If you’ve got a little time on your hands, take the opportunity to start a cocktail project now, to elevate drinks later.
We tapped a handful of bartenders for the mini-recipes they use to craft better drinks, from crunchy pink pickled onions that accent a Gibson to Carmelite Water, a storied herbal elixir that can stand in for absinthe or other herbal spirits. A little up-front time can yield a new garnish or ingredient to grab when inspiration strikes. Here are a few of our favorites.
These eye-catching pink pearl onions—and a couple of teaspoonfuls of the brine derived from pickling them—are key components in Dorman’s iconic Gibson recipe. Crunchy red onions replace the traditional white orbs: “The red onions aren’t as harsh, and they’re beautiful,” says Dorman. For the brine, which can work dashed into just about any Martini recipe, coriander-heavy pickling spice adds a savory accent to a base of delicate Champagne vinegar.
Though Clover Club’s Tom Macy isn’t the first to create a bespoke bitters blend, his signature spiced and fruity blend of Angostura, Bitter Truth Orange Bitters and Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters helped snag the top spot in PUNCH’s blind tasting of Old-Fashioneds. “It has a nice bitterness and also has bright orange that isn’t too candied,” Macy explains. Try it in a Rob Roy or a Bamboo.
Leo Robitschek, vice president of food and beverage for Sydell Group (the parent company of NoMad and Eleven Madison Park), started brandying cherries during his time at EMP. It was one of many collaborations between the bar and the kitchen that would come to set the restaurant’s bar apart. Pitted cherries are bathed in a sugar syrup flavored with vanilla, orange peel and spices, then preserved in Germain-Robin brandy, for a garnish well worth fishing out of a Manhattan variation.
A cordial is a mixture of spirit, flavorings and sugar. While it’s not the same as a liqueur, it serves a similar role in a cocktail, and it’s useful to be able to DIY in a pinch. The vodka base of this recipe, flavored with orange rind and orange blossom water, is more neutral than a brandy- or rum-based orange liqueur, so it plays well in a wide range of recipes. Try it in cocktails that typically call for orange liqueur, like a Cosmopolitan, Sidecar or Margarita riff.
Carmelite Water, an herbal infusion featuring aromatic lemon balm, was created in the 14th century by Carmelite nuns for King Charles V of France. At Harlem’s Sugar Monk, proprietor Ektoras Binikos spritzes the fragrant elixir in cocktail glasses, creating an effect similar to an absinthe rinse. Compared to the anise flavor of absinthe, however, Carmelite Water offers a citrus-forward option that’s particularly harmonious with white spirits, such as gin or unaged agave spirits. Binikos suggests trying it in a classic Paloma.
In addition, “our bartenders love to set it on fire on top of a drink,” Binikos says, as it “creates a beautiful blue blaze and a cloud of wonderful caramelized herbal flavors, right on top of the cocktail.” At the beginning of the pandemic, Sugar Monk began making its own Carmelite Water, which is available for purchase. For those who have access to plenty of lemon balm, he offers this DIY recipe.
Though rarely spotted on bartops, a microwave can be a useful tool in softening and harmonizing flavors in a drink. Here, Ryan Chetiyawardana creates a microwaved Manhattan that is best made in batches—perfect for serving a crowd. Westward Whiskey, with its bold “cacao, red berry, herbal and piney notes,” pairs with applejack and a blend of vermouths and black currant liqueur that can “lift the sides of the drink, while still allowing the whiskey to shine.” Simply place the mixture in a vacuum-sealed bag or glass bowl with a plate on top. “You just combine the ingredients, close the door, program the time and forget about it,” says Chetiyawardana.