5@5 - Getting creative with classic cocktails
January 21st, 2013
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

"Don't mess with a good thing."

"There's no need to reinvent the wheel."

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

However many adages there are that extol the virtues of the classics, there is always room for minor tweaking - especially when it comes to matters of taste, like cocktails.

According to Adam Bernbach, the bar manager of Proof and Estadio restaurants in Washington, D.C., there are a couple of things experimental imbibers should pay attention to when riffing on the classics.

Five Tips on Getting Creative with Classic Cocktails: Adam Bernbach

adam bernbach

1. Taste
The most important aspect to cocktails, in general, is knowledge of the ingredients. Tasting the individual ingredients on their own is an essential step to this knowledge. Often, a familiarity with the flavors of a particular whiskey, vermouth or type of bitters will give a good abstract of the flavor of a mixed drink.

This can, of course, be prohibitively expensive in practice. However, keeping on the lookout for tastings held by restaurants, bars and the like will help accelerate the "studies."

2. Read
The multiple lifetimes of experience contained within the pages of the classic cocktail books is a never-ending gift to those of us who enjoy the craft of mixing drinks.

Classics like Harry Craddock's "The Savoy Cocktail Book, " David Embury's "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," and newer classics like Kazuo Uyeda's "Cocktail Techniques," Jim Meehan's "The PDT Cocktail Book" and David Wondrich's great Jerry Thomas biographical recipe book "Imbibe" are major sources of exposure to different techniques and ideas, new and old, in mixing drinks. Many of these books contain recipes for various syrups that will be irreplaceable in reproducing the classic cocktails.

3. Visit a bartender
Visits to a few friendly bartenders to try their different takes on the classics is, perhaps, the most enjoyable aspect in this pursuit. After all, these drinks are to be drunk. The addition of a little bit of critical focus to the pastime of imbibing will help illuminate the details of the classic cocktails.

Polite, well-timed questions are welcome. Bartenders who are genuinely interested in the craft and history of mixing drinks are more than happy to share their opinions, their experiences and what they've learned. Naturally, there is a time and place for these Q&As. A busy Saturday night is not the ideal time to elicit pearls of wisdom from a bartender. Earlier in the night and the week tend to be the best times to chat.

4. Build your home bar
A basic kit of bar tools is available through online sites like The Boston Shaker. If purchasing piecemeal, the absolute essentials include a Boston shaker, a Hawthorne strainer, a mixing glass, a bar spoon, a fruit knife, a jigger (or another measuring device), a citrus juicer (always use fresh juice) and a muddler. Cocktail Kingdom and the aforementioned The Boston Shaker are great places to order bar gear.

Building up a nice collection of spirits can sometimes be a tricky endeavor. Some of the ingredients common in the classics are not common now. That doesn't necessarily mean they're unavailable. Usually, it's a small percentage of stores that carry these ingredients. It might require some calling around. If a local store doesn't carry them (and they can't special order them), sites like Astor Wines have a nice selection in which to find a missing ingredient. Procuring the ingredients to a cocktail, one cocktail at a time is an efficient way to build the home bar.

5. Adjust and swap
Once a comfort level is achieved. Adjusting the common ratios of the classics is an interesting experiment in drink-making. A quarter ounce more simple syrup or lime juice can massively affect a drink's profile. This is particularly revealing in comparing the tastes of two different eras.

Another great variation is to replace one ingredient with another. A seemingly small switch from sugar to honey will create a different drink entirely. In one Manhattan, rather than simply using angostura bitters, I chose to accentuate the lighter, floral qualities of red vermouth (I use Dolin Rouge) mixed with rye whiskey (I useĀ Old Overholt) by utilizing the anise, fennel, herbal notes in Peychaud's bitters. This creates a bright, lively version of the rich classic we know.

2.25 oz. rye whiskey (Recommended: Old Overholt)
1.25 oz. red vermouth (Recommended: Dolin Rouge)
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Stir. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry. (Rub a bit of lemon zest on the rim of the glass.)

Above, Adam Bernbach shared his riff on a classic Manhattan. Have you shaken up a classic cocktail recipe? Share your liquid pleasure in the comment section below.

Previously - A toast to Hollywood's classic cocktails and Master the Sazerac cocktail

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Cocktail Recipes • Sip • Spirits • Think

soundoff (12 Responses)
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    February 6, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  3. Kay

    The BF and I enjoyed some classic cocktails at the Mob Bar in downtown Las Vegas (Rob Roy, Bobby Burns, etc.) then went home to experiment making our own. After a search of recipes the BF came up with his own which, through fine tuning and a couple accidents, I perfected. We call it the Montgomery Burns because it is "exxxxcelllent!".

    January 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  4. dionmyers

    This is from memory, so forgive me if I make an error. This is my mojito recipe that most folks enjoy:

    In a glass pitcher, muddle:

    about 1 large handful Kentucky Colonel mint
    about 6-8 tablespoons Turbinado sugar
    the juice of several limes

    muddle well

    fill pitcher 3/4 way with ice

    add 2-3 cups 10 Cane rum

    top with sparkling water and gently stir.

    January 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  5. Kristina D.

    My husband and I love Estadio! We go there every time we make it to DC. We sit at the bar, drink the white sangria like it is water (YUM!!) and salivate over the cheese and charcuterie bar. It is a must try to anyone visiting DC!

    January 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  6. Homer

    Most do not know how to make some classic drinks. Even if you give them the recipie.

    January 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Kay

      This is very true. Bartenders focus on what is popular and most often ordered and classic cocktails are not either unless it is a theme bar featuring those drinks.

      January 24, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  7. I only had one

    Smack me down Mate!! Almost exactly my recipe. I have tried other ryes though, including the pricey organics. Hard thing is to find a bar that uses any rye in a Manhattan. Top lines bar do though.

    January 24, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  8. Pete

    "The Phillips Screw Driver"
    2 Oz Vodka
    4 Oz. Milk of Magnesia

    January 23, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  9. DeNorte

    Good choice of Rye....impressive you're not tempted by the marketing flair of newer entrants into that market. Old Overholt is one of most approachable of ryes (and the longest continuously distilled), what it lacks in aging it more than makes up for in simple quality...One could not pick a better 'meat and potatoes' rye, although one could certainly let 'fashion' and trendiness lead one astray..... It's the perfect mixer. Nice reciepe by the way. Try a dash of Strega ....

    January 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Adam Bernbach

      Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the recipe. I agree that Old Overholt's attraction lies in its quality rather than some kind of trendiness. I find it gives drinks a brightness & zest more than most other ryes. I look forward to trying it with Strega. Thank you for the tip!

      January 23, 2013 at 12:00 am |
  10. Jason Brunner

    My take on the classic French 75-
    2 oz Hendrick's Gin
    1/2 oz Limoncello
    1 oz Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
    Top with Taittinger Brut (Substitue Rose for a hint of color)

    January 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
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