How to Throw a High-Toned Spring Cocktail Party, More or Less on the Cheap
Becoming a nerd about something is dangerous to one’s checkbook.
In late 2011, Jeff Gordinier wrote a story for The New York Times in which he drove from town to town in the New York suburbs, from liquor store to liquor store, trying to round up all the ingredients he needed to make three drinks — the Nigori Milk Punch, the Mount Vernon and the Kina Miele — from The PDT Cocktail Book, a much-lauded volume that had been released earlier that year.
“As the sun set on the Hudson River and I headed home, my final tab was nearly $450,” Gordinier wrote. “I cannot tell a lie. The Mount Vernon was spectacular. Cost and labor and traffic snarls aside, it was the most delicious cocktail I’d ever made at home.”
Well, good for you, George Washington, but most of us don’t have $450 to blow on a cocktail party.
We will have cocktail parties, of course, because spring is here and we are Southern. The dawn of a perfect Saturday awakens in us a great longing to invite our friends over for a few drinks — or more than a few — in our backyards. That’s just how we’re built.
We are also people of ambition and creation when it comes to hospitality. We like to up our games a little bit when company comes. But there’s no way we’re gonna drive around all day and come home with five bills’ worth of liquor in our trunk or truck bed.
Dear Bitter friends and family, today we reveal a truth: You can class up your backyard cocktail game and keep it cheap.
Allow us to show you how, with the help of a few friends.
I’ve never met a rich bartender. At least not that I know of.
And I know that my bartender friends do not spend great gobs of cash if they decide to invite some friends over for drinks in the backyard on a Saturday afternoon (or more likely, given their work schedules, a Sunday or Monday afternoon).
So I asked three of them how they handled the standard beautiful spring afternoon in the South: Jerry Slater of Atlanta’s H. Harper Station, Paul Calvert of Decatur’s Paper Plane and Greg Best, who will soon open a bar about which he will say absolutely nothing, damn it.
Pictured left to right: Paul Calvert, Greg Best and Jerry Slater
True Tenders of the Bar are hospitable by nature, bless their hearts. Immediately after I asked, Calvert invited Slater, Best and the BS crew over to the backyard of the house he shares in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood with Sarah O’Brien, who owns the ATL’s nationally acclaimed Little Tart Bakeshop.
We’d make drinks, he said. Simple drinks. Easy to make. Drinks that are more or less cheap, depending on what you’ve got around the house.
So we gathered in his back yard, where three dogs and four chickens somehow manage to coexist peacefully.
This is what we learned.
Go hang out for the afternoon with some bartenders, and the first thing you discover is that while they’re figuring out which drinks they will make later, they need a drink now.
Calvert reaches in his refrigerator and snags a bottle of something called Manzanilla de San Lúcar la Cigarrera. A Manzanilla sherry from Cadiz, Spain.
My, it was tasty. It was a little saline, like an oyster. The perfect appetizer (or apertif, if you prefer). But expensive, right? Well, not really. It’s sold in little half-bottles for about $12 a pop, and one of those 375 ml bottles gets the party started just fine.
Sherry, with its relatively low alcohol content, also works great when you’re cooking, Calvert says.
“If you’re cooking, you don’t wanna get blasted ... well ... unless you do," he says. "But Sarah and I will drink the lower-alcohol stuff before dinner, before we open a bottle of wine, because it kind of lights the fire.”
Best chimes in: “And if you’re cooking, like, a great pasta meal, and you’re drinking a little sherry, you can like, ‘Whoop!’” He grabs the sherry bottle and mimics splashing it into his imaginary pasta sauce.
Then Slater invokes the memory of the man who taught every young Southerner about Cajun cooking on his Saturday-afternoon PBS shows.
“It’s the old Justin Wilson thing,” Slater says. “A little for the sauce, a little for the boss.”
Cost of pre-drinking phase: $12 (optional, but fun)
True Tenders of the Bar will not abide certain ingredients, no matter how casual the circumstances.
One of these is supermarket tonic water. Real tonic water contains quinine, an alkaloid that has medicinal properties and tastes bitter. In traditional tonics, the quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona plant. But the companies that make the tonic water sold in most supermarkets long ago eliminated real cinchona from their supply chains.
You can make your own tonic syrup, which you turn into "tonic water" simply by adding carbonated water. But making that syrup from scratch takes way too much work. Trust me. I’ve tried it. It requires shopping the Internet for cinchona bark and citric acid. Then you grind and juice and muddle and zest for what seems like hours.
“And you wind up with cinchona bark between your teeth,” Slater rightly notes.
Well, enter Southern innovation.
A few years ago, a Charlestonian named Brooks Reitz, a friend of Best’s, started a business called Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. and began making tonic syrup. Granted, the stuff costs $16 for a 17-ounce bottle, but when you add sparkly water to your own taste, you’ll wind up with more or less a gallon of tonic water.
This means you can up your gin-and-tonic game significantly for about 72 cents a drink. And you’re supporting a small business in South Carolina, so we’ll declare the Jack Rudy tonic syrup a necessity here.
There is a very clear recipe on the Jack Rudy tonic syrup’s label, but Slater and Best prefer to get customize the blend of tonic syrup and sparkly water by eyeballing the ratio, then tasting the result.
“Wow, taste that, Jerry,” Best says and hands the mixture to Slater. He takes a sip straight from the mixing cup.
“When we prepare things for each other, there’s a general understanding that alcohol removes all germs,” Best says. “So we’re big about tasting each other’s cups.”
Slater adds, “That’s almost like a hiring secret. The person who has to use a straw to taste the drink during lineup is probably not gonna last at your restaurant.”
They laugh and keep tasting. Once the tonic water suits them, we talk gin. The gin they’re using today is Southern, too: Bristow, from Austin Evans and Richard Patrick’s Cathead Distillery in Madison, Miss.
Being from Mississippi, the gin has a story, of course.
“One of the owners of Cathead was fixing to get married,” Best says, “but the bride’s father was a gin man. And in order to get the family blessing, this guy made a gin for the father-in-law — like a one-off, one-time bottle. But it was so good, apparently, so the story goes, he made it into a product line.”
It’s good stuff, available only in the South right now, and it goes for about $35 a bottle. But if you don’t have the dough for a $35 gin (and if you’re not a bartender who gets samples in the mail), then any good London dry gin, like white-label Bombay, will work just fine and will set you back only about 18 bucks.
Best grabs a glass and drops in three ice cubes.
“I’m a big believer in the magic of the trinity. I only ever use three ice cubes. Even at Holeman & Finch, I had a rule where you could put only three ice cubes in a collins glass,” he says. “I don’t think anybody ever followed that rule, but it’s my personal thing. You try to do what you can to appease the fates.”
He eyeballs about two ounces of gin into the glass and then fills it up with the tonic water. Then he squeezes a little chunk of lime into the glass.
“This is called hospitaliity,” he says, “when you squeeze the piece of fruit and put it in the drink for people.”
“Yeah,” Calvert says, “you don’t hang it off the side like Fred Flinstone’s rack of meat.”
The result looks muddy, but be not afraid, because, guess what, a real gin and tonic is not clear.
“Color doesn’t matter,” Best says. “It’s the flavor. You don’t care how light or dark a chocolate milkshake looks, do you, as long as it tastes delicious and chocolaty?”
Slater says, “It’s like the French guy said about the color of wine from Burgundy. It’s like clothes on a beautiful woman. Don’t really matter much.”
Cost of gin and tonic ingredients: $16 for tonic syrup (not optional), $35 for Bristow gin (optional) or $18 for Bombay, a bottle of sparkling water for about $1 and about 79 cents for a lime.
Total cost: $36-53
A daiquiri, you’re saying? Isn’t that the slushy stuff that comes out of machines on Bourbon Street?
Actually, no. The daiquiri, classically made, is a simple drink, easy to make, a perfect refresher on a warm spring day.
“Daiquiris have such a shitty reputation from all those slushy machines,” Calvert says. “To try to pull it back from that hell it’s been thrown into is a great thing. I offer people a daiquiri at the bar, and they look at me like, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t see a blender.’ And then you make them something that’s so simple they don’t even see it. It goes by like this.” He snaps his fingers.
“Then you set it down,” he continues. “There’s no garnish. It looks almost invisible in the glass. It has that beautiful, like, barely green color. Like pearls. And then they take a sip and they’re like, ‘What the hell is that?’ I say, ‘It’s a daiquiri, like it’s always been.’”
Any decent white rum will work in a daiquiri, but Calvert’s twist today is a bottle of Neisson white agricole rum from Martinique. Agricoles are the only rums made directly from fresh-squeezed sugar cane.
“We decided to go with an unaged agricole rum because I had it around the house and I like it,” he says. “And with the price of limes, we only had enough lime juice to make one daiquiri, so we’re gonna make a higher-octane daiquiri.” The Neisson is 100-proof.
Agricole rum has extra heat from its higher alcohol content, and the flavor differs from standard rum in pronounced ways. Hold it to your nose and you smell the molasses from which non-agricole rums are made, but the molasses barrel seems away in the distance. Between you and the sweetness is the smell of grass.
“Sugar cane’s a grass,” Slater notes. Sure enough, you can taste it right there in the glass.
Besides the rum, the daiquiri contains nothing but lime juice and simple syrup made from equal parts unrefined sugar and water. Because the rum’s a little stouter than the norm, Calvert just uses 1½ ounces of rum, about a teaspoon of the simple syrup and a half-ounce of lime juice. (If you use a lower-proof rum, try two ounces.) He puts them in a tin with ice and begins shaking. The other two begin a rain of snarky comments about Calvert’s agitation technique.
Listening to bartenders talk about shaking technique is like listening to physicists talk about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You're not exactly sure what they're talking about, but it sounds pretty cool.
When the shaking is done, Calvert strains the drink into a glass. Delicious, like sunshine and sugar. You can strain the result with a regular Hawthorne cocktail strainer, or first through the Hawthorne into a fine-mesh strainer held over the glass. The latter method is worth the extra effort and will raise your daiquiri to a special level even if you don’t want to spring for the fancy rum.
“Look at how nice and frothy that is,” Calvert says. “I would say that the daiquiri is my favorite cocktail. I forget about it for a while, but then I make one …” He pets Romeo, the largest of his three dogs, all of whom have been barking at the other dogs of Cabbagetown while the chickens peck through the commotion. “Romeo, you want a daiquiri?”
Best tastes the drink and says, “Nothing beats highly alcoholic limeade.”
Cost of daiquiri ingredients: $36 for a one-liter bottle of Neisson unaged Rhum Agricole (optional) or $12 for a decent standard white rum, 79 cents for a lime, simple syrup free (tap water and sugar from your pantry).
Total cost: $13-$49
Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking. How can a mint julep be cheap? Don’t you even have to have a special cup that costs about $25?
“We don’t believe there is a correct vessel,” Best says, “just that there be a vessel.”
For a mint julep, all you really need is ice, sugar, mint and bourbon. And, of course, a vessel. A favorite julep vessel among bartenders is the so-called “cheater tin,” a smaller shaker tin designed to fit inside a larger standard-sized tin. A cheater runs about $8, or $13 less than a proper, silver-plated julep cup.
If an obsession with family-heirloom silver runs in your clan, by all means check in with grandma. But the truth is, you should not obsess about what you serve it in because making a mint julep is — I swear it — big fun, because it allows you to exercise both delicacy and brute force.
“I brought the wood,” Slater says, and plops a hefty wooden muddler and something called a Schmallet onto the table. He’s also brought with him a Lewis bag, a heavy canvas bag in which bartenders crush ice.
He takes the Lewis bag, fills it with ice cubes, lays it on a rock wall in Calvert’s backyard and just beats the living shit out of it with the Schmallet.
“A Lewis bag’ll make you an animal,” Best says. “And the other thing is, when you’re real hot, you can hold it to your forehead and do the old ‘My lord! I do declare!’”
The backyard erupts in laughter as Best attempts to mimic Scarlett O’Hara. The others start making up their own Scarlettisms.
“It’s good to have land.”
