- Matthew Schniper
- Sage bar advice: "Know your spirit."
There's an undeniable finesse to good bartending and cocktail-making — in managing the flow of drinks and giving each customer a memorable visit, yes, but also in the skill of mixing the drinks. Something changes between the bar and the home bar, even if you're using the same bottles, and when you try to make the drink at home, it lacks a certain pop. There's a gap there, in technique and ingredients, that may not be immediately obvious.
And it's that gap Montana Horsfall tries to bridge with her teaching business, Craft Cocktail, Inc. She's been bartending at Springs spots like The Blue Star, Distillery 291, Axe & the Oak Whiskey House and, most recently, Moxie for some time — she's been in the industry for just over a decade. She co-founded Craft Cocktail with Matt Feldkamp on Jan. 1, 2018.
"We really wanted the community to have an understanding of craft cocktails and what it means to be a craft bartender," she says. "As a wine and spirits specialist, my favorite thing to do is teach people about wine and spirits."
Recently, I and other Indy staffers took one of her courses (held for us at Coaltrain Wine & Spirits; more at craftcocktailinc.com), learning how to make five drinks. Here's some of what we took away.
Horsfall always tastes a drink before serving it, using a bar spoon or straw. That's foundational for any kind of cooking — no matter how good the recipe, there's variance, and tasting lets the drinker tweak the flavor profile for preference. Further, tasting accounts for variations in fresh ingredients.
Horsfall always uses fresh juices for her drinks. No matter how fancy that bottled lime juice is, it loses subtle flavors and aromatics — and, she adds, it's good to look for softer limes or soak them in hot water to get more juice out of each. For her bar, fruit juice has a one-day shelf life.
Simple syrup, a common cocktail component, lasts a little longer, up to a week, and it's easy to make: Dissolve sugar in an equal volume of hot water, then cool before using. And while a white sugar simple syrup can serve many a purpose, there's space for creativity here, too. Horsfall, for instance, prefers to use brown or raw sugar syrups, made the same way, for drinks made with brown liquors.
When we took her course, the first drink she taught us to make was a Bee's Knees, a Prohibition-era cocktail made with gin, lemon juice and honey syrup (equal parts honey and hot water). It's stirred with ice and finished with a lemon twist, which brings up two cocktail-critical techniques.
- Matthew Schniper
- The makings of a good drink.
Stirring a drink with ice does more than just cool it down, though that's important too. The water that melts off the ice is an unlisted but no less important ingredient, and in a stirred drink, it makes up around a quarter of what's in the glass. It's gentler than shaking a drink with ice, too — shaking a spirit will "bruise" and mute more subtle aromatic compounds. Usually, bartenders will shake drinks that have citrus juice, cream or egg in them, but in the case of the Bee's Knees recipe Horsfall favors, the gin's subtle aromatics are part of the final product.
As for the citrus twist, that's more than just a piece of peel. Horsfall says it should be sliced thin and include none of the bitter white pith. It's the oil in the outermost layer of the peel, not bitterness or acidity, that gets added. A quick squeeze over the glass expresses the oils, adding subtle notes.
Choice of citrus depends on the cocktail, but again, there's space for creativity. When Horsfall's making an Old Fashioned, for instance, she chooses her citrus and bitters based on which whiskey she's using. For a rye Old Fashioned, she uses orange bitters and an orange twist, letting the rye whiskey's spice shine. With a bourbon Old Fashioned, she prefers grapefruit bitters and a lemon twist, balancing the sweeter whiskey.
Moving on to margaritas, Horsfall's a big fan of gussying up the rim on this refreshing drink. We're offered either plain salt or a mix of chili-lime salt and a little brown sugar, each modifying the mix of blanco tequila, triple sec and lime differently.
The brunch-standard mimosa offers yet more freedom of experimentation. Processing fruit with a muddler — think flat- or spiky-bottomed pestle, a standard piece of bar gear — and straining it twice to remove pulp or seeds makes for a fine fresh fruit juice. We try traditional orange, honeydew melon and pomegranate juices, plus mixes to great success. I'm partial to a mimosa with a few bar spoons of Luxardo cherry syrup, garnished with a sprig of mint that's been slapped to release its aromatics. Of note, Horsfall ditches spendy Champagne for more affordable sparkling white wines — Prosecco's a nice medium between drier Brut and sweeter Moscato d'Asti.
"Know your spirit," she says. "There's a lot of history and a lot of science behind [cocktail making], and I say know your spirit as well."
Beyond that, it's the little things that can elevate a home bar. Fresh ingredients, treated well, do better. A little experimentation goes a long way. And most importantly, taste the drink — that's the only way to know if it's ready.