Engineering A Summer Cocktail
(… when you’re not a professional cocktail engineer.)
As a budding alcohol enthusiast, I went through a real phase of cocktail experimentation and enjoyment in my mid-20s, doing my damndest to visit all the best cocktail bars that New York City has to offer. I can say from experience that there are a lot of them, and plenty of them are very good. Plenty of them… are kind of whatever. And nothing stings more than paying $14-18 for a drink that’s just okay.
That said, most of my “cocktail expertise” comes from consuming rather than creating, as I have absolutely zero bartending experience of my own, so “expertise” is in quotes for a reason. But, by throwing caution to the wind and opening my mind and palate to just about any cocktail on a menu, regardless of spirit or mixer, I’d like to think I gleaned a little bit of insight about what I personally like, what makes a drink good and balanced, and what makes a drink an utter failure. Spoiler on the “failure” bit: it’s usually just too sweet, and once you’ve graduated beyond drinking pineapple & Malibu, overly sweet drinks are pretty intolerable.
As a novice at-home mixologist, there are a few fail-safe ingredients I like to have on hand for making drinks that are super simple yet successful, and a little more special than a vodka soda (and god help you if you choose to drink those at home). Among my favorite and most versatile mixers are ginger beer (the real stuff, NOT ginger ale), grapefruit juice, and any fresh fruit that happens to be available. Any of these will add some dimension and flavor to just about any spirit, and add the perfect freshness for a summer day.
I was recently tasked with putting together a cocktail I’d wanna drink using delicious real Barritt’s Ginger Beer, and, well, whatever was in my fridge, seeing as I got home too late to hit the store. Lucky for me, I had a few things on hand that seemed like they’d work well together – hothouse cucumbers, kiwis, limes, and some fresh mint.
Personally, cucumber is one of my favorite ingredients in a drink because it adds flavor without adding sweetness, and it manages to be both bright yet subtle enough to play well with lots of other flavors. Kiwi is something I’d never really used in a drink, but when considering the rule of pairing “like with like, “ I saw these green guys and figured, what the hell! Fruit is always a good move. The same goes for mint – nothing smells better than fresh mint and when I see that in a drink, it’s a no-brainer.
I also had a nice collection of unique bitters on hand, so I went for one I had never used before – celery bitters. I figured these would work great with the cucumber and kiwi, and add some complexity and vegetal spiciness that would compliment the Barritt’s Ginger Beer really well.
As for the liquor, I think any clear spirit would work nicely with these mixers, and considered vodka, tequila, and even Arak before settling on gin. I figured since I was in the world of herbal and vegetal aromatics in a way, what better excuse to utilize the flavor of gin instead of trying to mask it (as many of us often are, admit it.)
And so, my amateur fancy cocktail was born. I muddled everything together in a shaker, strained it into a glass over some ice, and topped with Barritt’s Ginger Beer for the effervescent spiciness and bubby bite the drink truly needed to sparkle* and succeed. I’m calling it “Practically a Green Juice,” seeing as all the ingredients are green and thus it must be pretty healthy, right??
*pun kind of intended
“PRACTICALLY A GREEN JUICE”
Barritt’s Ginger Beer
half of a seedless cucumber
1/2 a lime
1/2 a kiwi
3-5 fresh mint leaves
1.5 oz gin
Standing your cucumber half vertically, slice 1 or 2 thin flat ribbons, and line the inside of your glass with them – I like a rocks glass or even a wine glass for this drink.. Remove the fuzzy outer skin of the kiwi and cut into slices. Add kiwi, cucumber slices, mint, and gin into a cocktail shaker. Squeeze your half of a lime into the shaker, leaving the juice only. Add the gin and muddle all ingredients until they’re mostly smashed. Add a few ice cubes and shake well until all ingredients are mixed and shaker is cold. Put a few ice cubes (or 1 large one) into the glass of your choosing and strain your mixture over it, leaving behind any fruit pulp, skin, or chunks in the shaker. Top with 2-3 oz of Barritt’s Ginger beer and stir gently. Garnish with a kiwi slice and sprig of mint!
My general tips for making cocktails at home:
Keep it simple. If you aren’t sure, don’t go crazy on trying to mix too many ingredients – just use really good ones. Quality liquor and fresh fruit and juices go a long way.
Aim for balance. When mixing ingredients, consider their primary characteristics. Are you mostly using things that are sweet? Acidic? Creamy? Smoky? While you do want to use the “like with like” rule to build a foundation, layering too many similar flavors will result in a flat or overbearing drink.
Add bubbles. When in doubt, adding a splash of soda or ginger beer to a drink might be able to save it! It’ll help to cut the overuse of some ingredients and add a refreshing quality to anything that’s gotten too heavy. (But obviously, never shake the bubbles!)