4 Batching Secrets from the Cocktail Pros

Rounds of peel cut from oranges during prep for Manhattan Cocktail Classic

As of this week, Cocktails for a Crowd is officially out there in the wild!

As I’m gearing up for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic this coming weekend and many of my favorite bartenders are winging their way into town, I’m thinking about one of my favorite parts of working on the book:  gathering advice (and recipes) from bartenders.

By design, this book owes a lot to mixologists. Many of the recipes are bartender originals, of course. But I got a kick out of asking bartenders to spill their secrets about batching (creating large batches of drinks), which often happens behind the scenes at events, cocktail conferences (like MCC) and bars, too.

Here are some of my favorite tips — some of this info is in the book, some not.

You can never have too much ice. That’s not a secret, of course. But Portland bartender Kelley Swenson explained how to figure out how much ice is enough:  for each 750 milliliters (3 1/4 cups) of cocktail (the size of a standard bottle of liquor), allot 7 pounds of ice.   Another useful metric: allot 1 to 1.5 pounds of ice per person. Either way, get what you need and then get some more, because (say it with me!) you can never have too much ice.

Mise en place is your best friend. The French culinary term mise en place means “putting in place.” If you’re throwing a soiree, before your guests arrive, put everything you’re making drinks with in place.  EVERYTHING! Squeeze the citrus, set the glassware where you can reach it, make sure you have all the liquor you need (and all the ice too)! When you go to a bar early in the evening and they’re bustling about even though you’re the only guest at the bar, that’s what they’re up to back there — mise en place. You should do it too.

Control the dilution. Watery drinks suck. This is one reason bartenders consider their ice so carefully. If you can use a large block of ice to chill a punch or even a pitcher of drinks, that’s ideal. It melts more slowly than a handful of ice cube tray ice cubes, which seem to dissolve in record time while your guests are still shrugging off their coats.

Jason Asher, head mixologist at Young’s Market of Arizona, was one of the first to flag for me that for batching purposes, you can add the water yourself, and then chill a drink in the refrigerator or set it on ice. “My rule of thumb is 25% to 30% water comes from dilution” caused by shaking a cocktail, he explained. (I worked with 20% to 25% as my baseline for the drinks in the book.) “For a stirred cocktail, I like to add ice, then stir it, taste it, and when it hits the right amount, then strain the ice out.” You wouldn’t want to do this too far in advance — but a few hours ahead, and it works beautifully.

Learn how to make oleosaccharum. I swear it’s the difference between a good punch and a great punch. Try it and see.  In brief, you muddle citrus peel with sugar, and then the magic ingredient is time. Wine Enthusiast recently published an oleosaccharum primer if you’d like more how-to detail.

Thanks for the advice, barkeep!

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Blended Scotch Whiskey

The September 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Blended Scotch Whiskey.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. We hear constantly about single malt Scotches, but not much about blends. Some of them are pretty darn good. (of course, some not so much.)

2. What is blended Scotch?  The Scotch Whisky Association provides downright draconian guidelines. For starters, It comes from Scotland.  Yes, this seems obvious, but I think it bears noting that the “blend” doesn’t mean whiskey from other countries can be blended in there. It’s all Scotch whisky (the Scots drop the ‘e’), and it must be distilled and aged in Scotland. However — it may be bottled in other countries.

3.  (aka “2a”) There’s at least one Single Malt Scotch in blended Scotches. The pesky SWA has more to mandate here: Blended Scotch mixes together one or more Single Malt Scotches, often with one or more Single Grain Scotches. For this tasting, blends ranged up to 40 different whiskies in a single bottle (that was Johnny Walker Black Label). A blend that contains only Single Malts is called a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky.

4. (aka “2b”) Wait, so now I have to figure out the difference between Single Malt and Single Grain Scotches? Damn you, SWA. Fine:

–Malt whiskey is made from malted barley (grain that’s been germinated or sprouted), and is distilled in old-fashioned pot stills, considered an essential part of the whisky’s flavor and character.

–By comparison, grain whisky, which mixes together malted barley with unmalted grains (primarily corn), is distilled in a continuous still – a more efficient technology than old-school pot stills, but many experts say the resulting liquor is correspondingly less flavorful.

(*Screeching to a halt*)  You know what?  I’m changing my “what I learned” points here:

3. (Revised) The Scotch Whisky Association is a pain in the butt.

4. (Revised)  It’s a good thing that I have a copy of Gaz Regan’s “Bartender’s Bible” to help clarify the finer points of Scotch nuisance appreciation.

5. Where was I before that peevish digression? Right. Bartenders are understandably reluctant to mix rare Single Malts into cocktails. But they are less skittish about mixing more readily available –and often more affordable– blended Scotches into classic drinks like the Blood and Sand or the Bobby Burns.

…Or to create original new cocktails. In fact, at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in May, bartender Jason Asher created the Northshore Cocktail for my “Whiskey is the New Black” seminar, made with Peat Monster from Compass Box. It turned out to be a lovely, smoky riff on the tiki genre. Here’s the recipe. Enjoy, and be sure to to curse, I mean toast, the SWA when you drink.

Northshore Cocktail

By Jason Asher

1/2 ounce Hum liqueur

3/4 ounce Monin almond or orgeat syrup

1/2 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce Peat Monster whiskey

Serve on rocks, garnish w/ lemon peel