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Put me in a home kitchen and I could kludge almost anything to at least edibility with some wine, garlic, and rosemary. But having grown up in the era of the Pina Colada song, the low point for mixology in America, I've never felt like I had a comparable intuitive sense of the principles of cocktails. So when I saw that New York-based mixologist Greg Seider (the Summit Bar, the cocktail program at Le Bernardin) had written a book called Alchemy in a Glass: The Essential Guide to Handcrafted Cocktails, and was coming to Chicago, I cadged myself an hour of his time to have him run me, and you, through the basics of making drinks that don't suck. As a visitor, he's no stranger to our city's offerings—he's a frequent shopper at Roderick Markus's Rare Tea Cellars, and a couple of brightly colored beakers of alcohols with rooibos teas from Markus's company steeping in them sat on the bar awaiting use. We meet in the Double A, the basement bar at Mercadito.
He starts by asking me what spirits I like—and don't like; I say I like bourbon and gin, but I think tequila overpowers pretty much anything it's mixed with. "The whole key for me is the sourcing of the ingredients before you even start," he says. "If you make a margarita with a tequila that's just flat, that doesn't have that brightness or any undertones—the choices you make before you even start the drink make the whole difference."
He says he'll demonstrate what he means by making an Old-Fashioned, which he regards as one of the benchmark cocktails. "When I go out, before I even order a cocktail, I'm getting an old-fashioned or a margarita—because if they can't get those right . . ."
He sets out two cordial glasses, and then pours two brown liquors that could go into it—Basil Hayden bourbon and Koval rye. The Hayden is a standard example of bourbon, with its smooth, one-dimensional leather flavors. The Koval rye has high notes of the grain it is from, which give it a completely different effect—like the difference between grilled steak and the same meat with a spicy salsa. "If you don't like that spice, all I have to do is switch out the rye with the bourbon in the same proportions and it's a different drink."
He gets out two different bitters, Scrappy's and Angostura bitters. "For the bourbon we do equal parts, but for the rye version, because it's spicier, you don't need as much bitters." For the sweet element, "I only use agave," he says. "It just has a natural flavor from the cactus. Sugar would really be a different flavor, that artificial cloyingness. It doesn't meld in, where this is kind of seamless."
Surprisingly, given the way specialty bitters have become a key part of modern cocktail culture, he says he tends not to use them that much, favoring aromatic tinctures, which give the flavor of a fresh element minus the bittering agent. "In the end, it's a bitter. The majority don't add that flavor profile, because they're finishing off the drink with that bitterness. If I'm making my version of Peychaud's bitters, I toast fennel and anise and use a base of a rooibos tea. So if you taste [commercial] Peychaud's, it's kind of like food coloring next to this really bright pop," he says.
"My stuff all started from growing up in Rhode Island, where my father planted these insane gardens," he explains. "So I grew up with peach trees, apple trees, grapevines, every kind of vegetable. And we lived on the ocean so we had mussels, clams, all this fresh seafood. All I knew was what the freshest tasted like. When I got back into this, it was so obvious to me when the flavors were off. So if I correct something, someone else is going to think it's superfresh."
So why did people use bitters at all, when cocktails were invented, I ask? "I think it was a balancing agent, to add acid. They didn't have a lot of citrus, like we do now, so you just had liquor and sugar and you needed something to balance that out."
Another element which he doesn't have at hand today: ice in something other than typical ice machine format, which tends to melt too quickly in cocktails. "Normally I'd have a big cube," he says. "My other element is getting this to a specific temperature. If you measured it, it would be about 25 degrees. That's where I feel like it gets that crunch and viscosity. And then it's a slow, slow pour, because if I just pour it out, it's not going to have that thickness." He takes a good fifteen seconds or so to drizzle the drink into the glass. "That extra delay of four or five seconds brings the degrees down and just opens it up."
The last thing he does is grab an orange and peel a strip of the outside, then pinch it an inch or two from the glass, spraying a fine mist of oil over the drink. "I don't like this thing where it's superorangey and you just crush it and spread it all over," he says. "You know, if you were a girl and your mother taught you how to put on perfume, you're not like, spish-spish-spish. Just let it fall over it. It changes your palate if you get too much orange."
That's the Basil Hayden version; then he walks me through making the Koval version. The result is, as he predicted, two cocktails, almost the same—yet with very different characteristics, one smooth and relaxed, the other bright and energetic. "In the book, I kind of have my foolproof formula. If we're doing a Tom Collins type of drink, it's two ounces spirit, three quarters of a sweetener and three quarters of citrus. If it's just like a gimlet on the rocks, it's two spirit, one citrus, 3/4 sweet. And that's interchangeable. So with tequila, an ounce of lime and three quarters sugar, but if you want a daiquiri, switch out the rum, and if you want a whiskey sour, it's switch out the lemon and bourbon. I'm not saying those proportions are 100 percent in every situation, but it's pretty damn accurate for you to make a real nice drink."
He makes a pair of Tom Collins cocktails next, and teaches another bit of technique along the way, pouring the drink from the shaker through a Hawthorn strainer into a tea strainer before it reaches the glass. This isn't belt-and-suspenders overcaution—it's to catch the shards of ice that broke up during shaking, again, to keep the ice from melting too quickly. I make the second version, and he offers me another tip about shaking cocktails for an entire evening, at least once you're past a certain age—hold it lower and let gravity do more of the work for you.
Again, there's a night-and-day difference between the chemical burn of the standard Beefeater gin and the artisanal spirit he enlisted. I like the latter, but I can see that the brighter botanicals might be overpowering for people who've been drinking it the standard way all these years. I ask if he feels the rise of these artisanal spirits has been a net benefit or gone too far at times. "I think most of them are getting it right. But the gin thing is nuts," he says. "A lot of them are unbalanced aromatically. Why do I need 14 different botanicals? I can't taste it now."
"But say I'm going to open up a bar, I don't even need a cocktail menu. I just make classic cocktails in the best versions with the best selected spirits, and I could have one of the best cocktail bars in the country, because those drinks have so many layers."
The rooibos plays an even more central role in the margarita he makes next—in fact, it completely replaces one of the common elements, fresh fruit. A bright maroon liquid in a jar is the rooibos, which contributes the notes of fruitiness without turning the drink into dessert; the multiple flavors of a tea, tannic and floral, and more, instantly make the drink more complex and adult.
The last touch is grating lime zest over the drink. "I'm just adding the citrus oils, without the citrus. So before you even drink it, you get this nose of the citrus," he says. "It's a margarita, but I just sourced out the tea. So now this thing is a whole 'nother drink, but it was one step. I'm simplifying the process, but this is one of the best drinks I've ever had, because I took the trouble to source something that has three or four layers of flavor."
So what made him want to turn all this knowledge into a book? "I wanted to try to teach these kids to understand tasting. So before you even start writing down 'Alsatian mountain glacial air foam' . . . what the fuck does that do? If you can't get a goddam margarita and the citrus and sweet perfectly balanced, the tequila and then the citrus pops in and you get that beautiful, fresh citrus finish, you don't get to pass go."
He mentions an experience the night before at a recently opened spot near Randolph Street, and says, "Two sips in and I knew it wasn't right. Actually I don't even have to taste, I can just smell a drink and know that there's too much sugar in it. Honestly, I fix my friends' drinks at the table all the time."