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What Does the Perfect Cocktail Look Like?

The likes of Ryan Chetiyawardana, Jennifer le Nechet and Erik Lorincz share their one drink that embodies the idea of "perfection"—or the impossibility of it.

This story is published in partnership with P(our), a symposium devoted to exploring new ideas and exchanging inspiration about the drinks industry, and beyond. The annual event promotes discussions and presentations that address issues critical to the trade; this year’s theme is “perfection.” The event is taking place in Paris on June 3rd—for more information, and for tickets, click here.

H.L. Mencken once famously quipped that the Martini was “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” This idea of perfection is one that curiously seems never very far from the psyche of the modern bartender: Much like the arts modeled after a classical ideal, craft cocktails have been oriented towards a notion of balance achieved through ratio, proportionality and execution. When mixology as a field attains the level of performance that it’s seen in recent years, a drink’s Platonic form—a state of wholeness that transcends its parts—can often feel tantalizingly close.

Bartenders are quick to concede that true perfection is beyond anyone’s reach, that tastes are subjective, that the standard is perhaps not a very useful one. But that impossible dream continues to spur drink-makers on, either through countless failures and variations to forge a new classic, or into new realms of experimentation where old rules don’t apply.

Below, six influential bartenders from both sides of the Atlantic share stories of the cocktails that epitomize their search for perfection, shedding light on how that elusive concept informs their process.

Julia Momose | The Grey Wolf

“That moment when you pour a drink and it’s basically perfection—every sip is amazing layers of balance, the temperature’s just right—that window can be very small,” says Chicago bartender Julia Momose, who’s set to open a new bar this year. Ice, she points out, is in a constant state of entropy. If the cubes are too cold, they crack; too warm, they sweat, diluting the drink. Momose’s solution was to craft an Old-Fashioned variation with enough complexity to embrace the principle of entropy, widening the window of perfection. Plum vinegar adds a savory-sweet acidity to a Hibiki Harmony whisky base, while the sugar is split between velvety demerara syrup and Bénédictine, bonded by a dash of Angostura bitters. “It’s a drink that can keep opening up and opening up, instead of dying after a certain point,” says Momose. “To me, that was the perfect drink.”

Ivy Mix | Palo Negro

For Ivy Mix, head bartender and co-owner of Leyenda, perfection lies in the “concrete structure of a cocktail”—the “harmony within the flavors.” Finding that harmony begins with Mix deciding what is going to be the star of the show in the glass, then surrounding it with the right supporting players. For her Palo Negro cocktail, palo cortado sherry is center stage. Black strap rum forms a bridge between the sherry and reposado tequila base, highlighting the caramel and herbal notes, while Grand Marnier echoes the palo cortado’s citrus character, punctuated by an orange disc garnish. “The harmonious strength of this drink was the hardest to come by,” says Mix, who experimented with countless variations. “But it was also the most rewarding.”

Nico de Soto | L’Alligator C’est Vert

A bartending career that’s crisscrossed 76 countries around the globe has taught Nico de Soto, owner of Mace in New York, that some things are relative. “The perfect drink would be perfect for everyone, and that will never exist,” he says. Palates in Manhattan differ from those in Miami or in Beirut. So the perfect drink for de Soto is one that reflects his personal favorite ingredients and the sense of place they evoke. While in Indonesia, he developed a love for the nutty pandan herb, which he developed into a syrup for the L’Alligator C’est Vert. Coconut milk adds luscious texture and tropical notes, tempered by a full ounce of that quintessential Parisian ingredient, absinthe. “It’s all the flavors I like, assimilated in one drink.”

Erik Lorincz | Behind Closed Doors

Erik Lorincz, co-owner of the American Antique Bar and former head bartender at London’s American Bar at the Savoy, finds that the pursuit of mixological perfection usually involves intuiting his way through thorny technical challenges. Creating the Behind Closed Doors—a cocktail that he wanted to look like a crystal-clear Martini but taste like a Bloody Mary—presented many such conundrums. Using a rotovap, he set about redistilling vodka with the ingredients you’d typically find in the brunch classic, but discovered that the technology threw off the balance, resulting in a particularly aggressive horseradish flavor. Only a process of constant tweaking, during which “the drink really, really played in my mind for a long time,” says Lorincz, resulted in success. “If you’re not satisfied, that’s a good thing, because then you can perfect that recipe. Just keep going.”

Jennifer Le Nechet | El Taco Rojo

When a drink is perfect, says Jennifer Le Nechet, it’s a feast for the senses, stimulating the eye, the tongue, the nose and even one’s sense of touch. To drill down on that idea, she created a drink that mimics the rich sensory experience of eating a fresh Mexican taco. Highlighting summer garden flavors, she infused blanco tequila with grilled corn in a sous-vide machine, then paired it with a red bell pepper shrub made from cider vinegar and white balsamic cream. It’s finished with a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of chipotle Tabasco—just like a streetside taco. In pursuing the perfect cocktail, “we can discover new balance, new taste, new flavor,” says Le Nechet.


Sazerac Cocktail Recipe

Ryan Chetiyawardana | Moby Dick Sazerac

Ryan Chetiyawardana, owner of Super Lyan, Dandelyan and Cub, knows he’s on the hunt for perfection when “fascination starts to tip into obsession.” For him, that fascination tends to circle around a unique ingredient, which then becomes the centerpiece of a cocktail. Such ingredients have included ambergris: the mysterious, organic byproduct of a sperm whale’s digestive system which has been coveted for centuries for its aromatic traits. “It’s a really magical thing,” says Chetiyawardana. “There’s a striving for perfection in how you capture something so fleeting and odd. It has an effect, rather than a flavor.” Chetiyawardana decided to express the marine specialty through the template of a classic cocktail, the Sazerac. He combines a small dose of ambergris with rye, simple syrup and Peychaud’s bitters, which he serves chilled in a rocks glass. It’s garnished with rice paper coated in absinthe—the familiar and the fantastic combined in one.

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