Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Low-down: 10 Reasons your cocktail tastes awful

After an exceedingly benevolent and tolerant post on Martinis, it seems only fair to redress the balance with a counterpart full of scowling reprimand and unabashed cantankery. In this vein, here are the 10 favourite blunders, committed by the professional and home bartender alike, that ruin liquors that have been loving crafted over months years or even decades and reduce them to lifeless faux-alcopops. (Note that I'm not certain that there are exactly 10 reasons, but 10 is a nice round number, so if they start to get a little weak towards the end, I'm afraid it means reason had to bow to rhetoric)

1) Under-iced drinks. Good cocktails demand good ice and plenty of it. If the drink is shaken or stirred, fill up the shaker tin. Then add a few more cubes for luck. If the drink is served with ice, fill up the glass past the rim. Paradoxically (at least, for the very, very stupid), more ice means less dilution and more chill. Always shake with large, 'dry' ice cubes and serve with the same if on the rocks. Except for certain drinks (a shaken caipirinha, original recipe Mai Tai), strain the shaken drink onto fresh ice in the glass. Some have even taken to hand carving huge blocks of perfect ice into spheres, but only attempt this if in serious deficit of a life. (I did).

2) Under-shaken drinks. Perhaps the most unforgivable sin on the list. Whereas every other mistake can be down to honest ignorance, this is always down to laziness and disregard for both the drink and the customer.  Go on, scout around Youtube for a couple of minutes to find the kind of spineless, floozy-flirting, work-shirking, pretentiously-tattooed, shaven-headed fucking weasel cunt bartender who thinks that a couple of seconds lamely waggling their wrist around constitutes shaking a cocktail. And if that sounds excessive, think on this. At a bar, you purchase your drinks for many, many times their retail price point. If it's a cocktail, the price gap is even higher. So, if you see a bartender under-shaking feel perfectly free to speak your mind. Seriously, that's the one time, you are entirely in the right. An under-shaken drink is harsh, badly mixed and under-chilled. Shake very hard for about 10 seconds. A little longer for drinks with egg white or cream and a little less if shaking with crushed ice. A vigorous vertical shake, in which the contents move up and down through the shaker, will aerate the drink more, while a side shake will (in my experience) generate more intense chill.

3) Stale vermouth. If you wander into a bar with opened, dusty bottles of vermouth on the shelves, tread very carefully indeed when composing your drink order. While those venerable old bottles of pungent aperitif may lend a bar a sense of shabby character, the contents will have deteriorated significantly over the years. In fact, one of the key reasons for the slow striptease of the Martini to naked dry gin was the presence of sub-par, poorly stored vermouth. Unless the bar can be expected to go through a bottle pretty damn quickly (lots of Manhattans ordered or a vermouth-heavy house cocktail list are good signs), then eschew a shelved bottle. The actual use-by advice for vermouth varies greatly, depending upon whom you ask, although it's generally agreed that dry is more volatile than sweet. As a rule, if you can, keep both in the fridge, taste them straight now and again and use the former within two months, the latter within three to four. Past a year, it'll be drinkable but you'll wonder why you bothered.

4) Fresh ingredients. The rationale behind this is obvious and yet the lack of uptake is still startling. Sour mix, the bane of good drinks, is luckily far less prevalent in Britain than elsewhere, but if you do see almost anywhere on the list, stick to a beer. Sour mix has a chalky, one note flavour that renders a cocktail made with otherwise good ingredients into spiked lemonade. Which is less pleasant than it sounds.
However, even without the crutch of sour mix, British bartenders still have to answer for desiccated lime wedges and days old "fresh" juices. Some tests have suggested that four hour old lime juice is preferable to just squeezed; good news for most high volume, high quality cocktail bars, which squeeze mountains of citrus at the start of each evening. In a perfect world, these would be refrigerated throughout service and then discarded. Having tasted cocktails made with fresh juice and two-four hour old juice, my personal preference is for the former, but the second is still good and the only achievable option for some very busy bars. Juice beyond a few hours old will start to taste brackish and bitter, discernibly ruining the drink.

5) No blue curacao. Somewhere in this wonderful, endlessly surprising world of ours, there probably is a boutique brand of quality blue curacao, distilled with the finest orange peels and infused with Keatsian azure, but I'm fairly sure that no actual human has ever acquired a bottle.

6) Use simple syrup. Amazingly, sugar does not dissolve in iced up rum as readily as it does in, say, tea. Thus a drink made with sugar will be unevenly sweetened. This is particularly galling in unshaken drinks. A mojito with clumps of grain sugar resting in its unhappy depths to be sucked up by a straw is a truly depressing experience. So, just use simple. One to one syrup will go off faster than two to one, but will pour much more fluidly. The one advantage to using undissolved sugar is abrading citrus peel in drinks such as the Old Fashioned or the Caipirinha. Even then, my advice would be to use syrup, but if you really want to get all the oils out of your twist, at least use caster which will dissolve far more easily.

7) Poor pouring. There are a few bartenders in the world who might be able to free pour exactly 5ml every time. Nine times out of ten, the guy who's serving you is unlikely to be one of them. Neither are you, unless you're willing to practice everyday. Adding to the inherent, human inaccuracy, some liqueurs pour slower than others and pour spouts can be clogged. For the sake of fun and adaptability, I've learnt to free pour well, but I am, at heart, a jiggerer and, time allowing, strongly advise others to follow this path. Some drinks can survive or even thrive with variation more than others, but even then it's better to know exactly how you're varying the drink.

8) Bad liquor. You get out what you put in and a cocktail is no hiding place for inferior spirits. This doesn't necessarily mean pouring 18 year old scotch or rum (though in the right, spirit-focused drink, even these esteemed liquors could shine). Good gin and to a lesser extent good rum are readily available at fair prices - expensive does not always mean better, but very cheap almost inevitably means worse. It's not only quality that's of importance: the characteristics of some very good products are simply unsuitable for certain drinks. A gin that works beautifully in a Martini may be terrible in a sour or a G&T. Of course a drink like a Manhattan will more noticeably rise or fall on the quality of its base, but even a Pina Colada, with its heavy mixers of pineapple and coconut, can be perfected with the right blend of good rums. Ironically, one of the most commonly 'called'  liquor choices (specifying a superior brand) at a bar is vodka, which past the 'Smirnoff point' is unlikely to improve a mixed drink.

9) No bitters. Bitters are rather akin to the seasoning in a drink. They bring out the inherent flavours of the drink, adding depth and complexity. The original cocktail was simply spirit, sugar, water and bitters. In the nineteenth century, a great many American bars would manufacture their own house bitters - this may have been a golden age of variety and excellence, or one of inconsistency, which was ended by the success of superior industrial bitters (Bokers, Angostura) produced by specialists. In any case, a couple of decades ago Angostura, Peychaud's and Fee's were the only major bitters available. Currently, however there is a renaissance in bitters production with from spiced chocolate and dandelion and burdock to cinnamon and walnut. One could easily acquire an exotic repertoire of twenty or thirty bitters, but, in truth, even just a few dashes of good old Angostura can be all one needs to radically improve a cocktail.

10) Warm glasses. In all fairness, this one applies mostly to straight up drinks served without ice. Ideally even rocks drinks would have pre-chilled glasses, but unless the bar is willing to install 10 freezers, this is next to impossible. Coupettes, however, should always be chilled, hopefully in the freezer.

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