What does the cocktail enthusiast with no bartending experience need to know to make an awesome craft cocktail? Lynne Rossetto Kasper -- the sonorous talk show host of NPR's The Splendid Table asked that question of four of the Valley's top mixologists at the Hotel Palomar last weekend, and she got some terrific answers.
Kasper had come to Phoenix to help NPR (and affiliate station KJZZ) with their fund drive, hosting a cocktail-education event that drew a crowd of mostly older listeners whose interest in craft cocktails is dubious. Truth is, most of them were probably there to see their favorite foodie in the flesh. And Kasper was everything her fans imagined she'd be:
By turns charming, erudite, down-to-earth, funny and quick on her feet as she introduced, chatted up and quizzed her four panelists -- Shel Bourdon (Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails), Travis Nass (Last Drop Bar at the Hermosa Inn), Dwayne Allen (The Breadfruit) and Richie Moe (Citizen Public House).
Kasper got the party started by pointing out that the U.S. is undergoing a cocktail revolution unlike anything seen since the late 19th Century and the pre-Prohibition era. Then she explained that each panelist had created a cocktail around his/her favorite spirit: bourbon for Bourdon, gin for Nass, rum for Allen and tequila for Moe. The panelists spoke about the ingredients they used and the thought process behind their cocktails, which attendees could sample from small plastic cups. Kasper sipped them on stage, making complimentary remarks about each one: Nass's take on the classic gimlet, for example was "transcendental," and she could "taste the nuances" in Bourdon's modern-day whiskey sour. Lots of cocktail territory was covered, some of it basic, some of it geeky in the extreme.
Then Kasper asked each mixologist to give two pieces of advice to novice cocktail-makers, and here's what they said: Shel Bourdon:
1) Use all natural sweeteners (agave nectar, honey, raw sugars, maple syrup -- which not only sweeten but also add complexity to the cocktail) 2) Start with great product (meaning, use quality spirits because, just as with food, the better the ingredients, the better the end result)
3) Strive for balance (not too sweet, not too sour, not too bitter, not too strong, not too weak) 4) Strive for the proper dilution (meaning, use great ice, which won't melt in and dilute the drink)
Kasper asked, "What is great ice?" and Nass replied, "Great ice is hard ice; cracked ice gives more dilution."
5) Have fun with it (meaning, don't be afraid to experiment; there's no right or wrong) 6) Start with a good spirit but also use ingredients that you enjoy and that "speak to you" (meaning, nothing is off limits)
7) Engage in outside-the-box thinking (meaning, you can do anything, including using ingredients you've cooked) 8) Pick out the nuances of the spirit you're using (meaning, is the tequila you're using earthy? Is the gin citrus-y or herbaceous? What would go well with these flavor profiles?)
Moe, who's never afraid to talk, also suggests that people learn the basics of making cocktails -- how to shake them, for instance -- by investing in a good cocktail book.
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"Booze is interesting; booze is fun," he says, a point that was deliciously proved in four vastly different, immensely inventive cocktails that evening.