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Be a Bold Mix Master

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When I told people I planned to make maraschino cherries and cocktail onions, as well as infuse my own spirits and bitters, they looked baffled. It was if I had told them I would be performing open-heart surgery in the living room.

That was before my shipment of cinchona bark quinine powder arrived. Then I informed friends and relatives I would also be making my own tonic water. Even my editors were a little mystified. "Why?" they asked. "Is it worth the effort?"

After a week of playing chemist in the kitchen and testing the results among a friendly crowd, I can now tell everyone: Yes, yes, yes. Homemade cocktail ingredients are indeed worth it.

Why? Well, why make your own pasta, your own ice cream or your own chicken stock?

A cocktail consists of a few ounces of liquid and relies on only a few ingredients. If a cherry, a splash of tonic water or a dash of bitters is one of them, then how those ingredients are prepared makes a big difference.

The guy who converted me to this point of view -- and therefore should take responsibility for my experimentation -- is Todd Thrasher, the "mad scientist" behind the cocktails at Restaurant Eve and PX in Alexandria. Thrasher makes nearly all of his own mixers and garnishes, among them eight types of bitters, including lemon, peach and kumquat. He infuses most of his own vodkas and vermouth. Lately, he has even attempted to create his own cola.

"I don't believe in using artificial ingredients," Thrasher said. "If you're going to have a drink, you may as well use the best ingredients you can find."

"Besides," he added, "it's fun to make things from scratch."

After seeing how easy it is to make Thrasher's preserved cherries, I don't know how I can go back to the artificial, neon-red, plastic-textured maraschino cherries in a jar. Letting fresh cherries sit overnight in salt water, and then soaking them in a syrup of lemon juice and almond extract, creates a richer, more complex, salty-sweet flavor that improves yet still retains the familiar essence of the maraschino cherries we've come to rely on.

To test the cherries in action, I made Manhattans. "I can't tell you exactly whether it's the cherry or not," my friend Jim said, "but I can tell you this is the best Manhattan I've ever had."

I moved on to cocktail onions. The jarred ones can be a slimy and pathetic condiment.

For that reason, a Gibson -- essentially a martini with onions rather than olives -- has always been problematic for me. So I created the ingredients to make the New-Age Gibson, a favorite cocktail at PX. I peeled pearl onions and pickled them in champagne vinegar, saffron and spices, then let them marinate overnight. Meanwhile, I infused a bottle of dry vermouth with saffron. My vermouth turned the New-Age Gibson a lovely golden hue. I actually relished nibbling on my homemade onions while sipping the drink.

Thrasher said he started making his own ingredients largely because he couldn't find them in Northern Virginia. Orange bitters are a case in point. I've had a difficult time finding a good version of this essential bar ingredient in Washington as well.

Falernum is another story. No one, it seems, can obtain the infused rum unless they make it themselves. Yet a half-century ago, falernum was a tiki-bar staple in drinks such as the zombie, the mai tai and the rum swizzle.

I soaked lime peels, cloves and almonds in sugar and white rum, which I let sit in a covered glass pitcher in the sun for three days. When I opened the container again, the aroma was heavenly. Mixed in a rum swizzle with dark rum and lime and pineapple juices, my homemade falernum added a mysterious tanginess and notes of clove that balanced any syrupy sweetness.

Though the pickling, preserving and infusing turned out to be fairly straightforward kitchen business, completed in a couple of hours, making tonic water was in a slightly different realm.

I'd never spent more than four minutes thinking about tonic; it was something created in a factory by Schweppes or Canada Dry. I pictured a bubbling vat and a "Laverne & Shirley"-type bottling line.

That was until I tasted Thrasher's gin and tonic at PX. Thrasher said it took six months and 20 versions before he settled on the tonic that he serves. "This isn't like the tonic you'll get out of plastic bottles," he said. Thrasher said that's mainly because mass-produced tonic waters are often sickly sweet from the addition of high-fructose corn syrup.

Despite my pleading, Thrasher wouldn't give me the secret recipe he uses at PX. But he did teach me how to make basic tonic water, which called for sugar, citric acid and lemon grass stalks. But first I had to get my hands on raw quinine powder, which was easy to find -- online.

When friends and I tasted my homemade tonic water in a proper gin and tonic, it took a moment to wrap our heads around the new taste. The subtle spicy notes and the natural texture, along with the tonic's brown color, gave us the sense that we were being transported to some pre-manufactured era. My friend Jane said it was as if she had slipped back to the time of the Raj, when a gin and tonic was both pleasurable and medicinal.

After a few sips, I made a gin and tonic with Canada Dry. It tasted like candy (not a good thing) in comparison. "Who would've thought this would make that big of a difference?" Jane said.

My thoughts exactly.

Jason Wilson can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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