Cocktail history is a foggy place. Misconceptions and misperceptions abound, from where they come from to how they’re made, but none rival the recurring fallacy that cocktails simply cover up poor quality spirits. Maybe that’s true to a point, cocktails originally served to soften the edge of harsh liquor, but only because the liquor at the time, even the best, just wasn’t as easily enjoyed as modern equivalents. This is no fault of the distillers, the technology was what it was and you do the best you can with what you have. Over time, cocktails evolved, became more complicated, more sophisticated, and, in some respects, developed into an art form. The impression of purpose, however, persists, even if we know better. Maybe it stems from the legacy of Prohibition, the oral history of bathtub gin, or frightful tales of wood alcohol in jugs, but, true as those tales may be, there’s more to it. Understanding the full story and appreciating the art, as with any art form, requires a degree of immersion. The studious, who develop an appreciation of well crafted cocktails, know that, more often than not, the cocktail serves to enhance a base spirit rather than hide it, but you have to get there first.
The same can be said of any work of art, and the same can be seen in their example. How does one appreciate music, or painting, or literature, or understand their meaning and purpose? Understanding and appreciation take time, yet the work waits, all the while unashamedly asking of the audience as if asking of peers. You have to go to the art, it doesn’t come to you. Presenting a modern, ice cold, complicated and expensive cocktail, made with ice from a machine, in a fancy glass, to the whiskey drinker of 1851 is much like reading, or trying to read, Moby Dick. Who knows, or would know, what to make of it, either the cocktail or the book, for, like wine, whiskey, or cocktails to some, a masterpiece as renowned as the most classic of American novels is a tall order indeed, yet one of the most respected and timeless literary achievements of them all, even though Herman Melville buried his remarkable treasure behind an impenetrable wall of prose. Moby Dick is dense, it’s long, it’s confusing, it takes effort beyond measure and it will exhaust you. Until you figure it out.
A cocktail as common as a Cosmopolitan would have baffled even Melville himself, for how would he know what to make of it? There would be no frame of reference, no understanding of the 100 plus years of technical advancement required to appreciate this bauble of the 1990s, and one can imagine he’d either marvel at it while grasping for some sort of reason, or sneer a very verbose and long winded, “what’s this?” just as the modern student is baffled when several pounds of Melville’s bludgeon are, for the first time, dropped on the desk like a hammer blow. Many will just walk away cracking a beer, and choosing contemporary, accessible artists like Ariana Grande. It makes no sense, I don’t get it, and I’m not gonna waste my time. Thank you, next.
Others will try, giving it a chance until defeated and wondering how the comedic jaunt of Ishmael’s first meeting with Queequeg, or Stubb’s relentless and upbeat chatter accompany an endless tale of obsession and revenge, yet at the same time detailing a young nation’s first great industry with clinical precision while Ahab actively thwarts all efforts at compassion and wealth. You’ll learn exactly how to fashion a harpoon, or harvest ambergris should the opportunity arise, and it’s all so out of place, but perfectly relevant, just like everything else in this book. It’s only the few left standing who appreciate Moby Dick, the few for whom the coin finally drops, who finally crack the code and realize it’s not what you read, it’s how you read it. Moby Dick is many books in one, a tale of a great sea voyage, a technical document on how whaling works, a meditation on the nature of obsession, a character study of flawed men sharing a great quest to which only Starbuck and perhaps the reader object. It’s a book that rewards those who break it apart and take it in pieces, arranging it in understandable chunks the same way one watches Citizen Kane or a Steven Soderbergh film which you have to parse and rearrange before it makes sense.
Cocktails are like that, too. Yes, you can have a Martini, but do you like it? How much more do you appreciate it with knowledge of the component parts? If you know about gin, and appreciate the styles and varieties, if you know about vermouth, and know its forms and characteristics, you experience a Martini in a new and exciting way. Appreciating the parts becomes appreciating the whole, and it’s not lost on you when presented with a well crafted $18 cocktail. It’s more than an expensive WTF in a glass, and when you get there you understand what the art, and artist, have been asking of you all along, then you make it yours, and appreciate it on your terms.
How often have you avoided using expensive whiskey in your cocktail because cocktails are for hiding, not showing, or you don’t want to “waste” fine liquor in a mixed drink? Change your tune. Appreciate craft cocktails as art, and learn about the story and characters of the literature that’s in your glass. Take a bottle of Bull Run American Whiskey and enjoy it neat. It’s best savored all on it’s own, then do all the whiskey things. Add a splash of water here, a cube of ice there, and see what it does. Then use it in a cocktail. Don’t scoff, put 2 ounces in a glass with a great big hunk of ice, some bitters, and a bit of sugar, then find things in this amazing whiskey you would have never found otherwise, like the layers of wonder buried in the seemingly inaccessible pages of Moby Dick, for a cocktail, among other things, should be an experience, not an excuse.
2 oz Bull Run American Whiskey
2 dashes Scrappy’s Aromatic Bitters
2 dashes Simple syrup
Build in a rocks glass with a single, large ice cube. Garnish with an orange twist.
Try these cocktails