In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I’ll be posting articles that originally appeared elsewhere or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. The Case for Cocktails was published in 2002 over at The Morning News, which you should read regularly because it is staffed by smart people who make good things. (Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.)
The Case for Cocktails
First there was Watergate, then the nuclear family faded, cigars were extinguished, and now interest in cigarettes is waning. Martinis can only be next. Soon, mixed drinks will be fond recollection, a fable shared with an inattentive child.
If we don’t cultivate the demand for complex drinks—cocktails that require a commitment to acquiring certain tastes—we must prepare to relinquish gambling, prostitution, and perhaps even sex.
When we cast aside even our vices, how can we hope to preserve the very fiber of our society? Without morals, we are still a decadent and exuberant people. Without vices, we are troglogdytic hunches, scraping at the earth and mewling at the sky. For the good of mankind, we must stop ordering stupid drinks.
Any moron can order a beer; a monkey can yank at the tap. Now we have hideous cocktail hybrids, the unspeakable pre-mixed drinks that come in trite, peppy bottles. If you still find bright, shiny objects distracting, by all means, twist the top off of a Smirnoff Ice, perhaps a Tequiza. Go drink it over there.
If you’re feeling arid, and you’d like to start drinking well, begin by expanding your cocktail lexicon. After a few months of practice, you’ll develop a repertoire of five or six appealing drinks to order with studied carelessness. The key here is to find a drink that is obscure enough to confuse fellow quaffers, but not so obscure that the bartender has to ask what’s in it.
Not all cocktails are refined, and most of them aren’t gender neutral. Women can drink nearly anything they like; men are not so fortunate. There are a few notable drinks, however, that anyone can order without shame:
Gimlet or Gibson
Ingredients: Respectively, a dry Martini with lime juice, or a Martini with cocktail onions instead of olives
What it says: I’ve had enough Martinis to preserve my remains for science. Pimentos get on my nerves.
Ideal setting: Martini bar
Ingredients: Scotch, Drambuie
What it says: I’m wearing wingtips just like my dad’s. I like a little scotch with my scotch.
Ideal setting: After an expensive dinner.
Ingredients: Cognac, Grand Marnier, lemon juice
What it says: I learned to sail when I was six.
Ideal setting: Country club
Ingredients: Vodka and grapefruit juice (A salted rim makes it a Salty Dog.)
What it says: Having tried everything else, this is the only thing I drink. I have the number of a good tailor in my wallet.
Ideal setting: Over brunch
Ingredients: Equal parts gin, Campari, sweet vermouth
What it says: I’m earning my MBA.
Ideal setting: Happy hour
Ingredients: Brandy, hot tea, sugar, a twist of lemon
What it says: I’m cold.
Ideal setting: Irish or English pub, ski lodge
Ingredients: Whiskey, sugar, bitters, soda
What it says: My grandpa drinks this. My grandpa is a helluva guy.
Ideal setting: Any bar that’s been open more than 25 years.
Ingredients: Bourbon, sweet vermouth, dash of bitters, and a cherry
What it says: What can I order that will get me soused, but will still have a cherry in it?
Ideal setting: Small bar with close friends who live a few doors down
Some of the more ubiquitous standards include Gin and Tonic, Screwdrivers, and Irish Coffee. Those who can’t bear to part with their evening beer should consider ordering a Boilermaker or Black and Tan. Women have even more options: White Russian, Kir or Kir Royal, Cosmopolitan, Margarita, Tequila Sunrise, and so on.
For obvious reasons, please refrain from ordering Wine Spritzers, Melon Balls, or Midori Sours. Also avoid drinks with names that reference copulation—Sex on the Beach, Screaming Orgasm, Slow Comfortable Screw—unless you’re wearing an unwieldy veil on a bachelorette bar crawl.
Now that you know what to order, learn to drink slowly. A well-mixed drink is like a rich dessert, it’s impolite to shovel sweets into one’s mouth and lick the plate. Sipping will help you aim for cheerful and stop short of drenched.
Have a few taste tests to figure out what kind of liquor you like, then request it when you go out. This will make your drinks slightly more expensive, and also more delicious. If you’re ordering a gin and tonic, make it a Bombay and tonic, a shot of bourbon becomes a ‘Makers Mark, neat.’ Bam, you’re a worldly sonofabitch.
Drinking at Home
Keep your bar stocked. There are few things so satisfying as inviting a date up for a nightcap and mixing the drink of his or her choice. There are several references that detail what you’ll need. Start with the ingredients for your three favorite cocktails and build from there.
Use the best ingredients you can afford. Never subject a guest to ‘diet’ tonic water. Mix some fresh limejuice and sugar instead of buying prefab sours. It’s impressive, and it tastes much better. The same is true of all freshly squeezed juices, they make superior drinks. Also, keep lemons and limes around. They’re inexpensive and will keep for weeks in your refrigerator. You can make a lemon or lime twist by slicing off a small section of the peel, removing the membrane, and twisting it until it curls like a corkscrew.
Nearly every type of drink has a corresponding glass—brandy snifters for drinks that are meant to warm in the hand, daiquiri glasses for blended drinks, and so on. A fairly complete collection of glasses would include: old fashioned (or lowball), double old fashioned, highball, Collins, pilsner, martini, champagne flute or saucer, snifter, Irish coffee, shot glass, and red and white wine glasses. If that sounds insane—and it should if you don’t have several empty cabinets—start with a set of lowballs, large highballs, globed red wine glasses, and taller white wine glasses. You can serve rocks drinks in the lowballs, Collins in the highballs, brandy in the globed glasses, and (under duress) martinis in the white wine glasses.
Now that you understand the foundations of drinking well, a few points of etiquette:
- If you want a rum and coke, don’t order a Cuba Libre. In certain circumstances, you can request a Cape Codder instead of a vodka cranberry, but know your audience.
- Tip about a dollar a drink. It’s easy to calculate when you’re well irrigated, and a happy bartender is a generous bartender.
- Don’t drink until all of your friends have been served. Offer up a quaint ‘cheers,’ and click glasses.
- Remember where you are. Don’t order a sidecar in a sports bar. Don’t order a Bloody Mary at an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day, or a Mojito from a college bar on Saturday night.
- If you spill someone’s drink, buy them a new one. This promotes goodwill and saves you from regular emergency trips to your dentist.
- If you’re feeling illuminated, stop ordering anything in a martini glass. You will slosh most of it on whoever is next to you.
- If someone else buys the first round, for the love of all that is holy, the next round is on you. If you buy the first round, may God’s hand be upon you.