Five Deceptively Difficult-to-Make Cocktails

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Ring the bell, it's time for Last Call, where JK Grence, bartender at Shady's, serves up booze advice and recipes. Got a burning question for your bartender? Leave it in the comments and it might be answered in a future column.

See Also: Five Safe Drinks in Any Bar See Also: Why Your Martini Sucks See Also: The Original Mai Tai

Last week, I divulged five drinks that you can order in pretty much any bar, and be guaranteed you'll have a delicious drink no matter the bartender's skill. This week, we're going to the other side of the spectrum. You're heading out somewhere nice, somewhere that you've heard the bartenders are really good. What drink can you order to see if the bartender really knows their stuff? It has to be something that every bartender should know, but has its idiosyncrasies that are all but guaranteed to trip up a novice. Here are my top five drinks that a bartender worth their salt should pull off every time, but so rarely do:

5: Mai Tai It's probably my bartender upbringing at Trader Vic's talking, but I'm a stickler for a good Mai Tai. It's wrong if it's yellow (from pineapple juice) or red (grenadine, ugh) in color. It should be tan, with nothing more than lime, sugar syrup, orange liqueur, dark rum, and the secret ingredient, orgeat (almond) syrup. I think there's all of three bars in town that make them like this.

4: Old-Fashioned Please, please, please stop mashing the hell out of an orange slice and maraschino cherries in your Old-Fashioneds. Those are the garnish. Muddling the entire orange slice releases bitter flavors in the pith, and makes the drink look ugly as hell. Soak the sugar cube with a couple dashes of bitters, add a splash of soda water to help the sugar dissolve, and just muddle that. I'll allow muddling a strip of orange zest, mostly because this is how we make them to rave reviews at Shady's. 3: Manhattan I've said it before, I'll say it again, vermouth is your friend! And while you're at it, bitters are tasty too. 95 percent of bartenders don't use nearly enough of either in a Manhattan, and I have a feeling that's a conservative estimate. I can tell when a bartender is really on their game because they'll vary the amount of vermouth to the whiskey they use; a nice spicy rye needs a lot more vermouth than a mellow bottling like Makers Mark bourbon.

2: Cosmopolitan Ever since Sex and the City went off the air, the Cosmopolitan seems a little dated. It's a shame, because a well-made one is an incredible cocktail. The sign of a screwed-up Cosmopolitan is that it's neon red like on the show. The folks responsible for the show made them brightly colored because it looks better on TV. It should be light in color; somewhere between "alluring blush" and "pretty in pink". For bonus points, the bartender will garnish it with a flamed strip of orange zest.

1: Martini When I order a Martini, I should be almost interrogated. Martini preferences vary widely, and a skilled bartender will adjust the recipe to suit a guest's taste. I want to be asked:

  • What kind of gin? Even if someone wants vodka, it's a nice nod to the fact that a Martini really should be made with gin.
  • Regular or dry? If I order it regular, don't be stingy with the vermouth. Regular should have at least ¼ ounce of vermouth for 1½ ounces of gin. I think they should have ½ ounce, but I'm in the minority. Dry has a little vermouth poured in the glass, swirled around, and poured out. Extra-dry is popular; the vermouth bottle is simply waved over the mixing glass (or if you're Winston Churchill, looked at from across a crowded room). This is not a Martini; cocktails have multiple ingredients. If you want one, grow a pair, look your bartender in the eye, and tell 'em you want gin straight up (or on the rocks). I harbor great respect for guests who can do this.
  • Straight up or on the rocks? If I order it on the rocks, don't you dare give me the mixing ice. It should be strained over fresh ice in the glass.
  • Olive or twist? Give me the option even though everyone orders it with an olive these days.

There's more to a great Martini, but I already expounded upon the technique.

Got any other drinks every bartender should know, but so few of 'em do?

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