Today’s nightclub bartenders can mix most of their drinks in a few seconds with one bottle, one squeeze of the cocktail gun, and one slice of pre-cut dried-out lime, but an increasing number of mixological enthusiasts are starting to party like it’s 1899. Way back when, there were no sour mixes and no Daiquiris-in-a-can and no sodium benzoate in the maraschino cherries. Bartenders of old had to soak, boil, preserve, pickle, clarify, juice, squeeze, and otherwise make their own mixers and other ingredients in cocktails. Bartenders of new are getting into it too.
My cocktail nerd friends are judgmental and cruel, which is why I like them, and they’re now at the stage where they must outdo each other with the most labor-intensive, time-consuming, completely unnecessary ingredients and techniques. “So I see you’re using store-bought triple sec,” they’ll say. “How pedestrian.”
The descent into this impressive obsessive behavior that ends in barrel aging homemade bitters in the basement and ordering Peruvian cinchona tree bark off the internet for fresh-brewed tonic water usually begins simply enough, and usually with simple syrup. That’s just sugar and water mixed together. Add the syrup to some fresh lemon and/or lime juice and you’ve not only got homemade sour mix, you’ve got the ingredients to make basic vodka or gin Gimlets, Whiskey Sours, Lemon Drops, Daiquiris, and other drinks. Not bad for two fruits and sugar.
The next phase begins when you look through gourmet cocktail books (the kind that list a couple hundred recipes instead of a couple thousand) and realize how many other flavored syrups you can make at home with fruits like pineapple, herbs like thyme, pomegranate for grenadine, and ginger for homemade ginger ale. Then it’s on to fancy garnishes like smoked salt rims and real maraschino or brandied cherries.
A quick search of the internet will quickly drive you nuts, as you realize there are hundreds of other things you could be making like liqueurs, tinctures, and a zillion types of bitters. You may find yourself brining your own olives (a process that takes weeks and can involve dangerous chemicals), stuffing them with gourmet (organic, local) cheese, and dropping them into a Martini stirred with homemade vermouth.
Next thing you know, you’re digging up the yard to plant garnish. I live in California, so I am able to utilize my lemon tree for limoncello, plant mint in the yard (caution: it takes over) for Juleps, and harvest my Chia Herb Garden to make basil and cilantro Gimlets. I think globally, and drink locally.
One talented bartender friend of mine won an international cocktail contest with his version of a berry Shrub, an American Colonial era drink that involves soaking fruit and spices in vinegar and salt for two weeks. (It tastes much better than it sounds.) I offered him my congratulations on winning the contest and said, “So I see you’re using store-bought vinegar.”
Camper English is a cocktails and spirits writer and publisher of Alcademics.com.