A cocktail can be so much more than an oddly-colored liquid topped with an umbrella. A great cocktail is poised, balanced and beautiful to behold—like music for your mouth. We sat down with bar consultant Dan Yeisley, who has helped open more than a dozen bars throughout the United States and six here in the PNW, to find out how to shake, stir and serve like a pro.
To be a true cocktail, a beverage should contain four parts:
• base spirit (e.g. rum)
• acid (e.g. citrus or vinegar)
• bitters (e.g. Angostura, Peychaud’s) – use sparingly, 2-3 drops only
• sweet (e.g. sugar, syrup, liqueur)
Stock the following spirits for use in dozens of different cocktails: vodka, rum, tequila, gin, Triple Sec, rye and bourbon whiskeys, and sweet and dry vermouths.
TIP 1: The Ingredients
“It’s all about seasonal ingredients,” says Yeisley. Keep it lighter in the summer; reserve warm spices like cinnamon for fall and winter. This goes for base spirits, too. For a refreshing summer cocktail, Yeisley suggests using Pisco, an underutilized but impactful spirit. Fall and winter are the perfect time to break out the whiskey and bourbon. Rye is an especially warming spirit and can have significant cinnamon tones.
TIP 2: The Strainer
A simple way to up your cocktail game is to double strain the liquid. The holes on a cocktail shaker are quite large and allow all manner of items through like citrus pulp, herbs and ice chips. A fine mesh strainer is an inexpensive way to even out the texture of the cocktail, resulting in something you can be proud of in one easy step.
TIP 3: The Ice
Not all ice is created equally. Air bubbles and impurities can affect the overall flavor and concentration of a cocktail, so find a better ice source than the stock machine in the freezer. Better yet, make some yourself. Pour boiling water into a round metal (not glass, water expands when frozen) mixing bowl and stash in the freezer until frozen solid. Then, allow it to melt completely on the counter and refreeze it. Use an ice pick to break off pieces for beverages as you go. Or, if the idea of an ice pick is a little too Basic Instinct for you, replace the metal mixing bowl with small silicon ice molds available everywhere from Ikea to Metropolitan Market.
TIP 4: The Glassware
As a bar consultant, Yeisley has seen establishments go way overboard on the glassware. Some have stocked 15-20 different categories of glasses. He says that many options are unnecessary. Yeisley advises a vintage perspective. The coupe glass harkens back to the golden age of the cocktail when The Great Gatsby was throwing extravagant soirees at his mansion. It used to be the only cocktail glass and was also used for champagne. In addition to a nice set of coupe glasses, the only other glassware you might really need is a 12-ounce rocks glass. If you can’t help yourself, a tall Collins glass is great for fizzes, and if you must purchase a copper mug for Seattle’s favorite cocktail, the Moscow Mule, Yeisley warns to make sure it is a stainless steel-lined mug to avoid copper leaching into the beverage.
TIP 5: The Syrup
Buying premade simple syrup is like a PNWesterner paying money for blackberries— completely unnecessary. Simple syrup is exactly that: simple. Merely dissolve equal parts granulated sugar into water by bringing it to a boil (e.g. one cup of sugar and one cup of water). Allow it to cool before using and store any extra in a glass jar with a lid for up to three weeks. Now that you’re an expert syrup wizard, start thinking outside the box. Add ginger slices after the sugar dissolves and simmer; remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes; strain with a fine mesh sieve and—voila!—a syrup perfect for a winter beverage. Yeisley suggests going herbal with a parsley-infused syrup for summer drinks. Celery makes an interesting infusion for a savory summer tonic.
TIP 6: The Garnish
Less is more when it comes to garnishes. “Garnishes should not be just for pretty looks. They should be part of the drink,” says Yeisley. Think of the garnish as one of the four components—perhaps some citrus peel to brighten the cocktail (the original 1778 garnish to an Old Fashioned was not an orange peel and a cherry, but rather a lemon peel). Yeisley dehydrates ginger, grinds it to a powder using a spice grinder (aka coffee grinder that you no longer grind coffee in), and uses it to make a rim coating somewhat like how margarita glasses are often dipped in salt.
FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM
“If you really want to learn,” says Yeisley, “you’re just going to have to drink more.” Go to a reputable bar and start trying things to get a handle on all of the options. Ask your friendly bartender for suggestions. And, Yeisley advises, if you want serious answers, please refrain from calling said bartender a “mixologist” (especially the bearded variety).