I hate to slam the NYT twice in reasonably-quick succession, but I gotta say that I don't care much for "Minimalist" Mark Bittman's recipes. (does he test them? Why are my experiments with his "How To Cook Everything" cookbook largely failures, when failed recipes from other cookbooks -- including Julia's, Joy of Cooking, The Best Recipe, et al, et cetera -- are vanishingly rare?) This goes double for his takes on cocktails.
His most recent column is especially egregious, in which Bittman sits down and cogitates about cocktails, and makes the shocking discovery that they run in families, and presents the various members of the Sour family:
Then I did some thinking and reading about cocktails. It turns out that if you use vodka instead of tequila, the margarita becomes the kamikaze. Swap cognac for the vodka and lemon for the lime and you have a sidecar.
Look at the pattern — you might call it the basic recipe — of these drinks, many of which might be grouped as “sours”: they combine liquor with water (usually in the form of ice), a sour flavoring (usually citrus juice) and a sweetener (simple syrup, or something more expensive and flavorful, like Cointreau). You might add a splash of soda or, if you like, fruit juice, which gets you into beachcomber or cosmo territory.
Well, yeah. And, for the record, I don't really object to his presenting this information, but I do object to his acting like this is a Major Discovery that was Revealed By The Gods To Mark Bittman. For one thing, Gary Regan has been explicating the theory of the families of cocktails for literally years, most notably in his tour de force "The Joy of Mixology." And Regan's hardly the only person to talk this way; a simple perusal of the cocktailian literature will bring scores of other mentions of the theory to hand.
You know what? I actually really like most of the rest of what Bittman has to say: figure out what drinks you like by making them, and by trying variations on them, and figuring out what you like best. But, as I commented on Bittman's blog post about his column, drinks have names for a very good reason; they signify (to drinkers, to wait staff, to bartenders who have three-quarters of a clue and a lemon squeezer to rub together) an agreed-upon collection of at least ingredients, if not the proportions of those ingredients. If you ordered Eggs Benedict, you'd damn well expect Hollandaise sauce. (And you'd damn well expect the Hollandaise to consist of butter, lemon juice, and egg yolk.) Anything else is, well, something else. And it might be tasty, but it wouldn't be Eggs Benedict. Similarly, a Sidecar should consist of brandy, lemon juice, and triple sec. There might be -- there is -- vigorous debate and vast differences of opinion on what proportions to use when combining these ingredients, and what sort of glass to serve it in, and whether to sugar the rim, but no one seriously advocates that a Sidecar with Campari, or barleywine, or Clamato added is still a Sidecar.
And, while I'm at it, let me address the video that accompanies the column: First off, Bittman addresses the camera and says "I'm not a big cocktail drinker, but I do make cocktails for other people." I submit that that's his first problem right there. I don't believe that one has to be a cocktail expert or even a "big cocktail drinker" to make good cocktails...but if you're making drinks for other people, you should have a basic sense of the flavor profiles of the classics, and be willing to taste your way through your efforts to evaluate how close you're coming to your goal.
Some other things that occurred to me:
- In Bittman's mojito recipe? "No muddling (too much work, too showy, and I don’t even like the sound of the word)." If you don't like muddling, that's fine. Don't do it. But before you dismiss the technique out of hand, know that it's done for a reason, one that affects the taste and feel of the finished drink, and it's not just for show. (Doesn't take too much work, either.) And it should go without saying, but skipping a step because you don't care for how it sounds when you pronounce it? Bizarre.
- Bittman also refers to "something sour, like lime juice or bitters." Bzzzt! Bitters are bitter. Citrus juices like lime and lemon are sour. They're not only different flavors, they're different kingdoms of taste;
- Yes, lots of old cocktails have recipes to make pitcher-size quantities. But that's not what a spoon is for -- a spoon's for stirring drinks, pure and simple. As I've noted here before, clear cocktails are traditionally stirred, while cocktails with citrus or cream ingredients are traditionally shaken, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. At least, nothing like "spoons are for pitchers only."
- Look at the video. A classic Margarita that meets with the approval of Bittman and owner/chef Michael Lomonaco "and his barman, Brad" at Porter House consists of tequila, simple syrup, and lime juice? Unconscionable. Bittman may dismiss this as quibblings of a purist or snob, but a Margarita without triple sec (I prefer Cointreau -- see, that's the quibbling of a snob for you) simply loses the right to be called a Margarita. It's a tequila sour. This has taught me precisely one thing: not to order a cocktail at Porter House.
(The Times also tackles blender drinks, and does a fine job.)