There are some times that just call for a good drink. So much so that this blog is an offshoot of a trans-continental conversation about good drinks, what makes them good--what makes them great--and just maybe, if we're really good or really lucky, what makes them magical. Since mixology is at its best and most fun when it's shared, the two of us writing this--Dave and John--started sharing pictures and stories back and forth of what we were making and how they came out, and what we were exploring ingredient-wise. These were a trickle at first, but then we started making our own bitters and infusions, and the texts and emails grew. We started barrel-aging cocktails and fat-washing liquors, and the messages proliferated.
Then we decided to start this blog, so that in the spirit (no pun intended) of sharing, we could take it past ourselves, and someone else might get a good tip out of it, have some fun reading it, and maybe get inspired to try it themselves.
So what is the point of all this? We'll start with a single drink, as close to a standard recipe as we can get, and then keep altering it to see what happens when we tweak and evolve the recipe. What you'll get, dear reader, is the conversation about our tinkering in wonderful blog form. Not ending with a "perfect recipe," but hopefully lending you the wisdom we (hic) developed along the way that will help you to craft a version--deliberately, and with deliciousness aforethought--that will be perfect for you.
Dave and John first met in Baghdad in the Bad Old Days, where they bonded over shared nerdity and an affinity for scotch. They eventually reunited in friendlier confines and quickly welcomed food, beer, wine, and most other consumables to their list of bonding essentials.
Some days Dave is a lobbyist, some days he is a mechanic. Most of the time, he just cultivates a high tolerance for abstractness and uncertainty. He works in conflict resolution, trying a range of things to help put broken places back together or (even better) keep them from breaking in the first place. Most recently, Dave has spent a lot of time telling the US government why a less militarized foreign policy is really the way to go.
John is a [redacted]-something development practitioner, husband and father living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Dave and John can neither confirm nor deny that their chosen professions have anything to do with their recent pursuits in the art of mixing drinks or the creation of this blog… but one way or another, they've gotten very, very good at it.
Q: WHAT INITIALLY GOT YOU INTERESTED IN DRINKING AND MIXING COCKTAILS?
I work in conflict resolution, which means most of the time my day involves a steady stream of all the worst that humanity has to offer. So I look for things to do in my spare time that create something. Preferably something beautiful, which took skill and art to make happen. Enter the cocktail, which has the added advantage of being tasty to boot.
Cocktails are very different from "just a drink": there are infinite variations, endless roads to explore, glorious arrays of flavors, always something I haven't tried yet. I love that - but most of all, they're psychosomatic. Getting the tools together, the ingredients, drawing out the mixture of art and technique that bar tending takes to get it right... I'm already in a calmer space, even before I get to enjoy the drink itself.
I've always enjoyed whiskeys - bourbon, scotch, rye... if it's brown, drink it down - but was brought up to believe that adding anything other than a drop or two of water was among the worst kind of heresies you could commit. Before coming to Cambodia I had also become enamored with the craft brew scene, and as a result beer usually got the majority of my attention. Phnom Penh is a phenomenal city with loads to offer, but the beer options are limited and frankly it is too damn hot to drink whiskey neat on a regular basis. You can find a lot of interesting booze, though, and my interest in mixed drinks slowly began to grow.
But if I'm going to be totally honest, I guess the tail spin into all of this really started in earnest after watching the episode of "Mad Men" from which the preceding clip comes from. In it, Don Draper hops over an unattended bar and, unwittingly, makes an Old Fashioned for Conrad Hilton. It just looked... cool. Of course, now I know he made it all wrong, but you can't help where you find your inspiration, I suppose.
Q: WHAT KINDS OF DRINKS, ALCOHOL, OR FLAVORS DO YOU GENERALLY FAVOR?
I love bitter - and not just a little bitter, either. My favorite liqueur is a Swedish schnapps made primarily with wormwood and bitter orange that everyone else I've offered it to thinks is a bathroom cleanser.
That's okay - more for me.
I prefer complex flavors - I like herbal, earthy and astringent more than I do sweet, fruity or straightforward. Whether I use top shelf, call, or rail in a cocktail depends on the drink - a rum and coke is just fine with what's on the rail, but the Gods will strike you down with merciless wrath for befouling a martini with anything less than top shelf.
Thus it is written: Thou Shalt Not Screw Around with Martinis.
Which cocktail I'll go for at any given moment is totally mood-based and situational. Bad moods, good moods, introspective moods, hot days, cold days, what's on the menu for dinner, what kind of a group I've got around me or night ahead of me... it all makes a difference.
Like I said, I'm a whiskey guy. I've found that leaves me predisposed to drinks with more robust flavor profiles that use a a choice modifying agent or two to open up and emphasize the base spirit, rather than mask it with liqueurs and syrups.
I'm also a little more inclined towards drinks that highlight the qualities of a few carefully selected, complementary ingredients, rather than throwing the whole liquor cabinet into a glass. A well made gin and tonic is a great example; such a simple drink, but when it's done right, you can't help but think God made limes, gin and tonic water for this express purpose.
Q: WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT THE WHOLE PROCESS OF PREPARING, MIXING AND CONSUMING COCKTAILS?
There's this feeling of doing something arcane and alchemical that I really love, and always have. When I was little, I used to make "potions" by dumping my grandparents' spices at random into big pots of boiling water.
Not a whole lot has changed in the interim, except for how palatable (and effective) the results are.
Most of all, I'll take every opportunity I can to learn new things, build on an art, and make things on my own instead of buying them. Craft-brewed, craft-distilled, house-made, infused, these are exciting (and delicious) times! Cocktails are an incredible way to explore all of that. Take a flavor that you've known for years and add bitters: completely different. Flame an orange peel over it. Infuse it. Barrel age it. Sometimes I actually do cackle and rub my hands together gleefully.
At the end of the day, though, cocktails are just fun. Feeling like you need to relax? Get rowdy? Introspective, or hassled, and just looking to knock one back? Check, check, check and check.
Besides the obvious benefits of consumption? Umm...
When I was a little kid I had these small plastic cups (which in retrospect were eerily similar to jiggers) that I would take to the bathroom sink and fill up with water, mouthwash, toothpaste, Drain-O, pretty much whatever was within reach. I'd carefully mix together the different potions, teetering on the edge of the sink and giggling in delight as the contents foamed and spilled from the cup to the basin of the sink.
The parallels between then and now are obvious, except that my experiments these days are potable and, usually, delicious. When it comes down to it, I guess I just like to be able to play mad scientist and exercise a little creativity, even if only in a small way.
Q: SO WHAT IS THIS BLOG ALL ABOUT? WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH?
This is motivation to keep trying new things, keep altering old things, keep experimenting, and (most fun) to do that with a friend who challenges me and gets as much of a geeky kick out of it as I do. Best of all worlds.
I want this to be the happiest place in the internets. Anything less is just unacceptable.
Realistically, I hope it serves as extra motivation to get me to try new recipes, experiment with different ingredients, and come up with my own concoctions instead of falling back on old standbys every time I pull out my boston shaker. And if the blog requires that I try a new drink on a Tuesday night, well, I'm prepared to make that sacrifice.