December 19, 2016 | By Maggie Hoffman
“I once read somewhere that there will never again be a completely original new cocktail created. Everything can be traced back to a classic cocktail recipe.”
– Tony Abou-Ganim, Author of The Modern Mixologist
Lead bartender Phil Clark of BRABO by Robert Wiedmaier, in Alexandria, puts it this way, “I used to build bicycles. I would rebuild existing parts, buy new ones, purchase a skinnier set of tires or a different colored brake line. At the end of the day, though, you could swap out as many parts as you wanted, but as long as it had two wheels, pedals and handlebars, it was still a bicycle.”
Cocktails, says Clark, are just like that, too. “Once you learn their structures, their form and what makes them essential, you can customize their flavors to the season, to your own themes, mood and palate, while still maintaining core recognition for your guests.”
Bob Peters of The Punch Room at The Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte affirms that riffing on classics is a great way to connect to your guests. When you reimagine a classic drink, he explains, “They will recognize the name or the similarity to the classic recipe and feel comfortable ordering it, even if they don’t know what every single one of your ingredients are.” Enjoying your clever rendition of a drink they love will help you build trust. “Classic cocktails are the comfort food of the booze world,” Peters says, noting that once trust is established, it “will allow you to start to nudge them out of their comfort zone, little by little. This is a huge step in the fledgling patron-bartender relationship.”
So how do bar pros execute these riffs? I asked a few for their tips.
Filling the Gaps
It all starts, of course, by identifying the proper drink to begin with. “I start with a need for my menu,” explains Clark. “Let’s suppose my menu is lacking a long, refreshing drink, and I want to make a Tom Collins – a simple mixture of gin, lemon, sugar and soda water. To make it my own and provide something new and exciting for our guests, I’ll make a few tweaks to the original.” Clark first looks at the sweetener, either experimenting with a different syrup such as honey or agave, or subbing in a sweet liqueur like St. Germain. Sometimes this requires a little adjustment to the citrus element in the drink. “I may also want to incorporate another flavor at this point. Maybe something tart and jammy, like a blackberry; or cool and bright, like a cucumber. The next step is to find the right gin to work with the rest of your ingredients. You know the flavors you’ve established (lemon, cucumber, elderflower) and you need to choose a spirit that will exist in symbiosis with them, neither taking over the cocktail nor shrinking into the background.”
Peters notes that sometimes a small change can go a long way. After you’ve identified your classic drink of choice and pinpointed all of the elements that you could vary, “you should consider editing all of your possible ideas. Instead of changing all ingredients and techniques of the cocktail, maybe just do half of the things possible.” Less is more, he contends. “As you are looking at your new creation, you need to keep an honest, editing eye on it. Is there a reason for everything? If you are using an alternate technique, why? Now be honest with yourself: Is the final product good?”
Let’s start with what seems simple – how to riff on an Old Fashioned.
First, be careful. “The Old Fashioned isn’t something to be messed with too much. It’s perfect the way it is and should be enjoyed year round,” says head bartender Mike Jones of Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. “The Old Fashioned will always be king,” argues Benjamin Harris, head bartender at Pennyroyal in Seattle. “Its simplicity is elegant: spirit, bitters, sugar and water.” Harris is partial to a variation made with Mezcal. Jones says he pairs the agave spirit with agave, and adds mole bitters to the mix.
“The Old Fashioned, for me, lends itself to one of my favorite spirit categories and that’s aged rums,” says Abou-Ganim. When someone wants rum, Mike Jones says he likes to use chocolate bitters. “They just seem to play with the rum and help highlight all the beauty of it.” Joey Scorza of Toro-Toro in the InterContinental Hotel Miami, goes for chocolate too, and also adds a few dashes of plum bitters. For an autumnal twist, Phil Clark splits the spirit in his Apples to Apples (recipe below) between rum and applejack, and sweetening with a little bittersweet Cynar as well as Demerara syrup.
Some Like it Hot
In colder months, riffs on hot drinks like the toddy and the hot buttered rum are essential soothers. “A hot toddy is thought of as a medicinal elixir,” notes Peters, “so adding fresh herbs like mint would be a great start.” Try cognac instead of whiskey, try earthy dark honey, or consider a splash of Drambuie. Clark uses tea instead of hot water; Ivan Ramirez, lead bartender at Brandon’s Palm Beach, sweetens his with chamomile/chardonnay syrup. “This syrup gives it a floral and calming attitude, making it a great option for a cold snowy day,” he says.
“I really like to make hot toddies with a skunky rum, adding Caribbean flavors like allspice and Falernum,” says Harris.
Perhaps the Negroni is the most riffed-upon of them all. “Since the ingredients are traditionally in equal measures,” says Clark, “the only limit to experimentation is the bartenders’ imagination, provided they keep that core bitter/sweet/strong motif in mind.” (He cites a Mezcal-based version as a favorite.)
“Any spirit that will provide a punch and then be balanced by anything that will serve up the bittersweet harmony is good,” says Peters, who makes a variation with barrel-aged genever, Fernet Branca, Cynar and Carpano Antica. “It has a ton of flavors bouncing around your taste buds that pull your mouth in every wonderful direction – bitter, malty, herby, sweet.”
Dark Rum Old Fashioned
Joey Scorza – InterContinental Hotels, Miami
2 oz dark rum, such as Ron Zacapa 23
½ oz simple syrup
2 Dashes chocolate bitters
2 Dashes plum bitters
Garnish: lemon peel, Bordeaux cherry
Add rum, simple syrup and bitters to a mixing glass and stir with ice until well chilled. Strain into rocks glass with one large ice cube. Garnish and serve.
Silver is the First Loser
Benjamin Harris – Pennyroyal , Seattle
1 oz Campo de Encanto Pisco
1 oz Salers Gentiane Aperitif
1 oz Carpano Bianco Vermouth
4-5 drops Black pepper-green cardamom tincture
Garnish: lemon twist
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Pour over large ice cube in a rocks glass. Garnish with lemon twist.
For the tincture:
Macerate 1 teaspoon black peppercorn and 1 teaspoon whole green cardamom in 8 ounces high proof neutral grain spirit for two weeks. Fine strain before using.
Next to a Negroni
Bob Peters – The Punch Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte
2 oz Bols Barrel Aged Genever
½ oz Fernet Branca
½ oz Cynar
½ oz Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
Garnish: orange twist
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Serve on fresh rocks, garnished with an orange twist.
Apple to Apples
Phil Clark – BRABO, Alexandria
1½ oz Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum
1 oz Laird’s Applejack
½ oz Cynar
½ oz Demerara syrup
4 dashes Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters
Garnish: orange twist, cinnamon stick
Combine rum, applejack, Cynar, Demerara syrup and bitters in mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Serve on fresh rocks, garnished with an orange twist and a cinnamon stick.