Cocktails weren’t always complicated. The classic gin and tonic began when people in British India doctored their anti-malarial quinine water with gin to make it more palatable. Pre-Prohibition drinks, such as the Sazerac, included only two or three ingredients, generally all of them spirits.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, long after Prohibition, that bartenders discovered the appeal and popularity of sweet cocktails. In the following decades, a sugary rush of mixology produced the Mai Tai, Piña Colada, Screwdriver, Daiquiri and Margarita, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking.
But according to Mark Stoddard, a mixologist at The Bitter Bar, the modern consumer’s biggest complaint is a toosweet cocktail.
“The most common phrase I get on a nightly basis when I’m talking about cocktails with guests is [that they don’t want something] ‘too sweet,’ which is kind of ironic because the American palate is very sweet,” Stoddard says. But he adds that the concept of sweet is subjective. “My idea of sweet is very different from yours.”
Nevertheless, the Mai Tai and its sugary cousins are largely on the outs, and bartenders have noticed a resurgence of classic, minimalist cocktails.
“People are definitely a lot more interested in pre- Prohibition and classic-style cocktails,” says Bryan Dayton, bar manager at Frasca Food & Wine. “It’s something that brings some validity to the cocktail culture.”
Dayton says this trend has recently caught on in Boulder and goes hand in hand with the emphasis on fresh, unprocessed ingredients.
“A lot of these great cocktails were created before the modern, industrial age, when we only had fresh fruits,” Dayton says. “We didn’t have packages of lemonade, and you were forced to make really creative, fresh cocktails. It’s almost a step back to how it should be.”
Stoddard agrees, and says that among the current craze to “go local,” Boulder bartenders are finding ways to create cocktails that haven’t traveled more than 50 miles from farm to first sip. An increase in microdistilleries, which produce spirits on a smaller scale, allows for the use of more local spirits. According to Stoddard, Colorado now has 20 microdistillery licenses, which is high, considering the state’s population.
“Customers feel good about buying that cocktail,” he says of the locally sourced beverage.
Yet what many cocktail-lovers don’t feel good about is their ability to recreate the dazzling drinks at home. With a wellstocked home bar and some tips from the pros, home mixology is nothing to fear. The most important thing to remember, according to both Stoddard and Dayton, is balance.
“Overall, you want all the components to equal out and not have one thing shining through all the others,” Dayton says. Achieving a sound balance in a cocktail prevents any one flavor from overwhelming the palate. While high-quality spirits are helpful in creating a smooth drink, one need not spend a lot on liquor.
“I would highly advise against buying the cheapest thing available, but there are a lot of high-quality spirits that don’t cost a lot of money,” Stoddard says. “A great mixable gin is Plymouth. Some good mixable rums are Cruzan and Sailor Jerry’s.” To get the best value, he says consumers should read about various spirits online.
“Basically, for a home bar [one should have] a few basic spirits — what you and your friends like to drink — have a decent red and white wine, and an array of fresh citrus,” Stoddard says. “Also have a good sweetener.” He credits agave nectar for its neutrally sweet quality, allowing drinks to become sweet without affecting their flavor.
Glassware is often an intimidating arena for many home mixers, since many believe that there are hard and fast rules. But Dayton says glassware can largely be open to interpretation.
“You have different categories of cocktails,” he says. “A long drink would go in a highball glass, and a martini glass is generally for straight-up spirits. But you can always play with that.” Instead of purchasing expensive cocktail glasses, experimenting with the glassware already in the cupboards is one way to infuse a drink with freshness. It’s important, however, to consider the ice.
“Ice is paramount because it controls how your cocktail tastes,” Stoddard says. “If you’re using the wrong ice it won’t get cold enough. You want to keep the cocktail cold for a long time and not water it down.” To avoid a watery beverage, Stoddard recommends ice spheres, since they have the best surface area-to-volume ratio.
Yet perhaps one of the most critical components of the cocktail is the garnish. Quite simply, it can make or break a beverage.
“You can have a cocktail that may not taste good, and if you properly garnish it, [the recipient] already thinks it’s going to be good, even before tasting it. You’ve already won them over,” Stoddard says.
He suggests a long, even orange peel twisted “just so” on the edge of the glass for a simple, low-cost garnish, or carved fruit for a more involved decoration. A lemon wheel “boat” that floats atop the drink and carries a sprig of herbs is also a festive option, as are flower petals or berries wrapped in citrus peel.
“The garnish has to be relevant to the cocktail,” Stoddard warns. “You shouldn’t put a rose petal on something that has cinnamon and nutmeg in it.”
Dayton uses a similar rule in his mixology methods.
“I like to stay around the profile of what the spirit’s base is,” he says. “For example, rum comes from Central or South America and the Caribbean. There are tons of fruits there — bananas, coconuts, fruit juices. Rum goes really well with those things. Give the spirit what it comes from.”
When it comes to mixing drinks, creativity is key. It’s a matter of working with fresh ingredients and balancing them against other fresh ingredients. For Stoddard, it’s an opportunity to get to know his customers by asking them what they desire in a beverage.
“If they say, ‘I like strawberries and thyme and also I like jalapeños,’ how can I take these key words and craft a delicious cocktail?” he says. “It’s kind of like Iron Chef style, where you have to combine only the things you have to work with.”