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How to Mix Up Autumn Cocktails

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SUZANNE PODHAIZER
  • Suzanne Podhaizer

I didn't realize I didn't know how to shake and serve cocktails until I saw 109 thirsty guests lined up in front of me, polished shoes planted on a hillside in the late summer sun, sweltering in jackets and long dresses. They were thirsty. I was out of my element.

I'd agreed to invent a collection of signature cocktails for a wedding. Agreeing was the easy part. A seasoned recipe developer, I was excited about coming up with drinks that would show off the flavors of the season while also representing something about the bride and groom's story. (They're big on bourbon and lemon, for instance, so using those together was a given.)

I'd agreed to serve those cocktails, plus a few basic drinks such as vodka soda and gin and tonic, at the event. No problem, right? If I'd invented the things, surely I could mix them?

The first seven or eight guests stepped up to me and my friend, an actual bartender working the gig, who had helped me refine the drink recipes. Through my teeth, I whispered, "Hey, how do you make a gin and tonic?" He gave me a withering look and said, "You combine gin and tonic."

He made the drink. I watched and learned.

We got through the wedding, and, while I may have fumbled the shaker a couple times and put too few rocks in some glasses and too many in others, we didn't leave anyone thirsty. Happily, our signature drinks got rave reviews.

The experience taught me that mixing cocktails isn't as intuitive as I'd thought. Nor is, say, making a simple syrup, which is key to my signature recipes spotlighting autumnal flavors. So, before I pass along those recipes, here's a brief guide to the art of crafting and mixing drinks.

The Process

Fresh mint and lemon peel for simple syrup - SUZANNE PODHAIZER
  • Suzanne Podhaizer
  • Fresh mint and lemon peel for simple syrup

It's one thing to follow recipes, but another to concoct your own drinks. Understanding ratios is a great way to start. One simple ratio for a good cocktail is two ounces of booze, one ounce of something sour and one ounce of something sweet.

Lemon and lime juice may be the most common sour ingredients, but there are others. For savory cocktails, one could use pickle brine or vinegar, for instance.

When it comes to sweet stuff, knowing how to make creative simple syrups is a crucial trick. A "simple," as it's called in the trade, is one of the best ways to impart flavor without texture, using a solution of sugar and water as the vehicle.

Then there's the mixing itself. Fill a shaker halfway with ice, add booze followed by other ingredients, shake hard for at least 30 seconds and pour into an appropriate glass (which is anything you want to drink out of) with a bit of ice to keep the drink cool, if desired.

Some bartenders prefer to add ice at the end to minimize melt, while others add the mixers to the shaker before the booze. As a novice, I like to get the ice in there so I don't have to worry about it. I add the booze next because, if I over-pour the hard stuff, it's easy to adjust the rest of the drink to match.

When does one stir instead of shake? Classically, when a drink is composed purely of alcohol (such as a martini).

If you want bigger drinks without adding more alcohol, a few splashes of soda (such as seltzer or ginger beer), tonic, or juice can help keep your guests from getting tipsy so quickly. Just remember that any time you add water, even if that water is effervescent, you're diluting the flavors of the drink. And don't shake the fizzy stuff; gently stir it in after the rest of the ingredients are in the glass.

As with all recipes, taste and adjust these to your liking. Want a stronger punch? Bump up the amount of alcohol. Don't like things too sweet? Dial back on the syrup. Your perfect signature drink is just a tweak away.

Rich Simple Syrup

A regular simple syrup is made with a 1-to-1 ratio of sugar and water. A rich simple syrup, with a 2-to-1 ratio, will bring more flavor to the drink with less dilution. This recipe makes about four cups, enough for 32 drinks, and will keep in the fridge for several weeks. Simple syrup can be flavored with all kinds of things: beet, celery, black pepper, bacon, ginger, you name it. Get crazy!

