The cocktail is a lovely simple thing: a mixture of spirits and flavorings that whets the appetite, pleases the eye, and stimulates the mind. It is one of our conspicuous contributions to cultured living, up there with the Great American Songbook and the tuxedo. Yet, like almost everything else to do with culture in this country, the cocktail fell on hard times in the 1960s. A generation preferred other intoxicants and, when they drank, took their alcohol in sickly sweet concoctions that defied any idea of sophistication. As time passed, the places one could order a decent cocktail grew farther in between. By the 1990s, few establishments outside of the fustiest hotels could produce a passable Martini or Manhattan. Fewer still a Negroni, a Jack Rose, or a Sazerac.
Some of it is the ignorance of the folks behind the bar, who not only have a limited mastery of the ratios that make such cocktails refreshing but also fail to measure–every drink should be meted out accurately with jiggers and spoons. It is a profession after all dominated by disabused actors and women comfortable in brief attire. But it is just as much the lack of audience. For a Negroni, your sweet vermouth and your Campari must be fresh, used and replaced regularly. For a Jack Rose, you not only need bottled-in-bond applejack or high-grade Calvados, but also real grenadine, which at this point you must make yourself as the product sold domestically has no pomegranates in it. And a Sazerac? To make the signature drink of New Orleans, you need not only good rye and an absinthe substitute, but a bottle of Antoine Amedie Peychaud’s anise-dominated bitters. You need, in other words, fresh ingredients, a fair amount of knowledge, and practiced skills.
In the cocktail world, the phrase “roll your own” is indelibly associated with David Embury, whose Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948, revised 1952 and 1958) remains the single best book on the subject. Embury (1886-1960) was a successful New York tax attorney, who, according to his daughter Ruth, excelled “at everything he did. Besides being a lawyer and cocktail aficionado, he was a magician and bridge expert, and played both the piano and banjo.” He was the classic amateur and in that spirit sought to understand the cocktail’s principles. Embury broke a drink down into three constituent parts–the base, the modifying agent, and the special flavoring and coloring agents. The base is our “strong,” the alcohol, which to Embury should constitute 75 percent of any drink and never less than 50 percent. (In a drink like a Martini, it will be upwards of 90 percent.) The modifiers are our “weak” and “sour,” as well as “smoothing agents” like sugar and egg whites. These will be most of the rest of a drink’s volume with only tiny additions of the liqueurs and fruit syrups that constitute “special flavoring and coloring agents.” From this simple description, Embury was able to explain all cocktails as a matter of proportion. What is a traditional Daiquiri? Nothing but 8 parts Cuban rum, 2 parts lime juice, and 1 part sugar syrup. Embury took it to heart that you would never be mixing up a single cocktail, but likely four or eight, and proportions gave you the power to make a good cocktail for your guests that, equally important, tastes the same each round.
But Embury was concerned about more than just how to make good cocktails–he sought to define just what one was. He found six key characteristics:
* First: It “must whet the appetite, not dull it.” This sounds simple enough but actually disqualifies whole swaths of alcoholic drinks from consideration and leaves us focused on the dry and sour drinks that show off a spirit. Nothing served at a rowdy bar could ever qualify. Nor anything that disguises the taste of the liquor; it would cloy and dull your palate and hardly be the lead in to a decent oyster pan roast and some lamb chops. Embury’s focus was on quality not quantity–though he did describe himself as someone who prefers to drink the first too fast and then savor the second. He was, moreover, asserting that the cocktail is a thing of its time and place, holding a key spot in the day’s endeavors: after the labor and before the meal. It’s a reward, but like a good dinner it takes a bit of effort to prepare.
* Second: A cocktail “should stimulate the mind as well as the appetite.” Embury understood that cocktails are part of a civilized and contemplative life. You should be able to anticipate your first drink after the day’s work and use it to refresh your spirit and relax your mind. It should awaken senses dulled at the office and by the speed and distances of contemporary life. It should move you from the determined needs of a workday to a thoughtful consideration of the better and more charming aspects of living and talking and reading. Anticipation should not be underrated as an aspect of any aesthetic experience. It is as essential to a cocktail as it is to a good production of Cymbeline or Don Carlos or a cassoulet.
* Third: A cocktail “must be pleasing to the palate.” By this, Embury meant a drink that is dry with all of the flavors balanced. You should be able to sense every ingredient in a well-made cocktail. Some of it might be elusive, but it is there in some definable sense. When you add one or two drops of absinthe to a Corpse Reviver No. 2, you are adding a defining flavor. You cannot leave it out without changing the drink into something else.
* Fourth: A cocktail “must be pleasing to the eye.” This is an underrated virtue. At a many-starred hotel, I was recently brought a rather good Negroni in a brown-tinted old-fashioned glass. It came close to ruining the moment. The bright red color is one of the pleasures of this masterpiece, shining out from an up glass close to one’s right hand. Bringing a tray of four Pegu Clubs to your coffee table will liven up your guests, setting everyone to considering the drinks and their color. Like wrapped packages and Christmas crackers, well-presented cocktails add festivity to an occasion. One trouble is that old saw about shaken versus stirred. James Bond has no idea what he is talking about. Nobody wants a shaken Martini, which is a cloudy drink when a Martini should be absolutely clear. Stir it with a long spoon until it is rabidly cold. Shaken or stirred is a debate about how a drink should look, not how it should taste. Any drink with fruit juice in it will be cloudy, so shake away–shaking being the most efficient method of chilling. If your drink has any hope of being clear: stir. And anyone who mentions the concept of bruising alcohol should be offered a beer to drink.
* Fifth: A cocktail “must have sufficient alcoholic flavor.” Even the simplest of cocktails like a vermouth cassis must taste of alcohol. If you don’t like the taste of the stuff, drink soda water. There’s nothing else to say. Drinks that don’t taste of alcohol were developed for coeds and the saps who try to get them drunk. There are cocktails for every palate, and every cocktail is adjustable. If you don’t like bitter herbs, make a Negroni with simple syrup substituted for a quarter of the Campari. A cocktail tailored to your palate will still taste wonderfully of the alcohol. A cocktail that does not taste of its alcohol is likely something disreputable.
* Finally: A cocktail “must be well-iced.” This rules out most of the drinks you can get in American restaurants, as they are too large. A cocktail is about four ounces, and today’s Martini is six, maybe even eight. It’s warm before you can contemplate its measure. The chill is essential. Cocktails do not open up like wine, they just get warm. Plan on more than one round and consider steps like chilling your shaker and making ice cubes from distilled water. (Better ice is an overlooked way to improve cocktails–it’s a lot like making your own stock and pie crusts.) But regardless, serving smaller drinks at colder temperatures is as essential as not overcooking the trout.
There isn’t any part of the cocktail process that Embury didn’t examine in Fine Art, from glassware and the strength of drinks to whether you should mix liquors and the “Social Effects of Overindulgence.” His belief that you should cut the amount of water in a cocktail to the bone meant that his simple syrup is three parts sugar to one part water–a thick additive that experimentation showed him had the maximum sugar he could get into water without its returning later to crystal form. His assured manner left plenty to argue about: the ratio of his Sours (far too much brandy in the Embury Sidecar, for instance), the base of the French 75 (he favors cognac rather than gin), even the number of foundational cocktails. He presented six, adding the Sidecar and the Jack Rose. Now, I love both those drinks, but what are they other than a Brandy Sour and an Applejack Sour in exactly the way a Daiquiri is a Rum Sour: the foundational Sour? They are brilliant variations, not pillars. Embury is our one true philosopher of the cocktail, and the conversation never flags.