A good cocktail has at least three ingredients.
Take a rum and Coke. If the one you made at home tastes different, somehow flatter than the one you had at a nice bar, it's because the Cuba Libre made by a professional likely included a dash of lime. Maybe it was poured over ice, instead of served up with a few cubes dropped in afterward.
Making a proper cocktail involves a bit more than tossing things into a glass, stirring vigorously, and hoping for the best. It takes artistry and skill, or a little help from someone who knows what he's or she's doing. Otherwise, the elegant drink of your imagination can end up tasting like a glass of liquor.
Three local bartenders shared their expertise on making classic cocktails at home for groups of guests large and small this New Year's Eve. Their advice can also help stock your bar with reliable building blocks for future entertaining.
Alison Hangen, of the Oloroso tapas bar and restaurant at 11th and Walnut Streets, recommended a champagne cocktail with sugar and bitters that can easily be made for several people at once. Hangen prefers the richness of brown sugar and Angostura bitters to cut the sweetness.
"You're essentially making an old-fashioned, but with sparkling wine instead of bourbon," she said.
Place a sugar cube in a coupe or flute and soak it with bitters, about four or five dashes. Then fill the glass with sparkling wine, which takes on a rosy tint from the bitters, and garnish it with a lemon peel. The drink is refreshing and tart, with sweet flavors that blossom as the sugar dissolves and shoots bubbles up to the surface.
If your New Year's Eve plans call for serving a group of people, Hangen said, it's easy to prep the glasses with sugar and pour the bubbly all at once, in an assembly line fashion.
The drink can be made with any midrange sparkling wine, as long as it's on the dry side, said Hangen, who opted for Spanish Cava.
"It's not really champagne, but it's more fun to call it a champagne cocktail," she said.
Amy Hartranft, general manager of the Prohibition Taproom, said Manhattans are ideal party drinks, particularly on a long night like New Year's Eve, because they are sipped, not thrown back. A Manhattan, she said, won't deteriorate by warming up in a guest's hand; rather, it develops and releases a rich aroma. Plus, Hartranft said, Manhattans are sexy to look at and velvety on the tongue.
She recommended two ounces of bourbon or rye with one ounce of sweet vermouth and two to three dashes of bitters. "Think of bitters as seasoning," Hartranft said. "Your final salt and pepper on the drink." The cocktail should be mixed in a pint glass packed with ice, preferably using a long, flat spoon to stir around the perimeter of the glass.
"Make sure you're stirring it, not shaking it around," she said. "Not agitating the ingredients, but incorporating them. To me, shaking a Manhattan gives it a harsh tinge."
The drink should then be strained into another glass and can be garnished with a cherry or an orange or lemon peel that has been twisted, or expressed, to release its fragrance and oils. The drink can be multiplied to make for several people at once.
Hartranft makes a black Manhattan at the ProTap, using amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur, and a French aperitif instead of bitters. Her preferred ingredients are Amaro Averna, which has a bittersweet taste with notes of coffee and cocoa, and Suze Saveur D'Autrefois, which has a floral, citrus flavor. Both are available at State Stores in Pennsylvania.
Drinkers have to decide what they want in terms of flavor; bourbon is sweeter, rye more peppery. But please, she said, don't cheap out on the vermouth.
"If you wouldn't buy a $5 bottle of wine, don't buy a $5 bottle of vermouth," she said.
Reddy Cypress, who tends bar at W/N W/N Coffee Bar at Ninth and Spring Garden Streets, suggested adding rosemary to a French 75 or a whiskey sour to make them festive. Both cocktails include fresh lemon juice and can be made in large batches for a party.
For those willing to plan ahead, basic rosemary syrup can be made in a few minutes by simmering the herb with sugar and water, then chilling it overnight. The syrup is combined with gin and lemon juice, and shaken with ice — if you don't have a cocktail shaker, a mason jar will do. Strain over ice and top with prosecco, then garnish with a lemon peel and fresh rosemary for extra flavor.
"To me, it's about that botanical flavor," said Cypress, who recommends using local Rowhouse Gin for its herbal notes. "Rosemary goes well with gin, and prosecco then elevates the flavor of the rosemary."
For the sour, Cypress used two ounces of Old Overholt rye whiskey with an ounce of lemon, three-quarters of an ounce of rosemary syrup, and three or four dashes of Angostura bitters. The drink is sweet and citrusy but has a bite from the whiskey. Cypress said it's best shaken, served on the rocks, and garnished with orange peel and fresh rosemary.
"I like to add a little fresh grated nutmeg," Cypress said. "But that's if you're feeling fancy."