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  • Writer's pictureKathie Scalf

Can’t Beat the Classics

It goes without saying, I’m a gal who enjoys cocktail hour.

At the end of a long day, there’s hardly any sound more musical than heavily iced vodka being violently shaken in stainless steel, and no sensation more soothing than a frothy libation passing the lips and warming the chest. The stresses of the day melt away as quickly as crushed ice chips in a daquiri, while you gossip with friends & co-workers, or sit in silence and unwind in solitude.

As much as I revel in the joys of happy hour, I am not a woman who typically enjoys a cocktail at home. To be honest, I am the laziest bartender in all of Tennessee. That is why you’ll only see me enjoying wine or beer within the comfort of my own home unless I’m entertaining; I’m a pour-and-consume type. But in those few and far between moments when duty (or the holidays) call, I dust off the education I’ve received from 20 years in the hospitality industry and stick to the basics.

Because let’s face it; when it comes to cocktails, ya can’t beat the classics.

If you are a person who consumes alcohol, I find it’s only polite and hospitable to keep a properly stocked bar in your home for guests. You don’t need to house the entire E & J Gallo portfolio, just the necessities to whet any appetite that might darken your doors. The 6 core spirits, basic mixers and garnishes, plus a few bottles each of white, rose, and red wine are plenty to keep on hand. Throw in a palatable beer selection and you’re more than solid.

However, if you can learn how to build the perfect cocktail, you can elevate your title from “Neighborhood Miss Congeniality” to “Hostess with the Mostess.” Like most things in life, simple is best. You don’t need to know how to flair like a Vegas mixologist to make one hell of a margarita. Most classic cocktail have less than 5 ingredients and require nothing more than a shake or a stir to be perfection. Invest in a standard bar set (shaker, pint glass, stir, jigger, strainer) and ensure you have proper glassware for serving (rocks glasses, highball glasses, coupes, champagne flutes, multi-use wine glasses) and you’re doing better than many restaurants I visit.

The 6 spirits that should rest in every cabinet or cart should include quality vodka, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey and scotch. I say quality but do not confuse that with expensive- I consider “company cocktails” to be things that are cost efficient enough to be consumed quickly, but not so cheap its embarrassing and will make you lose friends to hangovers. The alcohol industry is just like everything else- in many cases you are paying for a name. Your best investment while building your alcohol knowledge will be finding a good store with knowledgeable and engaged stewards who enjoy assisting you. There are some beautiful boutique spirits on the market that trump Tito’s and Jack Daniels by miles at the same price, so don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations from the store.

Once you have established your core 6 spirits, now you can add your basic mixers. Simple syrup (literally just boiled sugar water at a 2:1 ratio), a bowl of citrus (lemons, limes, oranges), Angostura and orange bitters, sweet and dry vermouth, triple sec, olive juice, some small cans of pineapple juice and cranberry juice, a few bottles of club soda and tonic water, a selection of sodas (coke, diet coke, sprite) and plenty of ice.

In the way of garnish, you already have your citrus above to slice, zest and peel what you don’t juice. Be sure to have some blue cheese to add to your queen olives if asked. Maraschino cherries.

Now you’re ready to learn the most basic classic cocktail recipes. Most people will be content with a whiskey and coke or vodka soda with lime, but if you really want to wow them now you’re armed to prepare a perfect martini or classic old fashioned.

Vodka/Gin: The Dirty Martini. Pour a dash of dry vermouth in a cold coupe and swirl around to rinse, then dump. In a shaker filled with ice, add 2 ½-3oz vodka or gin, a splash of olive juice and shake until your arm hurts. (The perfect martini has a thin layer of ice skating across the surface.) Strain into vermouth rinsed coupe and garnish with regular or blue cheese olives.

Rum: Classic Rum Punch. Fill a highball or hurricane glass with ice. In an ice-filled shaker, combine 2 ½ oz rum, 2oz pineapple juice, 1oz orange juice, ¼ oz lime juice, ¼ oz maraschino cherry syrup, shake well and strain into glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Tequila: Margarita. Fill a rocks glass with ice. In ice-filled shaker, combine 1 ½ - 2oz silver tequila, 1oz triple sec, ¾ oz fresh squeezed lime juice and a dash of simple syrup to taste. Shake and strain into rocks glass and garnish with lime and orange slices.

Whiskey: Old Fashioned. In a rocks glass, add two small barspoons of simple syrup, 3 dashes Angostura bitters, and 3 dashes orange bitters. Next add ice, then pour in 2oz whiskey. Using bar spoon, stir for 30-60 seconds. Express an orange peel over the glass, then twist the peel and add as garnish. Top with a cocktail cherry.

Scotch: Rob Roy. In a large mixing glass filled with ice, add 2oz scotch, 3/4oz sweet vermouth, and 3 dashes Angostura bitters. Stir with bar spoon until well-chilled then strain into a coupe. Garnish with cherries.

That’s it. If you can master these basic cocktails, you’ll be the hit of any gathering and please any crowd. Feel free to add ingredients and make these your own; there’s no right or wrong way to riff on drinks. And above all, always make it fun! Happy mixing!

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