The Real Thing

Spirits

Skip the mix and please your guests

By Tony Cross

About a year or so ago, Carter, my very good friend, and I were at a restaurant bar scoping out their cocktail list. Now, my friend doesn’t geek out as much as I’ve been known to when we frequent restaurant bars; however, he does appreciate a good drink, and has picked up a knack for calling out poorly made ones. We decided to order a few apps and cocktails to start. I ordered a Manhattan, and Carter chose their house margarita. Our bartender posed a question to Carter that perplexed the two of us: Would he like fresh juice in his drink? We both sat there puzzled, our minds blown. “Yes?…” Carter replied after a moment of sitting, and staring at the bartender in a (sober) stupor. We soon realized after studying the menu that having fresh-pressed juice was a $2 upcharge. You know, because limes are expensive. The only thing that made me laugh more was the fact that Carter had just spent $14 (that’s right) on one of the worst margaritas of his life. I tried it, and it was pretty bad. Point being — it’s the 21st century; why isn’t everyone using fresh citrus?

Sour mix is everywhere: in all of the chain restaurants and dive bars. It’s also in many independent restaurants, private clubs and country clubs. It’s available from wine distributors and food distribution companies. Part of me doesn’t understand how an establishment that prides itself on using fresh ingredients won’t carry the same thought process behind the bar. It’s safe to say that no chef would ever use a lemon juice substitute when creating a sauce. So why are bartenders ordering container after container of this gooey, high-fructose corn syrupy mess, and putting them in their cocktails? The answer’s pretty simple. You’re paying for them. One after another.

Using fresh citrus is crucial when concocting a drink for your guests. Here’s the thing with lemons and limes, though: Their juice loses its “pop” within four to six hours. It’s even shorter for orange juice. I’ve been to places that will juice enough citrus for the week, and call it a day. You’ve got to juice for the moment, be that the afternoon, or for your shift. Yes, juice the next day is better than corn syrupy imitation juice, but that’s not the point. Try making the same cocktail with fresh juice, and juice from the day before, and you’ll notice immediately what is wrong with the latter. Some professional bartenders want juice that has just been pressed, while others like using juice that’s had a few hours to breathe. I like having my juice sitting for about two hours; I feel like it opens up a bit, and doesn’t bite as much. I know that makes no sense to you, so you’re going to have to trust me.

Here are a few cocktails that you can put to the test. Invite a friend over, give them the drink with the sour mix, give yourself the one with fresh citrus. Then, give ’em a taste.

Margarita

Now, this is the most asexual drink there is on the planet. Every grocery store has some type of margarita mix, and we’ve all probably purchased them at one time or another. Remember, give your friend the ’Rita with the bad mix. After they taste yours with the fresh juice, they’ll want to switch, and that’s OK. Just be sure to charge ’em two bucks.

2 ounces blanco tequila (I like Milagro Silver)

1/2 ounce Cointreau

3/4 ounce lime juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup (2:1)

Salt (optional)

Lime wedge

Combine all ingredients in a Boston shaker with ice, and shake like hell for 10 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. If you’d like salt, just rim half of your rocks glass with a lime wedge, and then carefully roll it over salt. I like using half of the glass; that way if you want to switch, you can rotate the glass to the non-salty side. Add a wedge of lime.

Whiskey Sour

Like most first encounters I’ve had over the years with cocktails, the whiskey sour definitely was not love at first gulp. And that’s because it was made with some crap whiskey, and (you guessed it) sour mix. When made correctly, a true whiskey sour is made with rye whiskey, fresh lemon and sugar. It’s that simple. I love it with an egg white, too. Don’t make that face; it gives the cocktail a velvety mouth-feel, and brings a whole new dimension to the drink.

2 ounces rye whiskey (I like Rittenhouse)

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup (2:1)

(With an egg white, add it to the shaker first, and then the above ingredients. If you add it last, you run the risk of getting the yolk into the mix, thus ruining it. I’d still drink it.)

Combine all ingredients in a Boston shaker with ice, and shake for 10 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Take a lemon or orange peel, expressing the oils over the cocktail, and then dropping it into the drink. If you want to try something different, take 1/2 ounce of a dry red wine (I like using malbec or syrah), floating it on top of the cocktail. Now you have a New York Sour.

Shadowplay

I was having a hard time deciding if I wanted a beer or cocktail one afternoon. This spawned a combo that I am quite happy with. I named it after the only song it seems that anyone knows from the 1970s band “Joy Division.” Not that you care, but when I’m making drinks, I usually have a song stuck in my head, which ultimately becomes the name of that drink. In this case, it was the infamous “Joy Division” tune.

1 1/2 ounces Don Julio Blanco

1/4 ounce Aperol

1/2 ounce grapefruit juice

1/4 ounce lime juice

1/4 ounce light agave syrup

2 dashes Scrappy’s Lime Bitters (optional)

1 ounce of your favorite local IPA

Repeat the adding and shaking from above, pouring this over ice. Top off with Man of Law. Garnish with a grapefruit peel, expressing the oils over the drink before violently throwing it in your cocktail. Good stuff.  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern pines.

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