up my nose at a Mojito involving mint put through a blender, I conducted a quick survey of a dozen top mixologists—and evoked an immediate and resounding response. No, Mojito mint does not belong in a blender. Yes, mint should be muddled, and gently. “When you tear mint up it tends to impart a bitter note,” says Abou-Ganim; “it should be massaged…to release the essential oils.”
Plotkin was the most aghast: “There is never a justifiable reason to abuse a child or to blend defenseless mint leaves.”
While muddling is the preferred technique, David Commer of Commer Beverage Consulting notes that it’s not always feasible in some chain and high-volume operations. In such cases, the technique of shaking the mint with ice and lime juice, which releases the leaves’ essential oils, often is employed. Some operators, he says, might take it one step too far and use the blender.The Mojito anecdote perhaps best illustrates what bartenders must bring to every cocktail. “The only way to make good drinks is to care, to understand the craft of the cocktail, where the drink came from and why it works,” says Wondrich. “Training does you no good unless you care, unless you appreciate the details, the foundation of the drink. That’s what makes the difference between a mediocre drink and a good or even great one, and that’s what makes it possible to build on the classics and really innovate.”