“Where is my carriage?”
And, of course, because you just can't get away from it: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
Regional self-mockery complete, Slater opens the bag and reveals beautifully crushed ice. You can spend $20 for a Schmallet and a Lewis bag, but the same effect — and aggression release — can be had by wrapping a bunch of ice cubes in a clean kitchen towel and beating them with whatever hammer, meat tenderizer or rubber mallet you have on hand.
Iced crushed, Slater begins making the julep in a cheater tin. You always make a julep in the glass you’ll serve it in, no matter what glass you use. He begins by pouring in a small quantity of the simple syrup Calvert had made for the daiquiris. Then he drops in two sprigs of mint he’d clipped from Calvert’s front yard a few minute earlier and grabs a muddler.
This is where the delicacy comes in. “You don’t want to grind the mint leaves up in the syrup,” Slater says as he muddles them together. “You just want to press the leaves enough to release the flavor.” Next comes a great handful of crushed ice and about half of the total three ounces of Buffalo Trace bourbon (about $21) that he’ll use in the drink.
He stirs until the tin begins to frost on the outside, then the adds the remaining bourbon, fills the glass to the rim with crushed ice and stirs again. Every glass yields its own peculiar sweetness ratio, so feel free to stir in a bit more syrup after tasting. Just remember: You can always put more in, but you can never take it out, so start with a smaller quantity, maybe a teaspoon.
The finishing touch is one last sprig of mint. Slater lays it in one hand and strikes it lightly with the back of his other. “Just give it a little backhand slap,” he says. That releases the aroma.
He sticks the spanked mint into the top of the glass.
“Now normally, I’d put two little straws in there to make people get their noses into the mint,” Slater says. “But we’re professionals. We know to get our noses into the mint.”
A properly made mint julep in a metal vessel, even a cheap shaker tin, is a fine thing. The cup becomes so cold and frosted as the drink is stirred that it will freeze itself to your hand for a millisecond. But metal is not a requirement. To prove it, Slater makes another julep, this time in a plain old tall glass. Same method. As long as the muddler fits in the glass, it works.
Cost of mint julep ingredients and gear: $5 for a Lewis bag (optional), $15 for a Schmallet (optional), $25 for a silver-plated julep cup (optional) or $8 for a cheater tin (optional), $3 for a bunch of mint at the supermarket or free from your own garden, $21 for a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon, simple syrup for free (water and the sugar in your pantry).
Total cost: $24 to $59
So there you have it. All you have to do is pick one of these cocktails, buy what you need, and you can give your friends and family a fine Southern Saturday in the backyard. And you can do it for less than $20 if you want to (depending, of course, on how this lime shortage pans out).
See, you don’t need to run around in your car and chase fancy ingredients — and you don’t have to have the money to buy them. The magic of the cocktail, according to the philosophically inclined Greg Best, is conviviality and hospitality. It's not so much what's in the glass as the care taken in making it. Just make a little extra effort for your guests, then enjoy the moment with them. Nothing else to it.
Calvert chimes in.
“These guys sat down at the bar the other night and asked me, ‘What do I need to build a home bar?’” Calvert says. “It reminded me of an old boss of mine a long time ago. He said, ‘Don’t buy everything. Buy enough to make one drink, then find what other drinks you can make with that stuff, and exhaust all the possibilities. Then buy one more ingredient and do it again, and then one more ingredient and do it again, and build it that way.
“You’ll see people go into a liquor store and say, ‘I need a tequila, and then I need a reposado tequila. And then I need a rum and I need three vodkas and I need seven ryes and two bourbons,’ and then you have all this shit. You’ve spent thousands of dollars. What the fuck are you gonna do with that?
“There’s something really ephemeral about cocktails. You’re not trying to create a diamond. You’re trying to create something that’s just there for a night with your friends. And then maybe tomorrow you go, ‘What the fuck was in that drink? I don’t know. It was delicious. I think it must have had Cynar in it, ’cause we’re almost out. Or maybe I was just drinking the Cynar. Or I spilled it. I don’t know. I was drinking!’
“But if you can embrace that ephemeral quality, then every night’s a new night.”