A Companion for the Young Imbiber

Archive for January, 2008

(( Cocktail Techniques ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on January 13, 2008

Spoons1

 

The Exciting World of…Stirring!

That’s right, I’m back with some more technique discussion.  Dreadfully boring or informative?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Now, I’m of two minds when it comes to stirring.  One, the guy who sometimes just wants to chill the cocktail down and get on with the drinking already, tends to shake off the snobbery of proper technique, method, and specific utensils.  The other side (which wins more often) sticks pretty rigidly to guidelines, if only to make the customer’s experience more consistent.  What are these guidelines and why do they help in both chilling a cocktail and getting a desired texture?  To answer this, let’s chat about stirring in general.

Why do we sometimes stir and why do we sometimes shake?  Though there are many variations, and certainly no one way is correct, the rule-of-thumb goes something like this: If a cocktail is primarily spirituous (meaning with liquors, liqueurs, fortified wines, syrups, bitters, etc), it should be stirred.  Mixing these ingredients doesn’t require brute force from shaking, and the texture that results is silky and smooth, cold liquid sex on the tongue.  I’m not much for sexual metaphors, but a properly made Manhattan is a sensual thing.

Conversely, should your cocktail have juice, cream, fruit (solid or puréed), or egg, it should be shaken.  The introduction of air into the liquid, and the violent use of ice as a blender (of sorts), mixes these ingredients together while diluting and chilling.  Naturally, there are exceptions to these rules, but most cocktaillian bartenders walk the Party Line.

A lot of bartenders scoff at those who shake when they should stir.  Ok, I get it: I don’t want my Sazerac shaken.  But it’s not as simple as that.  There are also those who think the whole stir/shake debate is ridiculous: if you let a shaken Manhattan sit for a minute, the air bubbles will subside and it’ll be close to its stirred counterpart.  I’ll buy that, sort of.  I think, though, that from watching bartenders and cocktail-interested friends, the real answer more easily diagnosed; most people probably don’t have an efficient method of stirring.  It can be an awkward learning curve, figuring out a method for swirling the spoon inside a mixing glass with ice and not introducing any air into the cocktail.  Seriously.  It can take some time.

But then there’s the question of which method.  There are probably many more methods than the ones I’m listing here, but as a basic outline, I see stirring techniques in three camps: American stirring, European stirring, and Japanese stirring.   The name association is not necessarily geographic or nationalistic, and holds no sinister meanings.  It’s just an observation.

A note on spoons: I tend to use two different types of spoons.  One, the standard bar spoon with a twisted handle (though I prefer a disk on the end for herb bruising) works more as an ice crusher, breaking apart cold draft ice to create more surface and get the cocktail to a quicker chill.  The one I actually use to stir is a twist-less spoon.  Boy is it nice – smooth, quick, and sexy.

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First, American stirring.  This is the way I see most American bartenders stirring.  It’s pretty basic, and seems to have evolved out of the use of the twisted bar spoon.  You know, that one you’ll find at almost any bar: a single piece of metal, twisted in the very middle.  Bartenders often bend the whole spoon in a long arc to make stirring quicker and more efficient.  As pictured, the spoon usually rests between the thumb and the index finger while the stirring is guided by the space between the ice and the inner surface of the glass.

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Second, Japanese stirring.  I’ve now worked with a bar program that employs Japanese bartending techniques (the Hard Shake, for example), and have found that the Japanese method for stirring is by far the most useful.  I now use it every time I stir a cocktail because of its efficiency and noiseless stirring.  As pictured, the main difference is how the spoon rests on the hand, sitting between the ring and middle fingers.  Think of this method less as a wrist or arm motion (as can sometimes be the case in American stirring), and more of a push back and forth between the ring and middle fingers.  

As your fingers push the spoon’s stem back and forth, the spoon head will follow the inner surface of the mixing glass.  At the most basic level, you’re really just pushing these fingers back and forth, allowing the glass to guide the spoon head along.  While this is similar to the American style, your wrist never really moves and you can keep a solid pivot above your drink. Why does this matter?  The whole point of stirring is minimize air getting into a cocktail, preserving a certain liquid texture.  In stirring this way, you shouldn’t hear the clank of metal on ice or glass — just a smooth, quiet whirling.  (This description is still a little vague.  Maybe more pictures can be put up…soon.)


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And finally, European stirring.  Ok, this one is a bit of a farce.  I’ve just seen more Europeans using this technique (or lack there of) than I have anyone else.  It’s the cheater way.  Simply, you invert the spoon so the handle is in the mix, eliminating the drag from the spoon and make the whole bit of business that much easier.  I’ve even seen bartending books that tout this as the best method.

And with all this talk of stirring, it’s time for a drink.  The tools were already out on the counter, so why not make a tasty beverage?  I chose a Manhattan variation using Old Forrester bourbon, Punt e Mes, and a dash of chamomile tincture.

 the process

 
Yum. 

