What is a Cocktail
WHAT IS A COCKTAIL?
The first definition of cocktail known to be an alcoholic beverage appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York) on May 13, 1806; editor Harry Croswell answered the question, “What is a cocktail?”:
“Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”
Technically, a cocktail is a beverage with at least three flavors: it must contain alcohol, a sugar, and a bitter/citrus. When a mixed drink contains only a distilled spirit and a mixer, such as soda or fruit juice, it is a highball.
It can be overwhelming as you begin to dive into the vast world of cocktails. Where to begin? Is it worth the hassle? Am I doing something wrong? There are hundreds of questions and even more opinions. Amid all of these questions, there are a few universal misconceptions that we would like to dispel. Below are some common myths that you don't have to worry about anymore, so mix up a drink and enjoy!
You Should Like Every Cocktail
We all have different taste and some prefer certain flavors or styles of drinks over others. Some drinkers are very picky, while others are open to anything that comes their way. And yet, just because we are open to it, doesn't mean that every drink is going to be to our liking.
Also, there are many cocktails that are considered “unquestionably great”—take the Martini, for example—but that doesn't mean that everyone is going to love them. In fact, everyone who has tried one probably has an opinion about the Martini—whether it's worth all the hype or not and, if it is, how to make it. Taste is subjective and that is the number one rule in the drink world. If you like it, drink it. If you don't, then it's time to move on. There are plenty of cocktail recipes out there, so keep trying.
Cocktails Are Hard to Make
This is one of the most common misconceptions about cocktails, and while there are many drinks that are somewhat difficult, the majority are very easy to make. Two examples of this are the Margarita and the Daiquiri: these two drinks (as they were originally created) have become mystified in a cloud of difficulty. A lot of this has to do with the over-marketed (often too sweet) ready-to-drink versions found in every liquor store which suggest that these cocktails are so difficult to make that you’re better of with something premade. Yet, if you break each of these cocktails down, you will find that you need just three ingredients for each and from there it is simply pour, shake, and strain. Done! A fresh, superior drink is in your glass using your preferred spirits.
Once you have the basic bar tools (even just a good cocktail shaker) and the ability to shake, stir, and strain (each very easy tasks), the world of cocktails opens up. You will find that mixing your own drinks is not only easy and quick, but fun and worth the little effort required.
Not All Ice Is Created Equal
Think about it, unless you are mixing a hot drink, almost every glass you fill from your bar requires ice. Ice not only chills your drink, but it adds to the dilution which brings many drinks into balance, softening the spirits and marrying the flavors. In blended cocktails, it is even more essential because it becomes the drink.
Does that mean that you need to go out and pay top dollar for artisanal ice? Not at all. You can improve your own ice by simply filling your ice trays with distilled water, rather than tap, and by throwing away any ice that has been in the freezer for more than a week.
This recommendation just covers the quality of ice. Ice is not as simple as that, though, and there are many more factors to consider when it comes to ice in your drinks.
The Brand of Soda Doesn't Matter
Today's soda industry is huge and there are a lot of choices available to consumers. However, as we learned with ice, all soda is not the same and some create superior drinks. Case in point, the simple Gin & Tonic: it is a very simple cocktail and surprisingly easy to screw up. You have a great gin—say, Martin Miller’s—and some nice, clear ice in your glass. Which tonic will you choose? A plastic-bottled, mass-produced, over-syruped tonic, or would you prefer a hand-crafted, perfectly balanced tonic water that won't go flat halfway through the drink? We know our choice because we’ve tasted the difference, and we encourage everyone who enjoys these simple highballs to explore the lesser-known soda brands, particularly those that were created for cocktails like Fever-Tree.
The More Expensive the Booze, the Better the Cocktail
Ask any mixologist and they’ll tell you that more expensive doesn’t always mean better. Take Tanqueray London Dry Gin, for example, in comparison to Tanqueray No. 10 Gin: Tanqueray 10 is pricier than regular Tanqueray, and so people assume the more expensive gin is better for an afternoon Gin & Tonic. But it all depends on how you use it. If you are preparing a classic Gin & Tonic, then you’d actually want to choose the regular Tanqueray with its juniper-heavy notes. Tanqueray 10 has fruitier, more floral notes, and consists of eight different ingredients. Classic Tanqueray has only four, so the flavors are more pronounced.
This is just one example, but the lesson is that more expensive doesn’t always make it better. You need to look at the alcohol’s qualities in order to work out how best to put it to use—and the price is no reflection on that.
Martinis Belong in Martini Glasses
In the long history of the Martini, the oversized, conical glass we know as the Martini glass is barely an infant. It wasn’t until recently that Martinis got their own glass at all—they used to be served in the same way as other, similarly spirit-forward drinks—in a coupe glass, or a narrow wineglass known as the Nick & Nora glass, made popular in a series of movies in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Classics Are Untouchable
Depending on how sweet, dry, or spicy you like your drinks, tweaking the amount of flavor modifiers like vermouth or bitters will get you the perfect, personalized drink. Don’t be bullied out of enjoying your next cocktail because of what some dead white man once wrote—another dead white man probably contradicted him.
Rum, for example, has traditionally been a cheap spirit, and so it was often mixed with cheap juices for parties. But a good rum holds its own in classic cocktails like a rum Manhattan or a rum Old Fashioned. The finest aged rums are best appreciated neat, like cognac.
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