Make basics from scratch for better cocktails
By Jason Wilson
Todd Thrasher, 40, cocktail innovator at Restaurant Eve, PX and the Majestic, in Alexandria, Va., is considered among the finest bartenders in America. His house-made bitters, tonics and infusions are part of mixology's avant-garde.
But in his kitchen, Thrasher's advice veered toward the basics.
"I want to make sure people measure. You should always measure when you're making cocktails so the results are consistent," he said. "Sometimes, bars think they're doing you a favor by overpouring, but they're not." He also insists that home bartenders should always use fresh juices and avoid artificial ingredients at all costs.
Some of Thrasher's mixer recipes are so straightforward that they make one feel a little stupid for ever having relied on store-bought versions.
Grenadine, for instance, is a quick and uncomplicated recipe involving pomegranate juice, lemon juice, sugar and orange peels. Don't be shocked; it ends up purple in color. The classic Jack Rose now becomes a Jack Mauve. And perhaps the Tequila Sunrise ends up being more like a Tequila Sunset.
Cranberry juice is even simpler: a matter of combining fresh cranberries, sugar and water, then blending and straining.
As Thrasher poured me a glass, he said: "How much time did that take? Three minutes? And you have something better than anything you can buy in a store." The result is a brighter, tangier cranberry juice that's a much more vibrant shade of red. So-called "100 percent cranberry juice" in a plastic bottle can't compete.
The most famous cranberry cocktail is, of course, the oft-maligned Cosmopolitan. But, trust me, a Cosmo with fresh cranberry juice is nothing to sneer at. As a further alternative, Thrasher mixed us the Provincial, called such because "it's the opposite of whatever the Cosmopolitan is." Instead of vodka, the Provincial calls for rhum agricole, and instead of the usual, awful Rose's lime juice, it calls for Key lime syrup and candied Key lime wheels.
Infused spirits, which make great holiday gifts, are even easier: Just add spices, herbs and fruit to booze and set in a sunny window for a few days. Thrasher said he's always had a soft spot for spiced rum and makes his own.
Thrasher also created an easy hibiscus-and-vanilla-infused vodka that transformed a bland spirit into a lovely liqueur.
From basic infusions, we moved on to slightly more advanced mixology. Cold Buttered Rum (spiced rum infused with Kerrygold butter) requires some technique, though not much. If you can clarify butter, you should be good to go.
As for making tonic water, the only truly challenging part might be sourcing quinine powder (I found it online). Thrasher said he has honed his tonic-making abilities: "When I did this four years ago, I didn't know what I was doing. But now I have 15 recipes. And I'm always experimenting." As with grenadine, homemade tonic comes out a surprising color — brown — and the taste is nothing like Canada Dry, Schweppes or the other too-sweet brands we're used to.
Perhaps the real magic of Thrasher's concoctions is his ability to make people reconsider the flavors they think they already know. He still occasionally runs into bar patrons who blanch at first when served his homemade ingredients.
"They're so used to the artificial flavors, they actually miss them!" he marvels.
It doesn't take long for him to change their minds.
Candied Key limes are a festive, decorative garnish you can use for any cocktail that you'd normally garnish with a citrus wedge. Save the syrup: It's basically your own homemade version of Rose's Lime Juice.
MAKE AHEAD: The lime wheels in their syrup need to be refrigerated overnight. The syrup itself can be refrigerated for up to 1 month, and the candied lime wheels can be refrigerated in the syrup for up to one month.
CANDIED KEY LIMES AND LIME SYRUP
• 8 ounces Key limes, cut into thin wheels (seeds discarded; about 6 slices per lime)
• 1 quart warm water
• 1/2 quart sugar
• 1 stalk lemon grass (tough outer layers discarded), smashed, then coarsely chopped
Combine the water and sugar in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the lime wheels (in batches if necessary) and lemon grass; reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes (barely bubbling). Remove from the heat.
Transfer the lime wheels and their syrup to a container and refrigerate overnight. The fruit will become candied.
For future storage, transfer the lime wheels to a separate container. Strain the syrup through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the lemon grass. Refrigerate both containers as described in the headnote.
Makes about 36 candied Key lime slices and about 4 cups of syrup.
• Per candied lime slice: 7 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
• Per 1-ounce serving of syrup: 45 calories, 0 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
After making this simple recipe, you may never again go back to the bright-red, artificial, syrupy bottled stuff. Be sure to use 100 percent pomegranate juice. Jason Wilson tried several brands, and the widely available POM was by far the best. As Thrasher says: It's not going to be bright red, but that's a good thing.
MAKE AHEAD: The grenadine can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. For longer refrigerated storage (up to two months), add 1/2 ounce of 151-proof rum. Then, of course, the grenadine will be off-limits for children's drinks such as a Shirley Temple.
• About 3 cups (750 ml) pomegranate juice, preferably POM
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice
• Strips of peel from 1 whole orange (no pith)
Bring the pomegranate juice to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the sugar and lemon juice, stirring to dissolve, then add the strips of orange peel. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 45 minutes or until reduced by half.
Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the orange peel, and let cool to room temperature before using or storing.
Makes about 3 cups.
• Per 1-ounce serving: 66 calories, 0 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar
This infusion tastes great and looks pretty. It's enjoyable by itself over ice, as well as with sparking wine in a cocktail such as My Tahitian Dream.
Dried hibiscus flowers are available at some Latin markets, at Whole Foods Markets and through online purveyors such as Earthy.com.
• 1 liter vodka, preferably potato-based vodka
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1 Tahitian vanilla bean, split and scraped
• 4 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers (see headnote)
Combine the vodka, sugar, vanilla bean and its scrapings and the dried hibiscus flower in a clear-glass 5-cup bottle or container. Let sit in the window, in the sun, for four days.
Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, then strain the mixture again into a clean 1-liter container. Discard the solids. Store at room temperature indefinitely.
Makes about 1 liter (about 4 cups).
• Per 1-ounce serving: 71 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar