First, I tend to avoid vodka because it poses little challenge in recipe creation. It’s simply an alcoholic vehicle for other flavors, with not a lot to say for itself—a blank canvas. And as for infused vodkas, why use something that’s been flavored when you can muddle or juice fresh fruit? There’s nothing actually wrong with vodka; it’s simply more rewarding to start with more complex flavors.
That said, my cocktail had to be sherry-based, because I was developing it for a competition. First I considered complementary flavors. I started with amontillado for its burnished, warm tones, and then chose rye to combine with it. The colors of the two work together, and they also share flavors of vanilla, toffee, and some spice.
Next I considered volume. It’s almost as important as flavor; generally you don’t want a drink to have more than three ounces of spirit in it (and that’s a strong drink), but three ounces of anything barely fill up a glass. So you look for a way to expand the volume of the drink to about five ounces, while preserving the original character of the spirit.
I considered contrasts—what can I put in there that will make the drink unique and complex? I added lemon juice (sour), Cointreau (sweet, with an orange flavor that complements the rye and the amontillado), and, for the kicker, muddled basil. It sounds counterintuitive, but the fresh, spicy mintiness of the basil added just the right lift to what might otherwise have been a little ponderous and heavy.
Then I needed to come up with the right proportions. It took me a lot of amontillado and rye, and some furious tweaking and remixing. The first challenge involved getting the ratio of rye to sherry right. As it turns out, sherry is much more assertive than rye. I hit on two parts rye to one part sherry. This way the sherry character comes through (especially on the finish), but it doesn’t dominate the other ingredients.
Then I worked on how much basil to use and how heavily to muddle it. I prefer a more gentle muddling, so that the herb’s high-toned, peppery essences are extracted but not a lot of its greenness. The first attempts were too heavy on the basil. A gentle muddling of about five leaves worked well. The basil I was using was fresh from the farmers’ market that morning, so it was rather strong.
Next came the citrus. It took several remixings to determine the right amount. Lemon juice is there not so much for the flavor as for the acidity, to balance the sweet sherry and Cointreau. (I always taste the drink with a straw after I shake it—every lemon is different; the amount of ice that melts is different. Sometimes it needs adjustment, and that is usually added sweetness. So feel free, if your drink is too dry, to add up to a half ounce more Cointreau or some Rich Simple Syrup to get the balance you want.)
My final step was to come up with a good name. Of course, there are the occasions when you start with a great name and then make a cocktail to go along with it—when I was trying to make a cocktail to showcase Navan, the new vanilla liqueur, I had already decided on the pun “Navan Hagila” and wanted to make something Jewish … I used Roth vodka. When it comes to names, I like something descriptive and referential that justifies the inspiration, ingredients, or provenance of the drink. I named my sherry-rye cocktail the Carmen Amaya after a famous flamenco dancer. She came from Spain (like the sherry), gathered acclaim in France (Cointreau), and eventually moved to the United States (rye). Plus, I love the sound of her name.
Chill a cocktail glass. In a mixing glass, gently muddle five leaves of fresh basil with three-quarters of an ounce of semidry amontillado sherry (Domecq is a good brand). Add one and a half ounces of Old Overholt rye, one ounce of lemon juice, three-quarters of an ounce of Cointreau, and a dash of orange bitters. Fill a shaker with ice, cap, and shake vigorously. Strain into the cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist or a basil leaf.