I’ve been experimenting recently with classic cocktails. My drinking history is somewhat varied. I began with bad mixed drinks (largely vodka-based), converted to wine and hard cider in college, with a minor in more bad mixed drinks. I discovered good beer after college, and improved my wine choices. Finally, I discovered single-malt scotch (and, later, bourbon and other whiskies). I thought my journey was done until I began to revisit cocktails with an eye to quality. Instead of dumping bottom-shelf spirits into sugary mixers as I did in my college years, I began trying to maximize the potential of mixed drinks by using high-quality ingredients and mixing them correctly. Mixing glass, strainer, bitters, and all.
My experience has taught me one thing: If you think you don’t like cocktails, then you just haven’t had them made correctly. This is doubly true if you already like whisky in some form. Of course, you can always get good cocktails at better bars (although making a proper Manhattan is a skill that fewer and fewer bartenders seem to have). My rule for bars is, if they spell out the ingredients (including brand) on the menu then they probably care enough to make a decent drink. If the bar is super busy (say, after 10PM anywhere within taxi distance of a college or nightclub area), order a beer.
The ScotchNoob Cocktail Philosophy
- Scotch is unfortunately only rarely good in cocktails. Bourbon or rye is almost always better. The scotch either takes over (if peated) or disappears. If a scotch is robust and well-balanced enough to replace bourbon in a whisky cocktail, it’s probably too expensive to waste in a mixed drink. If you really want a good scotch cocktail, stick to scotch-and-soda or a scotch highball (Japanese style).
- I don’t bother with any recipe that requires shaking. Stirring is all I generally have the energy for, and I hate trying to separate the halves of a Boston shaker.
- I don’t garnish, unless I have some Maraschino cherries around or I’m trying to impress someone.
- I use the largest ice cubes I can (using a silicone cube mold: I like these ones.) for drinks that call for serving ‘on the rocks’.
- I make ice with filtered water, always.
- I don’t use eggs or heavy syrups because they require thorough shaking.
- I always use fresh-squeezed lime and lemon juices. This is usually the difference between a good and a mediocre cocktail.
- I use good vermouth. I like the Dolin brand. This also makes a big difference.
- I make very small batches of simple syrup. I don’t cook it – just raw sugar (or white if you prefer) and water in a small squeeze bottle (I use half water and half sugar). Shake a few times, refrigerate, then shake a few more times when it’s time to use and all the sugar should be dissolved. Make a new batch each month, otherwise it will grow mold.
- I always stir with ice and strain onto fresh ice for drinks that call for ‘on the rocks’. Unless I’m feeling lazy (shhh).
- Always keep some glasses chilling in the freezer. Especially true for cocktail coupes or Martini glasses. Replace them right after washing for a slight ice glaze.
- Sometimes when I’m really lazy, I’ll compose a cocktail directly in a glass with ice. It usually doesn’t taste as good, but if I’m feeling that lazy, I don’t care.
- When using mixers, use the most expensive ones you can find. It’s worth it:
- Ginger Ale: Bruce Cost or Fever Tree
- Soda Water: This is the exception. I can’t taste a difference, but use Perrier if you like.
- Bitter Lemon Soda: Fever Tree
- Syrups (Grenadine, Orgeat, etc.): Small Hand Foods
- Tonic Water: Fever Tree
Top 10 Cocktails
Below are the drinks that I consider to be my favorites after a few months of experimentation and rediscovery. Of course, many are whisky-centric, but not all. Yes, some of these are not technically “cocktails”, but rather Highballs or mixed drinks. Sue me.
#10 The Hot Toddy
These are good for when you’re coming down with (or already have) a cold and need an excuse to drink. They do soothe a sore throat…
- 1 tsp honey
- 1/4 lemon, squeezed
- 1 oz blended scotch (I like Bank Note for this)
- boiling water
(Double the honey and lemon if the mug is particularly big.) Add honey to a mug. Squeeze in lemon and add scotch. Fill halfway with water just off the boil and stir until honey is dissolved. Fill with remaining water.
I like bitter drinks, and this one is just so damn easy that I often default to it, especially in hot weather.
- 1 oz gin (I like St. George Botanivore)
- 1 oz Campari (or Aperol. I haven’t yet found an amaro that doesn’t bog down the drink)
- 1 oz sweet vermouth (Dolin Rouge)
Pour ingredients in a double old fashioned (rocks) glass over ice. Easy.
#8 Dark ‘n Stormy
This is a favorite of my wife. And my mother. And my mother-in-law. It’s hard to beat on a summer day, especially if you use a quality ginger ale or ginger beer.
- 2 oz dark rum (I like Lost Spirits Navy Strength, or Mount Gay Black Barrel)
- ginger beer or ginger ale (I like Bruce Cost original)
Pour rum over ice in a highball or double old fashioned (rocks) glass. Stir in ginger ale/ginger beer to fill, and squeeze in a lime wedge. (Note: Do the exact same thing with vodka and use a quarter of a lime, and you’ve got a Moscow Mule. Forget the damn copper mug. I use Potocki vodka.)
