Occasionally, misguided people ask why there’s a booze column in a newspaper section called Food. To people who don’t drink cocktails, there’s the false sense that drinks aren’t really, you know, “culinary” in the way, say, pickling or grilling or sous-vide-ing stuff might be.
I’m always quick to point out that cocktails are one of the great, traditional early American foodways. Cocktails, I reflexively add, are one of the United States’ finest contributions to world culinary culture. Then I usually quote H.L. Mencken, who famously called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”
Once my defensiveness subsides, I tend to point out that creating a new cocktail is one of the purest, most straightforward forms of recipe development, and one that almost anyone can do. Even those who are inept in the kitchen can mix a brand-new cocktail, and sometimes it can border on genius.
This mad-scientist experimentation is what makes cocktails so dynamic. As the irrepressible Crosby Gaige writes in his classic 1941 “Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion”: “It is my honest and considered opinion that cocktails are living organisms like the cells in your body. They fluctuate like the tides. They are subject to the laws of supply and demand, and are ruled and governed by the caprice and creative instinct of each individual mixer.”
In fact, without trying to ruin the livelihoods of mixologists with well-paying corporate gigs, here’s their basic, not-so-secret formula for almost all new cocktail development: Take a classic recipe from the 20th century. Replace the base spirit with another base spirit (either whatever you have on hand or, in the case of corporate mixologists, the product of whoever is paying you). More advanced home bartenders can alter the secondary spirits, change the juices, add different bitters or bring in new mixers.
For instance, switch out bourbon for apple brandy, and simple syrup for maple syrup, and your Old-Fashioned becomes an Apple Brandy Old-Fashioned. Replace gin with aquavit, and lemon with lime, and your French 75 becomes a Swedish 60. For your Manhattan, use bianco vermouth instead of sweet vermouth, replace bitters with a strange root-tea liqueur called Root, and you have a Pennsylvania Dutch Manhattan.
Voila! You’ve taken your first step toward high-flying consultancy.
Lately, I’ve been observing and conducting some interesting experiments with brandy, specifically cognac and Armagnac. Of all the six major base spirits — the others are gin, vodka, tequila, rum and whiskey — none gets less love from the average drinker than brandy. Readers of this column know that for years I’ve been beating the brandy drum, trying to rally Americans to discover its pleasures. Sure the Sidecar (cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice) is a classic. But after that, can you can name a brandy cocktail? Even among new, edgy, contemporary cocktail menus, it has been rare to see brandy as the featured spirit. Then, all of a sudden in the past few months, I see cognac popping up on cocktail lists in all sorts of older classics that traditionally call for rye whiskey.
That makes sense. Before the Civil War, when cocktails were just being invented, French cognac was definitely more prevalent in American life. For instance, I’ve always loved a classic New Orleans Sazerac — one of the very first American cocktails — with cognac instead of the rye whiskey that’s now standard.
And cognac has always played nice alongside rye whiskey in drinks such as the Saratoga (rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters) and that other New Orleans standard, the Vieux Carre (cognac, rye, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s bitters). Even the mint julep was largely a cognac cocktail until Henry Clay came north from Kentucky and insisted that his juleps at the Willard Hotel be made with bourbon. I wholeheartedly suggest trying any of these with VSOP cognac or higher.
One drink that’s having a mini-moment among the cocktail cognoscenti is the New York Sour, with cognac replacing rye, and a float of red wine on top. Cocktail historian David Wondrich, author of “Imbibe,” has shared with me a variation called the New York Stone Sour that deliciously adds orange juice to the mix. (See the recipe at top.)
Of course, as in any medium, some avant-garde creators don’t have time for the gradual improvements and evolutions on classical forms. Some bartenders, like artists, would rather create something completely new. Which is why I’m also including cocktail book author Maggie Savarino’s outlandish and tasty Brandy Stout. Her take on a brandy cocktail involves cognac, stout beer and a walnut liqueur called nocino. (See the recipe above.)
At first sip, it seems as far away from traditional foodways as you might get. Yet on second sip, you’ll recognize it immediately as a distinctly American form of culinary inventiveness.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Obscure, the Rare, and the Overrated in Spirits “ (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.