By Valerie Peterson
Whether you’re expecting a handful of holiday drop-ins or hosting a spirited party, a well-made cocktail can set the tone. As restaurants around the county are raising their mixology standards, consider enhancing your home efforts with this advice from behind-the-bar pros.
All agree that balance is the key to cocktail goodness. Alcohol, sweet and acid must work in harmony, so the unpracticed are advised to start with reliable recipes, then bump up the quality of the ingredients, starting with spirits.
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Clark Moore, beverage director at Harper’s in Dobbs Ferry, recommends this strategy for drop-in guests or dinner parties: “Stock fewer bottles of worthwhile spirits rather than a greater variety of cheaper stuff. For example, have one good gin, one rye or bourbon and one Cognac, and make sure they’re brands that you’d want to drink even without a mixer.” Vodka and tequila are popular choices to round out the home bar.
Secondary spirits, like fruit- or herb-based liqueurs, can add the sweet element and expand the cocktail possibilities. In general, triple secs (orange-flavored liqueurs like Cointreau) are versatile, as are high-quality vermouths. Mr. Moore’s favorites are Carpano Antica Formula and Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge.
“Add either of these to rye or Cognac for a delicious manhattan,” Mr. Moore said. “Stir one with gin, and you have a beautiful Martinez. Or add a few rocks and a lemon or orange twist for a lovely aperitif or digestif.”
Note that vermouth is actually a fortified wine, so refrigerate after opening to ensure optimum shelf life.
For a conversation starter, try an indigenous spirit or two instead of one of the major brands.
“There are a lot of finely crafted local options now, like Black Dirt Bourbon, which is distilled in Warwick,“ says Paul Bratone, co-owner and beverage director at Bistro Rollin in Pelham. “Use American Fruits Black Currant Cordial as you would crème de cassis. Sugar Wash Moonshine”— a neutral spirit distilled in Pine Plains from Demerara sugar — “can be used instead of cachaça in a New York State riff on the Brazilian caipirinha.”
While you might spend more on your spirits, save on simple syrup when the drink requires it.
“There’s a reason it’s called ‘simple’ syrup,” Mr. Moore says. “Just bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil, and let it cool. It’s actually quicker to make than it is to shop for it, and homemade is far less expensive.”
For infused simple syrup, add the desired flavoring ingredients (fresh herbs, spices, ginger root, citrus peel) to the warm syrup and let it sit for a couple of hours, tasting periodically. When the flavor is to your desired strength, strain. Stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator, the syrup will keep through the holidays.
Lemon or lime juice plays an acidic role in many recipes, and the pros agree that cocktails are vastly improved when you squeeze your own. (Note that these juices will turn, so they should be used or refrigerated immediately.) And don’t skip the bitters when they’re called for. These intense tinctures of herbs, spices, fruits and roots add dimension to a cocktail. The Beacon-based Drink More Good website carries a wide variety of bitters and other artisanal mixology ingredients.
After you’ve upgraded your ingredients, tweak your technique and presentation. “Always use jiggers,” advises the bartending veteran Jeremy McClellan, now general manager of the Tapp in Tarrytown and the Mill in Hastings. “Imprecise measuring can ruin a great cocktail recipe.”
Stir cocktails that rely solely on spirits, and use a shaker for cocktails that incorporate juices or sugars to blend the flavors and give it the proper chill. For restaurant-worthy serving appeal, get ice trays that make perfectly square cubes. Smaller cubes are good for serving tall mixed drinks; for spirits-forward or spirits-only cocktails, Moore prefers one extra-large cube, which won’t melt as fast and won’t dilute a drink as quickly. And don’t mistake the appropriate garnish (twisted citrus peel, fruit slices, olives) for just another pretty finish — it adds flavor too.
For larger gatherings, skip the shaker and choose a punch, a mulled wine or a mulled cider for serving simplicity. As Mr. McClellan puts it, “Nobody wants to wait 20 minutes for their cocktail, and you don’t want to spend the entire party mixing drinks.” But he cautions against making it too sugary, a common amateur mistake. “Balance is critical to the punch bowl, too,” he said.
For an easy-serving alternative, Mr. Moore suggests a drink that can be mixed at least partly ahead of time. Simple, festive sparkling cocktails, like kir royales or poinsettias, can be made assembly-line style. It’s wasteful to use expensive Champagne to mix with other ingredients, but for balance, be sure to use a dry sparkling wine. Mr. McClellan serves prosecco; Mr. Bratone favors Gruet, a sparkling wine that is made in New Mexico.