#7 The Noob Cup
Yes! I invented this one. Pimm’s and lemon soda is a classic British drink, so I upped the alcohol content and gave it a bitter twist.
- 1 oz gin (I like St. George Botanivore)
- 1 oz Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
- bitter lemon soda (I like Fever Tree)
Pour gin and Pimm’s over ice in a highball or double old fashioned (rocks) glass. Stir in bitter lemon soda to fill.
#6 Mint Julep
Talk about a classic whisky drink. The key to a good Julep is twofold: pebbled ice and fresh mint. Do not use a bottled mint syrup, mojito mix, or cube ice. If you can’t get pebbled ice, use chipped, but it will melt a little too fast.
- 3 oz bourbon (I like… well, anything. Eagle Rare 10 if I’m feeling flush, Buffalo Trace otherwise.)
- 1 tsp sugar or 2 tsp simple syrup
- 4 to 6 sprigs of fresh mint
Lightly (LIGHTLY) muddle the mint with the syrup (or use granulated sugar if you prefer) in a double old fashioned (rocks) glass. You want to darken or bruise the leaves without tearing them. Add bourbon and ice to the rim and stir until the glass is frosted. Top with more ice if there’s room, and a fresh sprig of mint.
Ok yes, this is a girly drink. This doesn’t matter when drinking alone, which is a check in the “Pro” column for drinking alone. One of the few drinks worth breaking out the citrus reamer. Only use fresh-squeezed juice for this!
- 2 oz brandy (Use an affordable but not cheap Cognac, Armagnac, or brandy. I like Chateau de Pellehaut’s L’Age de Glace. Copper & Kings brandy is also good.)
- 1 oz orange liqueur (I like Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, but Cointreau or Grand Marnier will work in a pinch.)
- 1/4 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
Increase the lemon juice to 1/2 oz if you like it sour. Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice for at least 30 seconds (count!) or shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with shame and guzzle it alone in your Man Cave.
#4 The Classic Martini
I’ll probably get some flack for this, but James Bond has it wrong. Do not shake unless you like ice shards in your Martini. Do not replace the vermouth with a nod towards the British Parliament (you might as well take shots of vodka). I prefer dry gin, and the classic Martini recipe calls for dry gin, but vodka can work too.
- 2 1/4 oz gin (I like St. George Botanivore) or vodka (I like Potocki)
- 3/4 oz dry (white) vermouth (I like Dolin Blanc or Dolin Dry)
- 1 dash orange bitters (optional) (I like Regan’s)
Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice for at least 30 seconds (count!). Do not shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an olive or two, if you like.
I make this drink when I’m in the mood to work for my libation. The brand of bitters is important – don’t use Angostura.
- 1/2 tsp sugar or 1 tsp simple syrup
- 2 or 3 dashes Peychaud’s Creole Bitters
- 2 oz rye whiskey (I like Rittenhouse 100 but any decent rye will do.)
- 1 tsp (or less) absinthe, Pernod, or pastis (I like St. George Absinthe)
This is a good time to use a freezer-chilled double old fashioned (rocks) glass. In a mixing glass, combine sugar, bitters, and a few drops of water (unless using syrup). Muddle or stir until sugar is dissolved. Add rye and plenty of ice and stir for about 30 seconds (count!) or shake well. Pour absinthe into your empty chilled glass and rotate (over a sink) until the inside of the glass is coated. Discard (or drink) the excess. Strain mixing glass into chilled glass. (This is one of the few drinks served without ice in a rocks glass, which is why it should be chilled.)
This drink is how I judge the quality of a bar or bartender. There should be quality rye, not too much vermouth, and just enough bitters. This shouldn’t be hard to do, but you’d be surprised.
- 2 1/4 oz rye whiskey (or bourbon, I suppose) (I like Rittenhouse 100)
- 3/4 oz sweet (red) vermouth (I like Dolin Rouge)
- 1 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 dashes orange bitters (optional) (I like Regan’s).
Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice for at least 30 seconds (count!). Do not shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. The orange bitters is totally not canon, but I like it.
#1 The Old Fashioned
The winner! As simple as it gets, this is the drink I’m most often in the mood for. It helps that it’s very simple to make, and that it doesn’t suffer much from being assembled directly in the glass over ice. This one is a good excuse to own a large ice cube mold, which gives you the perfect chill-to-melt ratio.
- 2 oz bourbon (or rye I suppose) (I like Eagle Rare 10 if I’m feeling flush, Buffalo Trace otherwise.)
- 1/2 tsp sugar or 1 tsp simple syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 dash orange bitters (optional) (I like Regan’s) – This is a nod toward the classic garnish of an orange wedge.
In a mixing glass, muddle sugar with bitters (skip the muddling if using syrup) until sugar dissolves. Add bourbon and ice and stir for about 30 seconds (count!) or shake well. Add one large ice cube to a double old fashioned (rocks) glass and strain mixing glass into it. Garnish with a maraschino cherry, if you’ve got one. If I’m feeling particularly heretical, I’ll actually squeeze in a wedge of orange.