When I first got the job as spirits buyer for K&L, I panicked a wee bit. There was so much I didn't know, so much I still needed to learn about booze, and yet I was in charge of an entire retail store department and its inventory. Single malt, Bourbon, Cognac, rum, and everything else on our shelves were under my domain, but I couldn't claim any authority or expertise when it came to mixing these ingredients. Cocktails were (and still are) a big part of Bay Area pop culture and I wanted K&L to be an integral part of that scene. I needed a crash course to get me started, but where does one go to learn more about cocktails? There's no real Mixology 101 for the layman, and most cocktail classes I've seen are only an hour long, hoping to jam pack a few basic recipes into the session.
I figured it would be best to just go out and drink, which I still think is a big part of booze education. However, you need to sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders during their down time, making sure not to bother them or distract them too much. That's how I met Erik Adkins, the bar manager for the Slanted Door and Heaven's Dog, two of the most famous cocktail destinations in the country. I also met Eric Johnson there, just a few months before he would open Bar Agricole with business partner Thad Vogler. These three gentlemen, along with a few other people you'll meet later, were more than happy to chat with me, night after night, as I posted up on a barstool, peppering them with questions about their craft. We would share stories from the business and I like to think that my perspective from the retail side was of some interest to them (although in all likelihood they were just being nice).
Over three years later, I'm still not sure where to refer people who want to learn more about making great drinks (besides quitting their job and getting a barback position). There are a hundred websites and blogs where you can find recipes, advice, learn techniques, and all the latest info when it comes to making drinks. However, that's like learning to take photographs by reading instructions about shutter speed and aperture. Sure, you can center a subject and grab the right exposure, but is there any substance behind the shot? Then, just last week, one of my best customers asked me if I could help her find a class or seminar for learning to mix cocktails. I didn't know what to tell her. That's why I've decided to tackle that issue myself. There's more to making a decent drink than just dumping in the proper measurements. If following a recipe made you a good cook, we'd all be the masters of Epicurious.com. There's more to it, however. Practice, experience, and a dedication to understanding each element all play a role. Unfortunately, those three things can't be taught. However, aside from spending each waking minute with a metal shaker and ice tray, listening to a veteran bartender talk about booze is perhaps the most helpful way to supplement the stack of cocktail books you have sitting on your coffee table. Not everyone has the time or ability to pull up a stool at Bar Agricole, however.
That's why, starting this week, I'll be going back to all the great San Francisco bartenders who taught me about cocktails for a series of dialogues that I hope will pass that knowledge on to other interested parties. These won't be step by step instructions on how to prepare a Manhattan, but rather just snapshots of what these guys think when they think about cocktails. I had an appointment to meet with Thad this week at Bar Agricole, but it turned into a threesome when Erik Adkins made a surprise visit alongside Mr. Johnson. After debating the best way to get the conversation started, we decided it would be pointless to mix drinks no one would actually taste, so I just flipped on the camera and got things rolling. Below is the conversation in two parts:
All three men agreed that the most important aspect of a cocktail is the concept of balance. The yin and yang of sweet and sour. The interplay between sweet and bitter. Thad explained that the Daiquiri is the essential sour in that it's a combination of base spirit (rum) with sugar and citrus. The relationship of the acidity with the syrup must be in harmony for the drink to succeed. He recommended that, rather than trying to make an entire book of various cocktails, constantly searching for something new to try, newcomers should practice the same drink over and over for a couple of weeks. In the case of the Daiquiri, he said to try different rums, different sugars, different levels of sweetness and citrus, until you've found the combination that best works for you. Practice and experimentation lead to an understanding of functionality and it's that experience that results in a well-crafted cocktail. Thad, Erik, and Eric all have their own unique experiences, therefore they each have their own personal recipe for a Daiquiri. If you want to give it a go at home, try out all three of the following:
- 2 oz. white Barbancourt Rum (La Favorite Agricole Blanc if you're at his house)
- 3/4 oz. simple syrup (using one to one ration of raw sugar/water stirred into cold water, not boiled)
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice
Shake with ice and strain
The Eric Johnson Daiquiri (find Eric at Bar Agricole)
- 2 oz. El Dorado 3 Year Rum (or Havana Club White if you know someone traveling abroad)
- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
- one barspoon raw sugar
Stir the sugar into the lime juice to help it dissolve, then shake with ice and strain
The Thad Vogler Daiquiri (find Thad at Bar Agricole)
- 1 1/2 oz. El Dorado 3 Year Rum
- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
- 1/2 oz. simple syrup (using one to one ratio raw organic sugar/water)
Shake and strain
Give these three a try and see which one works best. Or, if none of them suit your tastebuds, then try using different rums, different sweetners, and various types of citrus. That's the key to understanding and mastering your cocktail.