The gulf that exists between bartender and mixologist is vast. Ask a bartender to make an old fashioned and he’ll whip up the standard water-sugar-whiskey-bitters concoction straight out of a Mr. Boston guide. It will look and taste, well, like an old fashioned. Give the same order to a mixologist, however, and he’ll produce something most barflies would be hard-pressed to recognize. Most startling is the omission of the Red Dye No. 3 maraschino garnish. Instead, a speared Bing, the color of onyx, floats just below the surface, just above, if you wish, a single large pristine cube of ice.
The biggest difference, though, is the way the drink tastes. That’s especially true if the man who is making your Old Fashioned is Joaquín Simó, a master mixologist, 2012 Bartender of the Year, and co-owner of Pouring Ribbons, a New York bar where people stand three-deep at the rail on a Friday night for the pleasure of sampling Simó’s liquid magic. Here are some of his secrets:
“The ice you make at home will be better than 99 percent of the bar ice out there,” says Simó. Not only will it look better, it will improve a drink’s taste. To remove impurities, boil tap water or use distilled. Pour water in silicone molds. Get a nice variety of shapes to suit different spirits and glasses: one-inch rectangles for a Collins glass, bigger blocks for pouring a Scotch over, spheres, two-inch cakes, shards, the works. When the cubes have frozen, place them in Ziplocs and store in the freezer. Bagging the ice will prevent odor transfer; frozen fish is particularly noxious. Whatever you do, don’t buy bagged ice. To quote Simó: “Deli ice is shit.”
Build a drink from the bottom up. If you’re making a daiquiri, for instance, start with the sugar, then add the citrus juice and bitters, then, and only then, pour the rum. If the measurements are off or the lime is bad (which happens), or the simple syrup is too sweet, that precious shot of Bacardi 8 Year Old Millennium won’t be wasted. Simó sees this cardinal rule broken by professional bartenders all the time. Just another reason why drink prices at bars are ridiculously high.
Neophytes who enter a high-caliber cocktail bar often find the drink menu perplexing. Unsure of what to order, they invariably give the bartender one instruction, “I don’t want anything too sweet.” To address this fear, Simó offers this advice to all aspiring mixologists: Whether you’re making a margarita, a sidecar, or a daiquiri, always “start dry.” The sugar level can be ramped up later. Once a drink is overly sweet, though, it becomes far more complicated to remedy the situation. Keep a coffee creamer nearby filled with simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water) to fine-tune the sweetness level. Experiment with exotic sugars: turbinado, demerara, muscovado. Think about flavors, too: agave nectar pairs beautifully with margaritas; wildflower honey is ideal for cognac-based drinks.
What do mixologists drink on their day off? More often than not, they’ll be sipping a bitter cocktail: old fashioneds, Manhattans, and Campari-based drinks. A bitter drink is not only a pleasurable drink, it’s a useful drink, able to both stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. The bonus is the low ABV (alcohol by volume), which means you can drink late into the night while maintaining sobriety. Many people, however, especially Americans, have an aversion to bitter tastes. To cure this unfortunate condition, add a few grains of salt to a Campari and soda. This dash of NaCl will blunt the bitterness on the palate. Once the taste buds have adjusted, move up to an Aperol or Amari spritzer. Next, sample the classic Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, soda). These gateway drugs will pave the way to bitter heaven: the awe-inspiring Negroni.