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It was only recently that I gained any real concept of cocktails. Sure, I watched Mad Men and James Bond movies, but I never saw myself ordering one of those drinks at a bar. To be honest, I was still stuck in a college mode where the only mixed drinks have crass names like liquid cocaine and jungle juice, and are all about alcoholic quantity over quality.
This all changed when I started working for one of Nashville’s most revered chefs. I quickly learned that my imagination had barely scratched the surface of the modern world of craft cocktails. And who better to school me on these contemporary aperitifs than my new boss, a celebrity chef and drag queen who owned several bars throughout Nashville?
Reigning hipsterdom culture, despite the snickering from those not closely associated, tends to be indicative of a lot of good food and drink trends. And, boy, do they love the South. While outposts of southern cuisine pop-up here and there in Brooklyn and Portland, you truly have to go to the source to find the most authentic and cutting edge versions of its best offerings. Speakeasies and their craft cocktail wares are no exception.
When I took the job as a personal assistant to one of the most notorious food and firewater experts, I had no idea just how much of a craft cocktail crackerjack I would become. Or, as he would come to call me, "the Poor Man's cocktail crafter."
The process my boss walked me through was like teaching a child the game of chess, slowly building the basic knowledge before moving to more complex maneuvers. It started with the first time he put me in charge of prepping ingredients for his prized cocktail recipes. Step one, heading to the liquor store to select top-shelf spirits. While most wouldn’t ever dare muddying up the flavor of these aged and complex whiskeys and gins, we were truly attempting to create cocktails that were unique and special, thus no expense mattered.
Next step, to product a truly great craft cocktail, all garnishes and accessories - even down to the ice cubes - must be home-grown. Conveniently, the South is abundant with local produce, so it was no surprise when my boss insisted that I go to local farms to directly source ingredients for each of his concoctions. Lush spring-time crops of basil, lemongrass, and rosemary herbs served both as delightful garnishes and flavor amplifiers. Ice was given the same treatment, with each cube requiring precision hand-cutting to ensure the right length and density.
With the spirits were chosen and the ingredients hand-picked, the rest would quickly fall into place. Confidently, we'd invite those with the most prestigious of palates to our tastings to indulge on signature craft cocktails like the Sala Bombay and the Hothouse Old Fashioned.
It was only after the smoke cleared and ice melted at the end of these events that I would come crashing back to earth. I was back to champagne dreams on a beer budget. Unable to accept that reality, I set out to find which of these fancy cocktails - to which I could no longer live without - would provide the most bang for my buck.
The Old Fashioned is the most obvious standout with such simple and affordable ingredients: a big bottle of Angostura bitters, a sugar cube and an orange slice is truly all it takes (OK, a good whiskey too) to mix up one of the best, oldest and most understated of the great American cocktails.
As I continued to dig around, I realized lots of my favorite cocktails were simple and budget friendly. For one, the White Negroni requires just gin, Suze, and Dry Vermouth. Meanwhile, The Moscow Mule, a concoction of ginger beer, vodka and a lime, is a drink elaborate in presentation but simple in creation. With so many different spirits in the spectrum, it’s easy to find full-bodied, flavorful spirits that don’t break the bank like Old Grand-Dad Bourbon, Beefeater Gin or Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
Add in some fruit from the local farmers' market and a couple large bottles of bitters and vermouth, and it becomes simple to whip together solid versions of classic cocktails. While you may not be able to recreate the stunning presentation and fixings often found in today’s most upscale bars, the taste will be just as good and your wallet will certainly stay a lot heavier.
Anonymous doesn't work in the personal assistant world anymore. However, she still longs for hand-crafted cocktails (regardless of the price).