The Anatomy of a Cocktail CreationFeb 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
Cold evenings call for warm drinks. In this case, I’m talking about spicy and booze-forward cocktails to keep off the chill. Whiskey cocktails always leap to the forefront of my winter drinking repertoire, and I tend to alternate between a Manhattan or an old-fashioned. The Manhattan’s addition of sweet vermouth (a wine infused with aromatic herbs and barks) adds a layer of complexity unmatched by the bourbon-centric old-fashioned, and the use of rye whiskey specifically makes a whole world of difference. New York Times’ renowned beverage specialist Eric Asimov said it best: “Nothing against bourbon Manhattans, I just love the spicy, dancing-in-the-mouth sensation that comes from a good rye whiskey.” In fact, in The Essential New York Times Book of Cocktails he specifically recommends McKenzie Rye from Finger Lakes Distilling (see cover story for more on rye).
Tom Richtmyer, the daily manager and bartender at Finger Lakes Distilling on Seneca Lake, recently prepared me a classic Manhattan made with their McKenzie Rye. I make this cocktail a lot at home and love to order it out at restaurants, curious to sample different variations. I had one recently at a hotel bar where the bartender didn’t add any bitters and only a paltry splash of sweet vermouth. I asked him why he didn’t use bitters and he said that he didn’t have any bitters today. Nonetheless, the drink came out ice cold and delicious. Cocktails are always a little mysterious.
Tom’s FLD Manhattan had a beautiful, oxblood-red appearance. A dark Luxardo cherry lurked in the chilly depths. The aroma coming off the top was sweet, herbal, and spiced. I took a sip. Everything I detected on the nose showed up on the palate. High quality Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters added a tannic, woody kick that cut through the vermouth perfectly. I had expected something a little spicier, typical of a rye, but was surprised by its rounder, more polished mouthfeel.
“Our nuance is that we finish it in sherry barrels for about two weeks at the end of its four-year maturation,” Tom explained. “It adds a gravitas, a fuller flavor-profile. You get that kind of spiciness to it, but the sherry barrels help temper out a little bit of the back-end flavor. Rye whiskeys are typically known to have a real long hit at the top of the throat. In this case, the sherry barrels bring that down.”
Rye adds an important lift to the mouthfeel of the cocktail, a freshness that balances out the sweeter components. Nursing my drink, I asked Tom for his professional advice for newbies looking to begin their own cocktail adventure at home.
“Identify what flavor profiles you like: sweet, tart, sour, something more booze-forward, and go and find recipes that work within your preferences,” Tom explained. “From there you can start to branch out, experimenting with your own variations. If you like a Manhattan, start switching out vermouths, switching out bitters. Use your base and then feel free to expand on it.”
With mixology, less is often more. A good cocktail is all about quality ingredients, restraint, and the perfect garnish. A small spritz of fruit peel, for example, imparts an enormous flavor. Just a dash of bitters can add a profound new depth to a cocktail. Harmony is the objective and harmony comes with experience.
I tried the FLD Bloody Mary next, and was happily surprised by the use of un-aged corn whiskey instead of vodka. It really brought out the savory side of the cocktail and married up well with the bacon salt rim. Herbaceous celery bitters, again from Fee Brothers, mingled throughout. In cocktail culture, glass rims can go way over-the-top, with entire sides of glasses coated in some questionable seasoning, but the rim should always elevate the cocktail in a purposeful way. Priming a small portion of the rim by rubbing with a wedge of lime and then inverting it into a thin layer of salt or sugar is really all that’s needed. Rimming the entire glass with salt, for example, is a preference, but not a necessity.
For something a little fresher and more spring-like, the Sassie Lassie is a bright way to meet the sunshine. This one calls for muddled cucumber. To muddle, place the cucumber slices at the bottom of the glass and grind them down into a pulp. Muddling sticks are sold at Target, Walmart, and specialty grocery stores, although a wooden kitchen spoon usually works just fine. The Sassie Lassie includes a little ginger ale, too, so be sure to serve this one on the rocks. Soda drinks don’t like to be shaken!
To the right are some excellent cocktail recipes to get you started. Heed Tom’s advice and feel free to experiment with different ingredients. Think about combinations of sweet and sour which, when used in the right ratios, achieve a favorable balance. Get creative with garnishes and glassware. Think about fresh local products, such as maple syrup, honey, and cold-pressed juices. If you like mint leaves, consider basil, or maybe even a blend of the two. Start collecting bitters. Explore vermouth, both dry and sweet. Use flavors you love with spirits you love, and with a little practice you’ll undoubtedly stumble upon your new favorite creation.
Be fearless. Even failure can be flavorful.
Drinks All Around
2 oz. McKenzie Rye Whiskey
1 oz. Method Sweet Vermouth
1 dash Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters
1 dash Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Orange Bitters
1 Luxardo cherry
Serve up or on the rocks.
FLD Bloody Mary
1.5 oz. Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey
4 oz. Longbranch Bloody Mary mix
2 dashes Fee Brothers Celery Bitters
Demitri’s Bacon Rim Shot
Serve on the rocks.
1.5 oz. Seneca Drums Gin
Splash of ginger ale
Serve on the rocks.