The Cocktail’s Golden Mean

Paul Blow

“The good bartender must be part psychologist, dealing with customers of all ilks and needs; part sommelier, knowing the nuances of all the spirits behind the bar; and part chef, mixing up new and innovative drinks while at the same time faithfully reproducing the standards on command.”

That’s what Salvatore Calabrese, the London bartending legend who has his own posh place called Salvatore at Fifty, once told me.

I wanted to take it on. The psychologist part I can do; I like talking to people. But it was the second and third parts, about being a sommelier and a chef, that really excited me. So a couple of months ago I strapped on an apron, hung a towel out of my back pocket, and got behind the bar at San Francisco’s Cantina. I’m now bartending there two nights a week.

The margarita: the greatest tequila drink

The margarita will never be beaten as the greatest tequila drink. The combination of tart lime and sugar (with a little orange thrown in, perhaps) always allows the nuances of each particular tequila to show through. Manhattans, martinis, and Aviations are classics for a reason: They taste great. It’s about balance. Learning that balance is one of the first things a bartender has to do.

There’s a golden mean for cocktails, which I learned at an intensive Beverage Alcohol Resource seminar taught by Dale DeGroff, the famous bartender and author of classics like The Craft of the Cocktail. It’s a ratio among sweet, strong, and sour that’s in classic drink after classic drink. DeGroff likes 1.5 ounces of strong for 1 ounce of sweet and .75 ounces of sour. You can tailor the ratio to your own taste, but it gets you most of the way toward a balanced drink. My taste is more austere, and I discovered that I prefer to invert DeGroff’s proportions of sweet and sour.

The golden mean is obvious in the Negroni, the Sidecar, and the Manhattan, where the strong (gin, Cognac, rye whiskey) is tempered and balanced by the sweet (vermouth, Cointreau) and enlivened by the sour (Campari, lemon juice, bitters).

As far as the bartender as sommelier part goes, I’ve learned to think about how a liquor will fit with the other ingredients in a cocktail. It’s important to know the qualities—not just basic flavor, but depth and strength—of each spirit in order to deploy them. For that martini, do you want a stridently juniper-tasting gin like Tanqueray or Junípero or something more balanced (Beefeater), exotic (Hendrick’s), or complex and gentle (Plymouth)? For that Manhattan do you want a mellow bourbon like Basil Hayden’s or a fiery rye like Pike Creek?

Next week, I’ll continue on this theme with the process I went through to develop a cocktail. It’s called the Carmen Amaya, and it’s delicious.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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