When Harry Craddock authored The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, it boasted of filling a gap in the market for “a complete, and absolutely complete book on drinks and drinking.” But apart from a few cheeky “hints for the new mixer,” nowhere does the revered bartender offer a breakdown of the techniques necessary to properly execute the 750 recipes held within its nearly 300 pages.
“Shake well,” read the directions for the Absinthe Cocktail. Just below it, another recipe requires the user to “shake thoroughly,” with no indication of how these two techniques might differ. Today, while several notable bartenders, such as Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Jim Meehan, have published modern cocktail manuals that address this common oversight, the language of cocktail technique still lags far behind the strides taken in every other arena of the cocktail revival. But language is often the tipping point between a bad drink and a good drink—or, indeed, a good drink and a great one.
Poring over the winning recipes from our series of blind cocktail tastings only confirms this. Take the Gin and Tonic, for example. In a lineup of 15 recipes, the runaway winner was that which put an emphasis on precision of technique. “Three simple ingredients (four really, counting the ice),” wrote Toby Cecchini in his submission, “all virtually the same as in any other G&T—gin, lime and tonic—but with the application of thoughtful technique, they transform the drink.”
This sort of thoughtfulness manifests as a common thread across a number of top performing recipes in our Ultimate Series. So we decided to take a look at the cocktails for which a standard recipe, backed by meticulous technique, resulted in a standout drink.
When asked to submit his best recipe for the Corpse Reviver No. 2, Clover Club’s Tom Macy went a step beyond the “fresh lemon juice” called for by most bartenders. “This is crazy specific but it’s best if the lemon is freshly squeezed to order from one of those hand citrus squeezers,” he wrote, insisting that squeezing it to order allows more of the oil from the skin to enter the drink. It’s the sort of detail that might be dismissed as persnickety, but it’s also the sort of meticulousness that tends to tip the scales in his favor in our blind tastings. His recipe for the French 75 perhaps best illustrates his consistent attention to detail. To a classic build, he attaches the directive to “very gently dip a barspoon to the bottom of the glass once or twice to integrate the ingredients, agitating the bubbles at little as possible.” For the lemon twist garnish, Macy instructs that the peel be used to give a final, gentle stir—a subtle touch that, according to Robert Simonson, “all paid off in the glass.”
One of the most celebrated examples of Irish Coffee in all of New York, the unseen technique of St. John Frizell’s recipe is what sets it apart. In addition to being one of the only recipes in our blind tasting to call on espresso lengthened Americano-style with water in place of the standard drip coffee, Frizell pays special attention to temperature. While heating the glass mug with hot water, he creates something resembling a double boiler by nestling the cocktail tin into the hot mug to simultaneously warm the whiskey and syrup instead of relying solely on the coffee component to do the heavy lifting. This extra effort results in the desired contrast between hot and cold that Simonson describes as the “yin-yang appeal of the drink.”
On paper, Toby Cecchini’s recipe for the Gin and Tonic is entirely ordinary: Tanqueray gin, Schweppes tonic water and lime. But, as Cecchini himself explains, “by bringing one’s experience, knowledge and focus to bear, you can exponentially transform any drink.” Inspired by the way his father used to make Gin and Tonics, Cecchini imparts the citrus flavor by macerating the muddled limes, skin intact, in the gin for 20 or 30 seconds until “the aromatic oil has clearly emerged and the whole has taken on a translucent green from the juice.” He further explains that, “effectively, you’re employing the gin as a solvent to extract the all-important citrus oil from the rind of the lime, then doubling back and using those rinds as an unusual garnish atop.” Poured into a large tonic-filled glass with “three large, cracked ice cubes, the gin-lime mixture is then carefully poured on top so that it appears to float above the tonic. Present as such, making sure to tell the guest to mix the whole together before sipping.” When it graced the table towards the end of our blind Gin and Tonic tasting, Robert Simonson described it as “a toucan among crows.”