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • Ingredients that add flavor, color or both in a form that will allow their aromatics to steep into the syrup. So, if you have something big or tough, cut it into smaller pieces. The tougher the ingredient, the smaller the chunks. Ginger can be cut into very small pieces, but a not-quite-ripe pear can be left in cubes.

Preparation:

  1. Make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and the water. Slowly bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring regularly until the sugar is dissolved. Then turn up the heat a bit more, so the liquid is at a fast simmer.
  2. If you're using flavoring ingredients that are tough or need time to steep in the hot syrup — such as beet, pear, winter squash, rosemary, lemon peel or dried whole spices — add them now.
  3. Simmer until the liquid is the consistency of maple syrup. It should coat a spoon and have a nice, thick mouthfeel. If you're using more tender ingredients for flavoring — such as mint or basil — add them now.
  4. As soon as your tender flavoring ingredients have been added, remove the syrup from the heat and let the ingredients steep while the syrup cools.
  5. Strain the mixture through a sieve into clean mason jars. Label those jars, so you don't forget what you made. Store in the refrigerator.

Bourbon, Lemon and Mint

Ingredients:

For the lemon-mint syrup:

  • Zest of two lemons (use the juice for the drink)
  • 2 cups honey
  • 1 bunch spearmint

For the cocktail:

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce lemon-mint syrup
  • 1 ounce lemon juice

Preparation:

  1. Make the lemon-mint syrup: Follow the simple syrup instructions above, but substitute two cups of honey for two of the cups of sugar. When the sugar is just dissolved, add the lemon zest. Meanwhile, pull the mint leaves off the stems and rinse. Add the mint right before you remove the syrup from the heat.
  2. Assemble the cocktail: Shake per the instructions above. Serve over ice. This drink can also be served warm.

Tequila, Cider and Rosemary

Because cider is both sweet and acidic, this drink has a slightly different ratio. This recipe yields half a gallon of cider reduction; try adding the leftovers to a stew or mixing them with seltzer to make apple soda. I double down on the rosemary by putting it into the cider and the syrup.

Ingredients:

For the cider reduction:

  • 1 gallon cider
  • 3 branches rosemary

For the rosemary syrup:

  • Simple syrup (recipe above)
  • 2 branches rosemary

For the cocktail:

  • 2 ounces reposado tequila
  • 1 ½ ounces cider reduction
  • ½ ounce rosemary simple syrup
  • 1 ounce lemon juice

Preparation:

  1. Make the cider reduction: Pour cider into a medium saucepan. Add rosemary. Boil until the cider has been reduced by half. Let sit until cool. Strain and reserve.
  2. Make the rosemary syrup: Follow the simple syrup instructions above, adding the rosemary once the sugar has dissolved.
  3. Assemble: Shake per the instructions above. Serve over ice. This drink can also be served warm.

Gin, Pear and Thyme

Ingredients:

For the pear-thyme syrup:

  • 2 firm Bosc pears, cubed
  • 4 sprigs thyme

For the cocktail:

  • 2 ounces Barr Hill Gin (the light honey flavor of the gin works nicely with the fruit and herb syrup)
  • 1 ounce pear-thyme syrup
  • 1 ounce lemon juice

Preparation:

  1. Make the pear-thyme syrup: Follow the simple syrup instructions above. Add the pear when the sugar is just dissolved. Add the sprigs of thyme just before turning off the heat. After you strain the syrup, you should eat the pear!
  2. Assemble: Shake per the instructions above. Serve over ice. If you want to stretch the drink a little further, adding some nice ginger beer wouldn't be amiss.

Vodka, Cardamom and Rose

Ingredients:

For the cardamom syrup:

  • 8 cardamom pods, crushed a bit

For the cocktail:

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • 1 ounce cardamom syrup
  • 1 teaspoon rosewater
  • 1 ounce lime juice

Preparation:

  1. Make the cardamom syrup: Follow the simple syrup instructions above. Add the cardamom when the sugar is just dissolved.
  2. Assemble: Shake per the instructions above. Serve over ice. A little seltzer is nice in this drink.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Simples of the Season"

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