Friday, December 4, 2009

THE COCKTAIL PRIMER: The Only Source You Need

Did you know that if you stir your gin or vodka martini, rather than shake it, your cocktail will have "a light-catching diamond" clarity that you'll never see in a shaken version. This advice comes from Eben Klemm, a master mixologist and author of a lively and spirited new drink guide entitled THE COCKTAIL PRIMER: All You Need to Know to Make the Perfect Drink (Andrews McMeel Publishing, December 2009). I've tried it twice with a vodka martini and once with a vodka gimlet, and it works. There's a cloudy, unappealing quality to the shaken martini, and the author further states that if you give your martini a moment to settle down in the ice while you fetch your glass, or garnish, the "pause in the midst of stirring a drink somehow ties it together." After reading through this attractively designed book, you'll never think about cocktails in quite the same way.

I had my first GIN martini at the age of 20 (no, I will not tell you when that was!). My great-aunt drank two gin martinis every day of her adult life and lived to the age of 94. That martini was delicious, but at 20 I wasn't ready for that adult a drinking experience and I allowed myself to be lulled into having a second. I have no memory of getting home that night and for about two years I drank a lot of gin martinis with the old girl. But one night I got so soused that I gave them up permanently. Gin and I were never to be on intimate terms again. For the next twenty years, scotch and wine were my preferred drinks. Then sometime in the 90s, I got the cocktail bug, and started to imbibe such wonderful concoctions as Martinis (vodka this time), Gimlets, Whiskey Sours, Manhattans, Old Fashions, Sazeracs (now that's a cocktail) and even the ultimate girly drink--the Cosmopolitan. To help me create these cocktails at home, I have the Mr. Boston guide, but this new guide was the first time I have looked at the art of the cocktail as seriously as I look at cookbooks. Klemm has a considerable amount to say about this subject, which he takes very seriously. And if you make cocktails at home, so should you.

After years of wine dominance, the cocktail has risen Phoenix-like as a serious beginning to a night out at a good restaurant or in the home as a prelude to a great meal. Klemm, studied biology at Cornell, honed his bartending skills in New York City to "pay the rent." But his fascination with the cocktail culture has endured and today he oversees the cocktail program and creates signature drinks for B.R. Guest Restaurant's, which include the enduringly popular Water Grill, Dos Caminos, Wildwood Barbecue, and many others.

THE COCKTAIL PRIMER is now my preferred go-to-guide for thinking about, and re-creating great cocktails. It doesn't seek to be encyclopedic. Klemm imparts the significance of techniques such as pouring, shaking, stirring and muddling. He groups his drink recipes around around a specific spirit. Best of all, Klemm removes himself from the laboratory of his working life to "create variations or develop complex infusions or foams because I have all the resources and equipment at my fingertips." In short, THE COCKTAIL PRIMER is an elegantly pared down reference of the essential cocktails you'll want to create at home. Yes you will learn how to set up a bar, but you'll also know why he considers the Sidecar as "perhaps the most important cocktail of all time." He explores the key distinction between wine-based, fruit-based, herb-based and sweet-based spirits. In his chapter on bar essential equipment, Klemm outlines only what you need. I didn’t know you could make your own cocktail cherries. He provides an interesting recipe.

The cocktail recipes themselves offer fascinating reading. Under the Martini section alone, Klemm presents "Martini's children," which includes the Martinez (London-style gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liquor and orange bitters) the Old-Time Martini (a mixture of equal parts gin and vermouth plus angostura bitters) a 1930s Dry Martini (2/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth, lemon peel or green olives) and today's New-Time Dry Martini (vodka or gin, a dash of vermouth lemon peel or olives. Then there are the vodka-derived versions, which include the Vesper and Negroni. Each subsequent chapter is grouped by Manhattans, Simple Sours (Gimlet, Fizz) Complex Sours (Sidecar, Muddled Drinks (Mojito) and Highballs (Perfect Harvest). Most interesting to me is Klemm's breakdown of each grouping in which he lists the makeup of the category plus its complexity, sweetness, acidity, strength and level of refreshment. This inspires you to think about the components of a drink. And without an A-to-Z book of every drink including all the exotic drinks available in bars and restaurants, which most people are not likely to want to mix at home, you'll be able to concentrate on a focused variety of outstanding classic cocktails that have stood the test of time with a few new classics-to-be.

THE COCKTAIL PRIMER is a great-looking book. I wanted to sample every cocktail beautifully photographed here. And if you’re looking a great gift for the holidays, I highly recommend this handsome and sleek volume. So let me close by describing the martini I prepared with vodka in the picture here: a slightly thickened crystal elixir that is pungent, elegant—an adult tasting drink. As I slowly sip my way to the bottom of the glass, my brain feels a bit lulled but my taste buds are demanding my dinner. Maybe it’s time to give gin another try.

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