The Odeon, New York City, 1988

Vodka has become a monster, and this drink is responsible.

Toby Cecchini, bartender at The Odeon, took an existing recipe that had been bouncing around (a Kamikaze with cranberry) and did it properly by focusing on balance. The irony is, nearly no one makes a Cosmopolitan according to this original recipe anymore – they’ll add way too much sweetness, skip the fresh lime juice, and overload it with cranberry. This drink (along with the Lemon Drop) begat the unfortunate ’90s trend of Appletini, Chocotini, Whatevertini – which, in turn, begat the current shame of whipped cream vodka, Froot Loops vodka, PB&J vodka, and God knows what’s coming next. Now: there is a legitimate, historical tradition of infusing vodka with all kinds of natural things: fruit, herbs, roots, spices – but what comes out of a chemical laboratory and sells by the truckload these days is a scourge upon the land, to put it bluntly.

The shame of vodka drinks is this: vodka is ephemeral and delicate. Its micro-subtle aromas and flavors can get lost when chilled and mixed in a drink (probably why it’s preferred by those who don’t like the taste of alcohol). If by chance you’ve never tried a good vodka (like Absolut, Tito’s, or Karlsson’s Gold) neat, straight out of the bottle, at room temperature – I encourage you to do so. You may be surprised at the character of what the US government mandates must be “odorless, colorless, and tasteless.”

Having said all that, odds are you’ll be called on someday to make a Cosmopolitan for a guest. So if you must, why not do it well?

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Vodka (recommended: Absolut Citron)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Triple sec (recommended: Cointreau)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Cranberry juice, Lemon twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
2 oz vodka
1 oz lime juice
1 oz triple sec
1/4 oz cranberry juice 

Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. Pinch a lemon twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Garnish with the twist laid across the surface of the drink.

Mexico (maybe 1920s, hard to tell)

You might be surprised to learn Mexico’s most popular tequila cocktail is not the Margarita. What works best in triple-digit heat turns out to be something tall, icy, a little sweet, a little sour, a tiny bit salty, even a touch bitter to keep it dry – a delicious combo called “La Paloma” (Dove). Tequila and grapefruit soda with a squeeze of lime, plus a pinch of salt in the drink before you shake that does double-duty: boosting the various flavors and unifying the ice and liquid in a pleasant slush. Yes, you could substitute the grapefruit soda for fresh grapefruit juice, simple syrup, and seltzer… but if you can hunt down Jarritos Toronja soda at your local Mexican market, you’ll get extra points for authenticity (and a better-tasting drink, to boot). Squirt works as an I-guess-so substitute.

Now, if you’re a die-hard and can wait six weeks, get some good-quality reposado tequila, three pints of ripe, sweet, organic strawberries, and let ’em steep together… make a Paloma with this Tequila por mi Amante as relayed to me by Paul Clarke & Chuck Taggart (recipe follows), and this drink goes straight into orbit.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Straw (optional), Hawthorne strainer (if using Boston shaker)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirit: Tequila (plata or reposado, recommended: El Jimador, Espolón)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Grapefruit soda (recommended: Jarritos Toronja)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Salt, Lime wheel

HOW TO

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

2 oz tequila
1/2 oz lime juice
1 pinch salt

Shake briefly to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled about two-thirds of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:

3 oz grapefruit soda

Stir lightly to blend and garnish with a lime wheel. Optionally, serve with a straw.

 

TEQUILA POR MI AMANTE

In an airtight container, combine 1 750 ml bottle reposado tequila with 3 pints ripe, organic, strawberries that have been washed and hulled (large ones sliced in half). Reserve the empty tequila bottle. Seal the container and allow to steep in the refrigerator three weeks, gently agitating occasionally. After three weeks, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and cheesecloth into the reserved tequila bottle and return to the refrigerator an additional three weeks to mellow. Strain through cheesecloth to filter out any coagulated natural pectin from the strawberries. Keep refrigerated afterward.

Trader Vic’s (1944)

You really can’t improve on perfection, but that hasn’t stopped the world from screwing up Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai for almost 70 years. I’ve already detailed the secretive and combative world of Tiki in my write-up about the Navy Grog – I’d say that contributed to the degradation of the Mai Tai, but Trader Vic himself also changed his recipe as time went on, adding more citrus juices (and more rum). Trader Vic originally used Wray & Nephew 17-year old rum in his recipe, but the Mai Tai was so popular, he actually depleted the world supply of that rum (or they just stopped making it), then the same with 15-year expression that came afterward. These days, the Trader Vic’s chain restaurants make the drink with a crappy, artificial-tasting bottled mix and inferior rum. Feel free to experiment with mixing two different rums (as I do here), or try just one kickass rum in this. My friend Matt “RumDood” Robold says he’s made this with Smith & Cross and “enjoyed it more than he probably should have” and I can back that up – even just a quarter-ounce in place of some of the aged Jamaican rum works great. The great bang-for-the-buck aged rum Appleton 12 is a minor luxury. If you’re up for it, make a batch of homemade orgeat (recipe below), or look around for B.G. Reynolds‘ excellent version. Either way, done right using this old-school recipe, the Mai Tai will take you back to the early days of Tiki, as US Marines were returning from the Pacific back home to southern California, eager to both remember and forget what they’d been through over there.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Straws (optional), Hawthorne strainer (if using Boston shaker)
Ice: Ice cubes, Crushed ice
Glassware: Double rocks glass
Spirits: Aged Jamaican rum (recommended: Appleton Estate 12 or Reserve), aged rhum agricole (recommended: Neisson Élevé Suis Bois or Rhum J.M. Vieux VSOP)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Curaçao (recommended: Senior Curaçao of Curaçao, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao), Simple syrup, Orgeat (recommended: BG Reynolds’ or make your own; recipe below)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime hull half (reserve from squeezing), Fresh spearmint

HOW TO

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

1 oz aged Jamaican rum
1 oz aged rhum agricole
1 oz lime juice
1/2
oz Curaçao
1/4
oz orgeat
1/4
oz simple syrup

Shake well to chill. Fill a Double Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice, then strain the drink over the ice, adding more ice to top if needed. Garnish with the spent lime hull half (rind side up) and a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.

ORGEAT

In a heavyweight Ziploc, break up 2 1/2 cups whole, raw almonds – looking for large chunks, not powder. A rolling pin or muddler works well. Toast at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, combine the crushed, toasted almonds with 2 cups of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook 4 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool, then pour into an airtight container and let steep 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a jar or bottle (it’ll take a while to slowly drip out), then add 12 drops of orange flower water, 12 drops of rose water, and 1 oz of overproof vodka to help reduce spoilage. Shake to blend. Keep refrigerated. Will last about 3 months.