For years, I and many other far better booze snobs have exhorted the general population to learn the classic drinks before trying to branch out into creative mixology ventures involving peanut infusions and muddled kumquats.
The rules are much like those of language: Learn them well before you attempt breaking them or stretching them, so your fractures and frayings are more likely to work. The rules of a balanced cocktail — the order of building, the proportions of spirit to sour to sweet to bitter, the appropriate amount of dilution, the proper glassware, etc. — are often the hidden bones of the most elaborate and esoteric-sounding cocktail.
But, if ever there ever was a moment to throw caution to the wind, at least as it relates to cocktail-making, now may be that moment. I’ve been all too happy to escape into our pantry and the back of our fridge in search of ingredients to make quarantine cocktails more interesting. Maintaining the all-important principle of balance in mind, drink experiments have provided a great distraction, as well as some tasty drinks.
Here’s a rundown of tips for drinks to take the edge off:
Have no shame. Does it taste good? Then, by god, enjoy it. The days of drink-shaming are over. A prime example: For decades, cocktail lovers have pooh-poohed sour mix, and rightly so; the commercial stuff is mostly powdered citric acid, high-fructose corn syrup, and green and yellow dye. But in the age of the coronavirus, when we’re supposed to be staying home and may not be able to easily access fresh citrus regularly, it’s not a bad idea to make homemade sour mix when you do have the citrus on hand, so you’ll be able to use it for a week or so without violating stay-at-home orders. A basic drink formula you can use to mix with the version here is four parts spirit to three parts sour mix, shaken over ice, but from there, you can toy with citrus proportions and types, add other flavors and get funky with it.
Look for hidden fruits. Fresh fruit is almost always the best option for drinks, but you may have all sorts of fruits hidden away in your pantry and fridge that can lend a hand. That random jar of berry jam a colleague gave you? A dollop thrown into a classic martini template can be wonderful (and this is one martini variation you should shake, to break up the solids in the drink). Fresh and dried fruits can be left in a bottle of spirits to infuse it with lovely new flavors. And all those bags of freeze-dried fruits I usually bypass at the store can do terrific stuff in a drink. While they lack the juice and texture of the fresh ones, they retain much of the flavor and often the color, as well. Mash 'em into simple syrup for flavor.
If you run out of simple syrup, get sweet on other sources, such as honey, maple syrup, or other sugars you usually use for baking. Sodas can be used as is or reduced over heat into more intense syrups. Honey and sugars can easily be turned into drink-friendly syrups; it’s critical to do so with honey, because if you use it in a drink straight out of the bear, it’ll turn into a gloppy mess. You want to thin it down much the same way you make simple syrup: 1-to-1 honey and water, heat it to dissolve, and store it in the fridge. Maple syrup can be used as is and goes great with brown spirits; a maple old fashioned is about as easy as it gets.
Find a new use for oats.The Scots have a traditional drink called Atholl Brose that combines the liquid from oats soaked in water (or whiskey) and honey. In the castaway cocktail, the oat liquid takes on a nutty creaminess that balances well with whisky, honey, and Angostura bitters. (If you have unsweetened oat milk around, you can use that instead.)
Savor the savory. A dash of hot sauce, a pinch of dried sage, thyme, or chili pepper, a bar spoon of the juice left over from those artisanal pickles that have been languishing in the fridge for months, that interesting tea blend: All can be deployed in ways subtle and non- to make more interesting drinks. And don’t forget salt itself, a tiny pinch of which often enhances drinks in which you wouldn’t expect it at all (such as the Negroni).
This gin-based drink can easily be made with other white spirits, and you can vary the jam as well — try strawberry, orange marmalade, apricot — whatever’s hiding in your fridge. If you want to add a dash of bitters for complexity, go for it, but the vermouth already adds a nice herbal note. Use a larger amount of jam if you like a sweeter drink.
1 ½ ounces gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
¼ ounce (1 bar spoon) raspberry jam
Dash of bitters (optional)
Chill a cocktail glass. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the gin, vermouth, jam, and bitters (if using). Shake hard to chill, dilute and break up the solids in the jam, then double-strain the drink into the cocktail glass.
— Recipe from M. Carrie Allan
Use the powerful baking spice notes of Angostura bitters in combination with the creamy nuttiness of quick-soaked oats to make a tasty pantry cocktail. The honey syrup can be refrigerated for several weeks.
FOR THE HONEY SYRUP
½ cup honey
½ cup water
FOR THE OAT MILK
½ cup quick-cooking oats
1 cup water
FOR THE DRINKS
3 ounces oat milk
2 ounces dark rum
1 ounce honey syrup
1 ounce Angostura bitters
Make the honey syrup: In a heatproof measuring cup, combine the honey and boiling water, and gently stir to dissolve the honey. Let the mixture cool completely.
Make the oat milk: In a jar, stir together the quick oats with the water and let sit for about 10 minutes. Stir again, and then strain out the solids, pressing gently on the solids to extract the oat-flavored liquid. Discard the solids and reserve the liquid.
Make the drinks: Add ice to two rocks glasses. In a cocktail shaker, combine the oat milk, rum, honey syrup, and Angostura bitters, and shake without ice. Divide between the glasses and serve.
— Recipe from M. Carrie Allan
8 to 16 servings
This version of sour mix is lemon-forward, but if you’re more inclined to drink tequila and rum drinks, you may want a more lime-heavy mix; if you’re more of a bourbon drinker, you may opt to go all lemon. A drink made with sour mix won’t be as good as a cocktail made with fresh-squeezed fruit, but the mixture will keep in the fridge for a week. Combine it with a spirit and shake them over ice. Add bitters, or a dash of hot sauce, or pieces of other fruits to get new flavors. You can use it to make a nonalcoholic citrus-ade or to sweeten tea, too.
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups fresh lemon juice from about 14 to 16 lemons
¼ to ½ cup fresh lime juice, from 2 to 3 limes
In a small saucepan, combine the water and sugar, and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for 30 seconds, then remove from the heat, and let the simple syrup cool completely.
Meanwhile, juice the citrus and measure out 2 cups cooled simple syrup in a bowl. Add the lemon juice, then add the lime juice in small pours, tasting until you hit the sourness you like. Cover and refrigerate until needed.