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Plus: Eric Alperin explains the building blocks of a cocktail

Speakeasy-style bars, bespoke drinks poured with a wrist-snap flourish and ice made with $10,000 Japanese machines define the new cocktail era. To help wannabe mixologists, rising-star bartender Eric Alperin of The Varnish in Los Angeles recently threw a party at which he taught a handful of friends how to invent an original cocktail.

Cocktails

Cedd Moses (l) and guest. Photo © Dave Lauridsen.

Heading up the guest list was Alperin's partner at The Varnish, nightlife entrepreneur Cedd Moses, who in turn invited his father, the renowned painter Ed Moses. (In exchange, Ed allowed his studio to be hijacked for the event.) Alperin also brought in L.A. chef Jason Travi, who prepared a meal of cocktail-friendly dishes—including crispy cumin-coriander chickpeas and roasted persimmons wrapped in prosciutto. Meanwhile, Alperin set about breaking down the architecture of the perfectly constructed cocktail into its individual building blocks.

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Almost all great cocktails involve a few fundamental categories of flavor: strong, sweet, sour and bitter most commonly, plus the outliers floral, smoky and spicy (like cayenne pepper, a new drinks trend right now). With the right proportions, it's possible to play a mix-and-match game of ingredients, which makes coming up with a new drink strangely easy. Of course, not all new drinks are destined to become classics, and at a party like this there are apt to be some mad-scientist disasters (the chile sauce Sriracha, for instance, does not work in cocktails). But the fun is in the journey.

Cocktails

© Dave Lauridsen

As Alperin's party got under way, he deconstructed some vintage cocktails, like the Holland Razor Blade: gin-like genever (strong), lemon juice (sour), simple syrup (sweet), cayenne pepper (spicy). Soon the guests were measuring and mixing, shaking and straining, with some impressive results. Sarah Scott christened her drink the Red Kilt: a Rob Roy–style blend of Scotch (strong), a little Madeira and the cherry liqueur Luxardo (sweet), a couple dashes of Peychaud's (bitter) and lemon juice (sour). Alperin's critique: "I might spice it up with a float or a spray of a peatier Scotch, but it's tasty."

Guests stopped debating whether orange or apricot bitters go better with dark rum when Travi brought out the food: roasted chicken cooked with a satisfyingly stewy mix of bell peppers, tangy Peppadew peppers and tomatoes; creamy semolina with roasted mushrooms; and Travi's tribute to his mother's baklava, a pear tartlet made with phyllo dough. As long as the food was on the table, the guests were content to let Alperin be chief drink-mixer. But it wasn't long before the sound of cocktail shakers filled the air again.

Tip for Summer Cocktails

Published February 2010
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