by Vince Keenan
I didn’t spend a gorgeous summer weekend in bartending class because of some misguided notion of launching a second career. I simply wanted to see the world from the other side of the counter, to step behind a bar at which I’d enjoyed many a fine cocktail and make a drink myself.
Swig Well Academy was created in 2011 by Anu Apte, owner/bartender of Seattle’s Rob Roy, as a resource for industry professionals and cocktail enthusiasts alike. “The classes were really designed for anyone,” said Swig Well instructor and Rob Roy general manager Jesse Cyr, the objective being to demystify the process. “As a bartender, I get so many questions from guests while I’m working. ‘What’s that? Why are you doing that? Does that ice make that much of a difference?’” The Bartending 101 and 102 sessions end with hands-on experience in the well, Cyr said, because “until you pick up a shaker tin and feel the weight of that ice and see what it feels like to step behind a real bar, you won’t really know the full extent of what you should.”
Study commenced with a Negroni Sbagliato, a variation on the Campari-laced classic with sparkling wine in place of gin – sbagliato means ‘wrong’ in Italian – guaranteed to make minds receptive to new knowledge. The two-day course offered an instructive look at bartending art (“Hospitality begins at the front door,” Cyr said) and science, including a primer on the use of artisanal ice. Throughout, Cyr dropped nuggets of hard-won bartender wisdom, such as “whenever you think you have enough mint, grab one more leaf,” along with practical information of real value to the home mixologist. Rob Roy staff, he observed, always make the staple ingredient simple syrup with two parts sugar to one part water, a ratio often erroneously referred to as “rich.” A 2:1 mixture is not sweeter but markedly denser, adding body to a drink.
When my turn came to prepare a classic cocktail in front of Cyr and my classmates, I was determined to test myself: I would shake, not stir. Stepping behind the bar at Rob Roy to make a margarita provided instant understanding of what’s known in the service industry as mise en place. Space was at a premium. In seconds I comprehended how critical organization and cleanliness are; a single miscue could complicate matters for my coworkers. As for my margarita? I wouldn’t have sent it back.
The main lesson I learned, though, regarded one of my own blind spots. Perhaps no cocktail has a greater literary pedigree than the gimlet, which is practically a character in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else,” Terry Lennox declares to shamus Philip Marlowe. “It beats martinis hollow.” I regularly railed against the cult of the gimlet, though, owing to that Rose’s Lime Juice. Originally developed by Lauchlan Rose as a way to preserve lime juice for long sea voyages without the use of alcohol, it has since become a pale green imitation of its former self, made with generous lashings of high fructose corn syrup. Most contemporary versions of the gimlet omit Rose’s entirely, the result often consisting of gin, fresh lime juice and sugar – in other words a gin sour, a gimlet in name only.
Cyr suggested an elegant solution: an easy lime cordial prepared by the process of cold infusion. Add lime zest to simple syrup, let it sit for twenty minutes, then strain. It provides a much-needed bite that elevates the drink to new heights. The gimlet still doesn’t beat martinis hollow, but its reputation makes sense to me at last. Cyr defined the ultimate goal of Swig Well’s bartending classes thusly: “Whether you’re making a drink for yourself or for 20 close friends, you always want the end result to be, ‘Wow. This tastes great. Good job.’” The gimlet made going back to school worth it.
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 1 oz. Campari
- 1 oz. lightly sparkling wine
Combine vermouth and Campari in an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with sparkling wine. Stir. Garnish with an orange wheel.
- 2 oz. blanco tequila
- ¾ oz. lime juice
- ¾ oz. triple sec
- ¼ oz. agave syrup (2:1 ratio)
Shake. Strain into salted rimmed (optional) ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.
- 2 oz. gin
- ¾ oz. lime juice
- ¾ oz. lime cordial
Shake. Strain. Garnish with a thinly sliced lime wheel floating in glass.
For a 750 mL bottle:
- 24 oz. (3 cups) 2:1 Simple Syrup
- 10-12 Limes
Zest the limes. Add zest to simple syrup. Let sit at room temperature for 10 to 20 minutes. Fine strain the syrup and bottle the cordial. Refrigerate. The cordial can also be made on a per-drink basis by adding the zest of roughly half a lime to ¾ oz. simple syrup.Vince Keenan is the associate editor of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. His book Down the Hatch, collecting essays featured in Slate and usatoday.com, is a Kindle bestseller. He writes about cocktails and popular culture at blog.vincekeenan.com. An ex-pat New York Mets fan, he lives in Seattle.