If you’ve got a little time on your hands, take the opportunity to start a cocktail project now, to elevate drinks later.
For many bartenders, a few mini-recipes within a larger cocktail recipe are the key to crafting better drinks. Whether it’s crunchy pink pickled onions that accent a Gibson or chile-infused bitters that bring unexpected heat to a classic Hanky Panky, a little up-front time can yield a new garnish or ingredient to grab when inspiration strikes. Here are a few of our favorites. —Kara Newman
These eye-catching pink pearl onions—and a couple teaspoonfuls of the brine derived from pickling them—are key components in Meaghan Dorman’s iconic Gibson recipe. Crunchy red onions replace the traditional white orbs: “The red onions aren’t as harsh, and they’re beautiful,” says Dorman. For the brine, which can work dashed into just about any Martini recipe, coriander-heavy pickling spice adds a savory accent to a base of delicate Champagne vinegar.
Though Tom Macy isn’t the first to create a bespoke bitters blend, his signature spiced and fruity blend of Angostura, Bitter Truth orange bitters and Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters helped snag the top spot in Punch’s blind tasting of Old-Fashioneds. “It has a nice bitterness and also has bright orange that isn’t too candied,” Macy explains. Try his blen in a Rob Roy or a Bamboo.
Leo Robitschek started brandying cherries during his time at Eleven Madison Park. It was one of many collaborations between the bar and the kitchen that would come to set the New York restaurant’s bar apart. Pitted cherries are bathed in a sugar syrup flavored with vanilla, orange peel and spices, then preserved in Germain-Robin brandy, for a garnish well worth fishing out of a Manhattan variation.
When Daniel Villa developed his technique for clarifying drinks with milk powder, rather than fresh milk, he unlocked a way to turn spirit-only drinks clear and silky without the need for acids. But turning to the pantry staple offers another advantage, too: the ability to add another dimension of flavor through toasting the powder before hydrating it. In his Smooth as Butter, easy-to-make toasted milk powder brings a unique nuttiness to the drink for “a cocktail that tastes “as though it was simultaneously milk-punched and brown-butter fat-washed.”
What sets the Hanky Panky at Sugar Monk in Harlem, New York, apart isn’t its ratio of ingredients—in that regard, beverage director Ektoras Binikos sticks to the spec of the original. Instead, he fine-tunes each of the components: swapping genever for gin to give the cocktail a malty edge, selecting a vermouth for the drink that harmonizes well with that flavor and, most different from the classic, incorporating the bar’s own bespoke bitters. At home, you can recreate the bitters by simply steeping Thai chiles into orange bitters; use the ingredient in the Hanky Panky, an Adonis or an Old-Fashioned.
Acid-adjusting is everywhere. Though each acid powder in a bartender’s arsenal works slightly differently—citric, for example, approximates the flavor of lemons and limes, while lactic offers creaminess, and so on—a blend of these powders can be a versatile ingredient to boost taste and texture. In Jack Schramm’s Alpine Negroni, “Champagne acid” (a solution of lactic and tartaric acids with water) adds brightness and silkiness to the batched drink.
Many tiki drinks, with their long ingredient lists, could be considered a project unto themselves. But making Don’s Mix—or Antica Don’s Mix, as tiki expert Garret Richard calls his period-correct recipe for the ingredient—is fairly simple. By using essences, extracts and acid powders, Richard creates a soda fountain–inspired alternative to what is typically a combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup. Armed with the sweetener that’s more shelf-stable than a typical Don’s Mix, you’ll be ready to make Donga Punch and Zombies at a moment’s notice.