Food blogs of this world, we need to talk. I like you and I want to help you make better drinks. Your heart is in the right place, but some of you have no idea what you’re doing. I understand, some people just want to get tore up, and some people just want to drink blueberry Stoli. I’ll only judge you a little bit, but if you take my advice, I promise, you, too, can mix high quality drinks.
As I’ve been engaging the drink-making blogosphere, I have noticed a lot of drinks that look like the following. I call them, collectively, the Naughty Housewife-Tini, because I like to think that’s who is making these drinks, and because I’m hoping that the phrase “naughty housewife” will drive traffic to my blog.
2 oz fruit-flavored liqueur (Such as Cointreau or, if we are unlucky, Malibu)
1 oz Minute Maid orange juice, from a carton
1 oz vodka
Muddle the mint in the liqueur until it is practically paste and then put everything into a shaker and strain into a cocktail glass, being sure to leave bits of ice floating on top of the drink. Top with sprite.
I would like to think that the myriad flaws in this drink are evident to all, but apparently that is not the case, so let us examine them, one by one.
1. The ratio of liqueur to base spirit is backwards and ridiculous. A proper drink should not be overly sweet, unless it is intended as a dessert. A high proportion of sugary ingredients can sometimes make sense — sometimes a strong counterpoint is needed against the bitter or sour component in a drink — but on the whole, it is appropriate to use an unsweetened spirit, such as whiskey or gin, as the foundation of a mixed drink.
2. The name is stupid. There is exactly one drink in the whole world called a martini, and it contains roughly the following: Gin, Dry Vermouth, Olive (or lemon peel). Even adding a dash of bitters probably warrants a different name, as one of the intriguing things about the martini is the complex harmony of its relatively minimalistic recipe. “Martini” is not a catch-all word for any drink that you happen to mix and serve up. Appending the suffix “-tini” to the end of your drink name is not descriptive. You can do better.
3. Vodka is bland and boring. It makes your drink alcoholic without contributing anything to the aroma or flavor, and if you use it, your drink will be missing a critical layer of complexity. Like a house without a foundation, it simply won’t stand up properly. Vodka drinks are (usually) no more than candy; they contain sweet, simple flavors that stupefy the palate and as such, they are best left to children.
For almost every drink in the world that is made with vodka, it would have been better with either gin, white rum, or pisco. Which substitution is best depends upon the drink, of course, but one always exists. Cosmopolitan? Try it with J. Wray. Moscow Mule? Vastly improved by the use of gin, or rum, or whiskey, or Fernet Branca. (By the way, such a drink is called a buck–a moscow mule is simply a vodka buck, just as a “moscow mule” made with gin would be a gin buck.)
Vesper? It’s not my favorite, but you should probably leave it alone.
4. There are particles of ice and fruit floating in it. An excellent drink should not be chunky in any way. True mixological perfection requires homogeneity of texture. Pieces of pulp or ice floating in the drink are like bits of un-integrated flour in your bechamel; they are jarring to the imbiber and indicative of carelessness on the part of the bartender. Fix it with a fine-mesh strainer, and you’ll enjoy years of particulate-free drinking.
5. The level of dilution is an accident. High-proof spirits are unpleasant to drink on their own. Insufficiently diluted alcohol burns burns the throat and worse! it deadens the taste buds. If a drink is over-diluted, its flavors become watery and thin, but a drink which is under-diluted suffers nearly as much. The sip will deaden the drinker’s perception of taste, and the flavors will seem muted.
Always pay attention to the amount of water that you are introducing into your drink. If your ice cubes are big, then they have a higher ratio of volume to surface area, and you will have to shake or stir longer in order to achieve the same amount of dilution that you would with smaller ice. Getting it right comes down largely to intuition, but you’ll never develop that intuition if you are not aware that you need it.
If you don’t know if your dilution is right, shake less than you need to, taste your drink to check the dilution, and then shake it some more. Repeat this process until you are confident in your timing. If you find yourself in a place with differently-sized ice from your experience, take some time to re-calibrate.
