Once upon a time, cocktail hour was an occasion. A sacred space.
When the work day ended, you visited your favourite bar to put a little distance between the office and home.
This was not excess; it was ritual. A quiet moment of reflection. In the words of Sinclair Lewis, a “canonical rite”. We lost this practice somewhere along the way. I think because we live in a society that has trouble controlling it’s appetites. What we’re talking about here is the opposite of Happy Hour.
I’d like to bring back this Golden Age, and in doing so, to revive some of the classic drinks that made cocktail hour a welcome demarkation between a man’s field of battle and his sanctuary.
We’re not discussing such staples as the Gin & Tonic or Scotch & Soda in this article. These are both fine drinks, but they should be self-evident. The “mix” is right there in the name.
Instead, I want to arm you with a handful of classic cocktails every writer should know. Order one of these at a respectable bar and you immediately establish yourself as a person of confidence and sophistication. And the literary pedigree of these drinks gives you the perfect backstory for an intelligent conversation.
Not for you the alco-pops of high school girls, or the made up fruity nonsense commonly — and insultingly — tagged with the name “martini”! You’re better than that. You’re a man, not a frat boy.
Put the binge drinking in the past where it belongs. We’re reviving a sacred institution.
Crack some ice, limber up that shaker, and lets’s get started.
- A dash of dry vermouth – or if you’re a purist, simply wave the vermouth cap over your glass
Shake hard with ice, strain, and serve in a cocktail glass. Garnish with a single cocktail onion.
The Gibson is as close to zero degree drinking as it’s possible to get. In the words of Mark Kingwell, author of Classic Cocktails, “The first sip should taste like a knife to the head, a clean incision that lets in air and makes your thoughts instantly lucid. This won’t last, so enjoy it while it does.”
It’s difficult to get a good Gibson at a bar these days, and you’ll often be met with blank stares. I was once even given a martini with a cocktail onion in it — as if this abomination were the same thing! DO NOT accept it. It’s not what you ordered. Shake your head, push the glass away, and instruct them if necessary.
The Gibson is a forgotten classic. But I’m determined to bring it back.
2 1/2 parts gin
- 1/2 part dry vermouth
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an olive.
You may alternatively use vodka in place of gin. In this case the drink becomes a “Vodka Martini.”
Which brings up an issue that pisses me off…
Let’s get something straight right away. That drink with sake and vermouth, sometimes listed on a bar menu as a “saketini,” is not a martini. Neither is that sickly sweet orchard reject they call an “appletini”. These are completely different drinks and they should be given a different name. The only thing they have in common with the martini is that they’re served in the same type of glass. A glass many people erroneously refer to as a “martini glass,” but that’s another topic for another rant.
If there were a king of cocktails, the martini would be it. Treat this drink with the respect it deserves.
2 parts Canadian (rye) whisky
- 1 part sweet (red) vermouth
- dash of Angostura bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
The one and only cocktail that really demands a cherry. It has a straight-up neatness with an undertone of melancholy. Icy, dusky and sweet. To quote Kingwell again, “Drink it at the bar, by yourself, thinking deep, bustling, gridlocked thoughts.”
Many variations of this drink exist. The Rob Roy substitutes scotch whisky for rye. Order it in shady company, in railway bars or other places of hard drinking transit. The Bronx Cocktail is another noble relative, forgotten now but at the time considered a possible rival to the Manhattan. Both are excellent drinks in their own right.
But if a bartender ever suggests mixing you a Manhattan with bourbon whiskey, look him straight in the eye, spit on the floor, and walk out immediately. This is not the sort of establishment for you.
1 part Campari
- 1 part sweet (red) vermouth
- 1 part gin
Shake with ice and strain, or serve on the rocks in an Old-Fashioned glass, garnished with an orange slice.
The Negroni is as Italian as outdoor cafes and dolce-vita evenings. It’s aromatic, bright, and with a complicated undercurrent of flavour, anchored with the essential Italian aperitif — but bolstered with a slug of gin.
Make like Count Negroni and order this noble beverage anytime you’re in a Mediterranean mood. Oh, and should a bartender insist on using vodka in place of gin, hold up your hand and firmly refuse. Vodka lacks the aromatic botanicals to balance Campari’s bitterness. Demand the genuine article.
3 parts gin
- 1 part Rose’s Lime Cordial
Shake hard with ice, strain, and serve in a cocktail glass.
The Gimlet is a simple drink, but proportions matter. Avoid knock-off lime cordials. Firmly refuse all garnishes. Just cold gin and cold lime juice. Nothing else.
To be “gimlet-eyed” is to possess a glare that’s able to penetrate or pierce through. Know that when you order this you’re keeping some rather questionable company. Robert Wilson, the hunting guide in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” orders one — and that’s when things begin to go horribly wrong. Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe briefly flirted with them too.
It’s a drink with a sneaky bite. Perfect for confidences shared over dark corner tables.
There you have it. Five essential classic cocktails every travel writer worth his salt should know.
It goes without saying that the quality of your ingredients matters. Buy the best you can afford, but don’t waste an expensive single malt on a mixed drink. In that case, a good quality blended whisky fits the bill perfectly.
This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, and it was difficult to narrow down five choices from so many classic drinks. Let this serve as a starting point for your explorations.
There’s a vast new boozy world waiting out there for you. Take your time, and mix your drinks carefully and well.