Posted in Cocktail Techniques | 14 Comments »

(( Culture of the Drink ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on January 5, 2008

Home for the Holidays,

And How the West Really Is Best

 I was lucky enough to travel back to the West Coast twice over the last two months, once for Thanksgiving and once for Christmas.  This in itself is very unusual as I tend to travel back once a year if lucky.  But this was a special year, when circumstance worked out just right and I was able to get some good quality time with some damn fine folk. 

Our Thanksgiving adventure started with a trip to Seattle. My travel companion and I did the usual touristy things (his first trip to the Pacific Northwest, after all), then moved on to what I really wanted: a visit to Murray at Zig Zag.  Before my trip, the boys I work with promised an introduction to the man, and so after various bi-coastal emails I had me a date.  Naturally, I had to bring some nice bonded Lairds as a gift from New York.  After a quick jaunt through Vessel – Mr. Boudreau wasn’t working, sadly, but our barman was quite good – we had some tasty West Coast Mexican food and then headed down to Zig Zag.  After being treated like kings – enjoying Murray’s famous hospitality, trying my best to take note of his impressive control and skill as a bartender – we stumbled awkwardly out the door happy as could be.  You are prince, sir.

Then down to Bend, Oregon for family fun and as much Deschutes Brewery beer as I could reasonably pour down my throat.  I focus a lot on spirits, but when I go home to Bend, it’s all about the beer.  Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Cascade Golden Ale, Black Butte Porter: these are the foundation of my first interest in quality drinking.  As teenagers in Bend, we’d sneak beer from our parents’ fridges just like everyone else, but our choice was always the sweet, sweet deliciousness that is a Pacific Northwest microbrew.  Ok, we drank plenty of Bud too, but when burnin’ stump in the woods, if you could shoulder-tap a sixer of Mirror Pond along with the case of Bud or some Beast, the night was lookin’ up – lookin’ up, indeed. 

But enough of this potentially incriminating nostalgia, I’m here to talk about big-boy drinking.

My second trip back, this time for Christmas, got me thinking more critically about the differences in American drinking cultures and attitudes.  New Yorkers like to say that they built the cocktail kingdom, that they have historically had such a high influence on the craft because, quite simply, the city’s culture is organically intertwined with social drinking.  Mass transit, an enormous number of people living in a geographically small area, and a general attitude of work-hard-and-play-harder, all contribute to the proliferation of bars and many a health drinking habit.  If you’re done with work, you don’t have to drive anywhere.  When you’re home in that tiny studio in the East Village, wouldn’t you rather go downstairs to the bar or, god-forbid, walk a few blocks for a drink or two?  It’s the reason why being a bartender in New York is a viable profession, and not necessarily the kind of temporary job that other locals may require.

But while out West I started thinking about the potential of other cities.  Yes, New York is amazing and it’s hard to escape its appeal, but it is a city that exists only because it imports nearly everything.  It is a massive economy all its own, built from the ground up not only by imported goods, but also by a constantly rotating cast of characters.  In that way, it’s cultural perspective is always in flux, always evolving and changing – the symphony that is social assimilation. 

There really isn’t much that is Made in New York, unless you count attitude and an inability to take shit from anyone.  Sure, that’s a broad stroke, I know, but I generalize only to make a point about the West (and maybe areas I just haven’t been to yet).  All up the West Coast, there are a lot of micro-distilleries cranking out some damn respectable stuff.  Many people who pioneered the microbrewery movement have now begun experimenting with stills, and boy do I enjoy it.  Fresh, seasonal ingredients and, frankly, a particularly fresh and active perspective on life dominate the West – you don’t have to sit in your apartment and watch TV.  You can go biking, skiing, sailing, or get in your car and be in isolated nature within a few minutes, or at most an hour.  Sure, you can do some of this in the East, but it’s much more difficult.  Too many people, high density of metropolitan areas, and puny little hills they like to pretend are mountains.  How cute, but ultimately pathetic.

I bring this up only because of my own New York-centered mentality.  I’ve lived in the city for almost four years, thinking it to be the center of everything and anything I’d want to be a part of.  As a professional bartender, that mentality got me feeling very stuck. As I think about leaving New York some day, it’s good to know that there are places outside New York (or London or Tokyo) that are doing incredible drink programs with unbelievable local spirits, beers, wines, and ingredients. 

Two weeks ago a bar opened up in Bend called Decoy.  I was meeting some old friends there for a drink, not more than two days after they opened, expecting the same kind of “Bar and Grill.”  But alas, they had a cocktail list.  And on that cocktail list?  A Rye Manhattan, an Aviation, a Hemmingway, and a Sazerac! Granted, they were poorly executed (Manhattan shaken, Aviation sans maraschino, Hemmingway I-dunno-what-the-hell, and the Sazerac shaken, straight-up, with at least a quarter ounce of Pernod, and a large twist in the glass), but they were trying.  That’s how popular cocktail culture has become: my hometown of lil’ ol’ Bend Oregon has a bar trying to make classic drinks!

And to my real point: Anyone wanna open the best cocktail bar ever in Northwest Portland?  I’ll take investments starting…now.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »