Are All Cocktails Bad, or Am I Just Bad at Making Them?
The reason I hadn't taught myself how to make a proper cocktail during the pandemic wasn't that I didn't need to drink. It's that cocktails are stupid.
I love wine. I like to sip whiskey and rum. But every time people force me to order a cocktail, I find a drink on the menu that sounds interesting (Yuzu! Finger limes! Earl Grey tea!) and get served a juice box. Making them even less adult-y is that they come with a treat. The four categories of cocktails, as far as I can tell, are Sunk, Float, Rim, and Kebab.
But six months into lockdown, I'd already learned how to bake, speak Spanish, and cook Kashmiri food, so I decided to give bartending a chance. I got a Zoom lesson from Ivy Mix, which is the real given name of the author of Spirits of Latin America, a gorgeous recipe book and detailed history. Standing behind the bar at Leyenda, the Brooklyn bar she co-owns, Ivy reached back to pour bottles from bright blue, green, and red cabinets into ceramic glasses, making me want to go on vacation even more than everything else made me want to go on vacation.
The first thing Ivy taught me was that I am the one who is stupid, not cocktails. After all, I add sugar, salt, and spice to heighten flavors when I cook. Why should it be different with drinks? "A piece of chicken by itself is a little dull. Put some breading on it—carbs are just sugar—and some salt, and it's really good," she said.
She decided to teach me how to make a pisco sour because I had told her I was attracted to drinks with egg whites, though I had no idea why. She explained that what I loved was that the albumen froths up, like a milkshake. I separated a white, dropped it into a shaker with some pisco, simple syrup, lemon juice, and lime juice, and got a warning from Ivy: Egg whites expand. "I've had many a bar shift where egg whites exploded all over me. Nothing says 'horrible party' like smelling like egg."
I carefully pulled apart the shaker, which felt like opening the nozzle on a pressure cooker. Then she had me add a few drops of Angostura bitters. As I was spreading them around the foam with a knife, I got curious about what the hell bitters are and why a marketing department would choose such a horrible name for them. I smelled the Angostura—Christmassy, with cinnamon and cloves—which didn't seem to fit with my summery pisco sour. Ivy said that was the point, to balance it out.
Next, Ivy taught me a drink of hers, the Sonambula, again something I would be attracted to on a menu (Chamomile syrup! Jalapeño!). After dumping sugar in a cup of tea, she had me infuse tequila with a couple of slices of jalapeño, seeds still attached. "This is everything I hate about alcohol," I said before sipping it and realizing I was totally right. "Oh! The burning!"
"You need apple for that tart," Ivy replied about combining sweet and savory. Yes, I thought, but apples taste good. Still, when I put the poison I'd made together with the tea syrup, lemon juice, Peychaud's bitters (roses, spice), and mole bitters (chocolate, spice), it was the best margarita I'd ever had. Bitters, Ivy said, help bridge disparate ingredients, in this instance tying together the chamomile flowers and the jalapeños.
A week later, I got a second Zoom lesson from Francisco "Frankie" Calvillo, a bartender who has worked for 50 years at Joe's Café in Santa Barbara, a steak joint where the menu states it has the "stiffest drinks in town." Scooping ice into a glass, Frankie told me a story. About 30 years ago, he said, a guy gave him the Timex watch off his wrist and asked him to mix it into a margarita. Frankie did it, and the man somehow drank it. The man came back to Joe's last year but didn't order that cocktail again. "He wasn't drinking anymore. He gave it up," Frankie explained. Over the loud bar, Frankie yelled instructions to me for a spicy margarita. I grilled a jalapeño to sweeten and temper it, cut off a big slice, and then left it muddled in the bottom of the glass. I confessed I found the drink too intense. "I don't really like this either," he said. "I'm Mexican, but it's too spicy. My lips get numb. I think people are crazy when they ask for it, but they like it." Frankie's bartending lesson was clear: Don't lose sight of the fact that people want to get drunk.
Finally, I tested my new skills by making a cocktail for Aisha Tyler, the comedian who started Courage + Stone, a Brooklyn company that sells premade old-fashioneds and Manhattans. I dropped off a Sonambula and a cocktail I found in Ivy's book called Flip Your Trade, which combined rum, whiskey, PX sherry, coffee liqueur, and a whole egg. I left them outside Aisha's door and raced home so she could heckle me from the psychological safety of my phone.
To my surprise, she liked my drinks. "Really, the big problem was your knife skills. It looked like you tore off that lemon slice with your hands," she said. Also, the way I floated the bitters on the foam did not meet with approval. "I thought, 'What are all these red bits in it?'" she said. "It looked like the Master Cleanse. Though every time I did the Master Cleanse, I thought it would be far more enjoyable if it had tequila in it."
Then the heckling really started. The Flip Your Trade, she said, was the best version of "something the Real Housewives order when they want to seem classy. This will get me a death threat from a lady in a tight dress, but there's a class of people who order a certain class of drinks—Cosmopolitans and espresso martinis." But my initial objection to cocktails, she said, was correct. The cocktails Aisha likes best are strictly combinations of alcohols to create a new flavor: Negronis, Manhattans, martinis. "If you're in a bar and someone asks what you like, just say 'I like spirit-forward cocktails.' Then you can say 'bitter' or 'sour' or 'subtle.' You wouldn't say 'sweet' because you're not a 7-year-old."
I've taken Aisha's advice, having a refreshing cucumber-infused martini and a delightful Negroni before dinner. But more than once, after dinner, I've made that Flip. The good thing is that as long as I don't take a photo, no one can judge me.
Cocktail Tips from Ivy Mix
1. Don't buy fake citrus. It has to be pasteurized, which means heated up. Hot lime juice sounds horrible. Even if it says it's fresh, it's not.
2. Don't buy simple syrup; make it yourself. A cup of sugar and water is about the cheapest thing you can get.
3. Don't buy a shaker set unless you want to impress your friends. Use a jam jar, and you'll be fine.
4. Don't buy the cheapest spirits you can. Distillation is an art form. You can get away with buying moderately priced vodka because, in a lot of ways, expensive vodka is just marketing. But don't go for the very cheapest unless you want a really horrible hangover.
5. Buy proper jiggers: one that measures 1 and 2 ounces and one that measures 1/2 and 3/4 ounce.
6. "Shake it awake; don't rock it to sleep." Put your shaker over your shoulder like you're going to throw a football, and work up to the rhythm of a galloping horse.
7. Shake drinks with juice in them to aerate and froth them. Gently—almost silently—stir cocktails without juice to keep them silky and smooth. "Hold the spoon like a pencil: flat at 12 o'clock, pull to six o'clock, and push to 12. Every sound is aeration and turbulence in your cocktail."