Jane Says: Craft Cocktails Are All About Flavor, Not Pretension

For excellent New Years' drinks, look to fresh ingredients and good booze.

(Photo: Dana Hoff/Getty Images)

Dec 31, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“What exactly is a craft cocktail? Are they hard to make at home?
—Jamie Whitehouse

A craft cocktail is one in which the ingredients are fresh (no commercial mixes) and made or combined with care. Whenever I think of craft cocktails, I think of the person who introduced me to them—James Rodewald, the former drinks editor at Gourmet and author of the recently published American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution. The art of storytelling, along with inspiring examples of grit, gumption, and entrepreneurship, is alive and well among today’s distillers, and Rodewald’s book has earned a place in my library next to Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey and the Southern Appalachian Moonshine Tradition, by the masterful Joe Dabney.

When I shot off an “inquiring minds want to know” email to Rodewald the other day, he responded with alacrity. “The craft cocktail movement is the best thing to happen to drinkers since Prohibition,” he wrote. “It’s saved us from the vodka martini, not to mention abominations like the Harvey Wallbanger. But there’s really nothing new about making well-balanced drinks from great ingredients. The owner of my favorite bar in college made the best Brandy Alexander I’ve ever had. Also the best Tom Collins. And he introduced me to Green Chartreuse, which is, of course, a de rigueur ingredient on any fancy-pants cocktail list.”

After being colleagues for 10 years, I can tell when he is having fun: “The word hipster did not exist back then. The only people who had tattoos were ex-cons; piercings were, as far as I know, limited to ears,” he continued. “That bartender—an Irishman whose father may or may not have been a bootlegger in Troy, N.Y., during Prohibition—made drinks that rarely had more than three ingredients, and though many of us were just getting our cocktail careers started, he taught us to appreciate quality over quantity.”

Ah, Prohibition. It brought the golden age of the cocktail to a screeching halt. In The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender, With 500 Recipes, Dale DeGroff explains the zenith of that golden age, the 1870s, was when all the elements fell into place: refrigeration technology; charged water (i.e., soda water); the perfecting of mechanical ice systems; an amazing variety of both imported and domestic bottled spirits available; a large, well-trained workforce; and consumers with money to burn. This was, DeGroff tells us, “when many of the classics were either born or perfected: the Martini, the Manhattan, the sour, the fizz, the old-fashioned, the Pousse Café, the sting, and the julep.”

Fast-forward through Repeal, the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1950s, when bartenders began to rely on powdered sweet-and-sour mixes instead of fresh, natural ingredients. In the 1980s (I know! still ancient history), DeGroff played a pivotal role in the rebirth of the classic cocktail at the still-glamorous Rainbow Room, in New York City. He approached the profession of bartending like a chef, he writes, adding that there’s no reason you can’t do the same in your own kitchen. It’s more approachable than you may think.

“Too many bars that specialize in craft cocktails seem to revel in the number and obscurity of their ingredients, but much of that is pure posing,” Rodewald writes. “The formula is simple: Use high-quality ingredients, fresh juices, and fresh ice; balance the flavors; and execute the steps properly (if you’re shaking, shake it like you mean it; if you’re stirring, make sure you have plenty of ice and stir for at least 15 seconds).” I would add to not eyeball a highball or any other cocktail. Unless you really have the ratios down, use a jigger or a mini measure calibrated in teaspoons, tablespoons, ounces, and milliliters to measure your ingredients.

Ice, by the way, is considered a power ingredient among mixologists and other experts. “The discovery of fire—or, more accurately, the ability to create and manage fire—gets all the attention in anthropology texts,” Rodewald wrote in the October 2005 issue of Gourmet, “but ice might be an object of even greater obsession, particularly during the last two millennia, and particularly among America’s best bartenders.” As Rodewald points out, “You wouldn’t dream of cooking in rancid oil, so why would you use anything but clean, fresh ice?” So freeze good water and use ice trays that form large solid cubes instead of itty-bitty ones that melt quickly, thus diluting a drink instead of keeping it cold.

As far as the spirits go, “price doesn’t guarantee quality,” writes DeGroff, “but in most cases, you get what you pay for.” Such is life, in other words. You’ll see craft cocktails made with traditional premium brands of gin, vodka, bourbon, scotch, rye, rum, tequila, brandy, and so on, as well as those made by small-scale craft distillers. How do you know if a spirit is really made by a craft distiller? Rodewald to the rescue.

“It’s impossible to imagine that the already overburdened agency of the federal government that is tasked with regulating the booze business, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) would be willing or able to create labeling rules to help consumers easily determine who actually made the stuff they’re drinking,” he writes in American Spirit. “The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to support true craft distillers is to make sure the label says ‘Distilled By’ and not just ‘Produced By,’ ‘Bottled By,’ or ‘Made By.’ That’s not a guarantee—people will lie, and Big Booze’s lawyers and lobbyists will certainly figure out a way to get around even that rule if the craft market becomes big enough—but it’s all we’ve got at the moment.”

One encouraging development was the formation, in 2013, of the American Craft Distillers Association, and Rodewald, for one, would be surprised and disappointed if they didn’t hammer out some sort of voluntary labeling system so that consumers can make more informed choices. A complicating factor is that the definition of the term craft distiller is still a work in progress. Dave Pickerell, the former distiller at Maker’s Mark, now runs a consulting business for small whiskey makers. He’s seen it all and from both sides. “I think there are three sets of craft,” Rodewald quotes him as saying. “Those that are making their own equipment, those that are making their own juice, and those who are taking something they bought and putting a spin on it—a blend or whatever—and bringing a new taste to market.”

Whatever. I don’t know about you—I’m getting thirsty. But I’m not sure for what, exactly. Again, over to Rodewald.

“This time of year, if there’s a holiday crowd in need of lubrication, I might whip up a batch of Baltimore Eggnog, using eggs from a farmer I like and the best cream I can find,” he says. “It’s incredibly rich but extremely satisfying, so a little goes a long way. (In the unlikely event that there’s some left over, I run it through my ice cream maker.) Here’s the recipe as it ran in the December 1945 issue of Gourmet: To serve 25 people, beat 2 dozen egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. Add to the yolks 1 bottle (4/5 quart) brandy, 1 pint Jamaica rum, 2 pounds confectioners sugar, 3 quarts whole sweet milk, 1 quart heavy cream, and 1 teaspoon salt, beating slowly all the while during the adding of the ingredients, to allow the spirits to cook the egg yolks. Finally, fold in the 24 egg whites, beaten stiff with 3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg. Eggnog may be bottled, corked tightly, and kept in the refrigerator until wanted. If so kept, the fluffiness of the egg whites will diminish, but this will not harm the flavor of the drink.”

Okay, I’m in. Cheers, and Happy New Year!