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Nothing Succeeds Like Simplicity

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Despite all my lecturing and finger-wagging about the correct way to make drinks, I have to admit that I'm a pretty lazy person at heart. Not much of a news flash, I realize; it probably explains why I write about cocktails instead of, say, covering wars or exposing corruption.

Laziness often overtakes me at inopportune moments. A few evenings ago, I was leafing through a new book called "Artisanal Cocktails" by Scott Beattie, formerly of Cyrus Restaurant in Sonoma County, Calif., and one of the nation's most innovative bartenders. This gorgeous book is full of good information on such matters as the importance of using freshly squeezed fruit juices, top-quality mixers and perfect ice cubes, and it offers a range of tips on such things as salting glass rims and making garnishes and syrups.

"My hope with these recipes is to inspire," Beattie writes. "In attempting to add more drama to my cocktails, I've added foams, dehydrated fruit, and pickled and candied treats, along with fresh herbs and edible flowers. And instead of muddling whole fresh herbs in the bottom of the mixing glass, I sometimes chop them into a chiffonade."

Some evenings (and this was one of them) I am so burned out and tired that I do not want to muddle, let alone chop anything into a chiffonade. But the book's drink photography was so stunning that I took a closer look. Bring on the inspiration!

One of the first recipes I turned to was the Lotus Potion. To make one I would need: mandarin orange blossom vodka; regular vodka; freshly squeezed orange juice; freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice; orange bitters; a separate recipe for Chinese five-spice syrup involving anise pods, fennel seeds, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves, honey and Szechuan peppercorns; another recipe for an orange foam that needs to stabilize for 24 hours in advance; yet another recipe for Crispy Lotus Root Chips that involves a vanilla bean that must be split and placed in sugar for 24 hours and then a dehydration process that can take 36 hours; finally, rosemary blossoms "or other edible purple flowers, for garnish."

Whoa. Eyes glazed over. Closed book. Grabbed highball glass and filled with ice cubes. Grabbed spirit (in this case blanco tequila). Grabbed soda (in this case Izze Sparkling Grapefruit). Poured both liquids into highball glass. One plus one equals cocktail. Sank into easy chair. Enjoyed immensely.

Yes, folks, sometimes it's that easy. To be fair, I made this one a little more advanced by taking the strenuous extra steps of salting the rim of my glass and slicing off a wedge of lime to add to the drink, which I'm calling the E-Z Paloma.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of people like me out there, mainly because I am always getting e-mails from readers asking for simpler, time-saving cocktails so they're not stuck playing bartender all night. Beyond making a punch in advance, I usually suggest the wonderful simplicity of choosing a nice spirit and matching it with a nice soda or tonic. There is something very appealing -- to both server and drinker -- about the simple mix of booze, effervescence and a slice of citrus.

Even Beattie nods to that impulse in "Artisanal Cocktails" with recipes for such drinks as the Cuba Libre, in which he calls for Mexican-formula Coca-Cola (vastly superior to our high-fructose corn syrup version) to be mixed with the rum and lime. He also has a recipe for a gin and tonic that calls for the excellent Fever Tree artisan tonic water. Both are nice places to start for the gracious-host-but-lazy-bartender.

My lazy-bartender plan requires you only to open two bottles and pour them into an ice-filled highball glass. The real trick lies in brainstorming new and interesting combinations of those bottles. You want to surprise your guests, but you don't want to, say, spend 36 hours dehydrating lotus roots. In the past, I've suggested pairing a big red wine, such as Rioja, with Coca-Cola, in the classic Spanish Calimocho.

Last year I suggested a rum and tonic instead of the standard gin and tonic. This year I'm offering another easy twist to the gin and tonic. Before pouring in the tonic, add about four dashes of Angostura bitters, and voila! A Pink Gin and Tonic.

A great place to turn for interesting mixers is Italian sodas such as San Pellegrino's Aranciata (orange soda), Limonata (lemon soda) or Chinotto, a strange, brown, bitter orange soda. Aranciata classically pairs with Campari or Aperol and is a standard aperitivo ingredient in Italian bars. Chinotto, which has been getting more attention lately in cocktail circles, mixes well with tequila or apple brandy and a slice of orange.

Ginger beer, rather than ginger ale, is another secret ingredient of the lazy bartender. It works well with rum in the Dark and Stormy, and I've been seeing it paired with Italian amari such as Averna. In fact, if you're willing to take the extra step of squeezing half a lemon in with the ginger beer and then adding the Averna, you can make the delicious Vertigo described here.

Beyond sodas and tonics, one of my favorite holiday cheats is the Black Velvet, a mix of stout beer (usually Guinness) and champagne (not expensive). Fill a champagne flute halfway with stout and then, very gently over a spoon, pour in the champagne. The visual effect of the bubbly mingling with the stout will be lovely. Your family and friends will be transfixed. They will admire and praise your, ahem, technique.

Which is good. That means you've distracted them just long enough so they won't figure out how lazy you really are.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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