6. And while we’re on the subject of ice, the ice probably sucks. Clear ice is highly preferable to cloudy ice, both because it is aesthetically superior and because it melts more slowly, allowing you to keep your drinks colder, longer, with less impact upon their dilution. Ice is cloudy because of mineral impurities and air trapped in the frozen water, so the key to clear ice is to eliminate those problems. Boiling the water before freezing it will deaerate it, and using distilled water will ensure negligible mineral content. Below is an example of an ice cube made from boiled water (on the left) and un-boiled water (on the right). I did not use distilled water, and as you can see, there is still some cloudiness, but the boiling creates a marked improvement.
7. The juice is not fresh. The quality of fresh juice above pasteurized juice is almost incommunicable. Boiling juice (to pasteurize it) removes many of its more delicate flavor compounds, and changes the texture, invariably for the worse. Moreover, once juice has been freed from its prison inside of a fruit, it begins to break down and change flavor on its own. Pasteurized orange juice from a carton is only vaguely orangey sugar water compared to the bright, floral qualities of a freshly juiced orange, for example. If you forget everything else I have told you, remember this: your drink is only as good as the worst thing you put in it.
8. The glass is not cold. If you strain your ice-cold drink into a room temperature glass, you are cheating yourself. The drink will immediately absorb a substantial amount of heat from the glass, ruining its temperature. Always chill your glasses before pouring your drink into them.
9. You’re topping a drink in a cocktail glass with soda. Stop it. Most sodas contain revolting amounts of sugar and sad, highly artificial flavor syrups. Just say no. Worse, you probably are not measuring the soda. “Top with sprite” has to be the worst mixing instruction ever, because if your drink, pre-top-off, has a volume of five ounces, then depending on the glass, you might end up adding anywhere from one to five ounces of soda, producing inconsistency from drink to drink.
10. There are no bitters. Not every drink needs bitters, as we saw in our consideration of the martini, but the majority of mixed drinks do need them. Bitters are a bit like salt; they round out and enhance the other flavors of the drink, and add complexity and depth on the backend. The one place where bitters are usually unwelcome is in a drink which relies on the sharp acid taste of fresh lemon or lime. Bitters will dull the bracing quality of acid.
11. The herbs are over-muddled. We’re not making pesto, and a muddler is not a mortar and pestle. All of the menthol in mint lives in little hair-like structures on the surface of the leaf. If you bruise the leaf of the mint, you are going to release bitter chlorophyll flavors into your drink, and it will taste grassy. I suppose that could be deliberate, but a discerning palate will perceive it as an error. The better way to handle mint is to place it on the palm of your hand and give it a few good, hard, smacks. In general, when muddling herbs or citrus peels, apply firm pressure but do not tear the flesh of the plant. Fruit, on the other hand, ought to be pulverized.
So let’s see if we can take all of these ideas, and re-jigger the Naughty Housewife-tini, above, into something a little more delicious.
2 oz Fresh Peach Juice
1.5 oz Gin (Plymouth)
.25 oz Liquore Strega
.25 oz Simple Syrup
Dash of Peach Bitters (Fee’s)
Shake over ice and double-strain, first through a hawthorne or julep strainer and then through a fine-mesh strainer, into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a blackberry on a skewer.
Notice that we have dropped the ridiculous “-tini” suffix from the name. The pasteurized slop has been omitted in favor of a fresh seasonal juice. Vodka has been replaced with gin, and the sugar components have been dialed down to a very small amount, to add a bit of sweetness to the drink without overpowering it.
The sprite, which added sweetness and carbonation, has been replaced with a bit of simple syrup, to fill the same role without adding undesirable flavors and carbonation. For a liqueur, I used Liquore Strega, which is sweet, herbal, and slightly spicy, adding a note of intrigue to the otherwise mundane combination of peach and gin.
The deep purple of the blackberry garnish creates a pleasing contrast with the pale orange of the drink itself.