The Five Classic Cocktails Every Travel Writer Should Know

 

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.

 

The Gibson

  • Gin

    The Gibson

  • 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.

 

The Martini

  • The Martini

    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.

 

The Manhattan

  • The Manhattan

    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.

 

The Negroni

  • The Negroni

    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.

 

The Gimlet

  • The Gimlet

    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.

Bottoms up.

 

 

Comments

  1. Guy Murray says

    My wife will not thank you for this article as normally her Bombay Sapphire Gin has been safe from my clutches, but now a whole new Gin based world has opened up! Also have to ask shaken? not stirred? always told shaking bruised the martini, myth or not?

    • Welcome to an entirely new world fuelled by gin (or maybe gin fumes…)! I shake my martinis to get that perfect edge of cold. Bombay Sapphire is my choice for the Gin and Tonic – it strikes exactly the right silky smooth note. I like Plymouth Gin for Martinis and Gibson’s – I find it’s got a bit more botanical edge and a more assertive flavour. Shaking vs stirring is more important with a drink like the Manhattan, in my opinion. Shaking a Manhattan gets it good and cold, but it messes up the clarity and colour of the drink.

  2. Dave in Japan says

    These days most people make Martinis like Gibsons — too dry — but they’re often compensating for lack of discernment on the part of the drinker, and crappy vermouth.

    Props for noting the Bronx, a very fine cocktail in its own right, but I have to take exception to your rye-only hardline on the Manhattan: one made with Maker’s Mark, with its subtle hint of vanilla, and a good vermouth, is a thing of beauty. A hint of Maraschino is all that’s necessary; the cherry can be dispensed with.

    What you want to call it aside, the vodka and saké concoction I once had at an fantastic little bar in Kyoto was nothing short of amazing, and changed my mind completely about that drink. The twist done right in front of you, so perfectly, a little cloud of lemon vapor hanging in the air over the drink, and the faintest trace of it in that first sip… the glass chilled but not wet with condensation. That ever-so-Japanese attention to detail.

    I bought the same nihonshu and vodka, but I’ve never been able to reproduce that cocktail.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Excellent post Dave. I completely agree re: martinis. They make them so dry these days you might as well forgo vermouth completely. And that, in my opinion, totally misses the point. It’s meant to be a melding of flavours.

      >I have to take exception to your rye-only hardline on the Manhattan

      That may be my Canadian bias coming out in favour of rye. I do enjoy bourbon very much. And I’d be happy to give your variation a try – I’ll just compromise by calling it something different 🙂

      >I once had at an fantastic little bar in Kyoto was nothing short of amazing

      I’ll be in Tokyo in June, and I’ll make a point of giving it a try. I have no objection to the cocktail, of course. It sounds like an excellent drink. Just the name. (great description, by the way. I’m fighting the urge to go downstairs and take out my shaker – at least until this evening…)

      • Dave in Japan says

        I live in Tokyo, actually! I don’t know any place that does a sake-vodka cocktail as good as that little place in Kyoto (I’m pretty sure it was called “Karasuma Sanjo”), and I might be away in June, but I could probably point you in the right direction anyway. Let me know!

        • Ryan Murdock says

          Sounds good, thanks Dave. I’ll be passing through for sure in June. Will be a couple days in Tokyo, then a wedding to attend in Iwate.

  3. 1. Nancy Coligan loved a good manhattan

    2. Who the hell doesn’t love gin? I am all about a gin revival!

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Nancy C had great taste in drinks.

      I’ve been pushing a gin revival for 5 or 6 years now (always at the leading edge of a new trend, defining cool). Count me in.

  4. Geoffrey Daigle says

    As a complete non-drinker, I now feel more versed thanks to this short list Ryan. I love “The first sip should taste like a knife to the head” comparison for the Gibson but it’s the Negroni that really catches my eye. It really looks appealing. Seeing that I used to work at a bar in Ottawa on Preston St, which is Little Italy, I know of a few fancy Italian restaurants, (including a couple of small, family establishments who know me.) I wonder if I could get a good Negroni there. Nonetheless, I feel instantly more sophisticated.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      You won’t go wrong with a Negroni. You should definitely be able to get one on Preston St. It’s a simple drink, but a good bartender makes a huge difference. Best one I had was at the bar of a boutique hotel in Venice.

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