Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cocktails for Computer Scientists

One of the keys to success in academia is being able to make a good cocktail. Many a night I have slogged through a grant proposal or stack of recommendation letters for students with a Sazerac or Martinez in hand. One might think that regular imbibement of cocktails and the demands of faculty life are not exactly compatible, though I disagree. Moderation is important, of course; but not nearly as important as the requirement to stop working once you've finished off your third drink. It is a nice timeout mechanism.

Most of my friends know little about cocktails, or their idea of a cocktail is a boring old vodka martini or a margarita. (On the other hand, Michael Mitzenmacher is a fan of the Long Island Iced Tea, which essentially involves dumping whatever booze you have laying around into a glass.) Any time we have friends over I am in instant bartender mode and pushing new drink discoveries on them. So, I give to you, Matt's Guide to Classic Cocktails for Computer Scientists, or how to become a cocktail geek in four easy steps.

Step One: Use good ingredients. High-quality ingredients make all the difference in cocktail making, just as in cooking and any other endeavor. It was an absolute revelation the first time I tasted a proper añejo tequila -- sweet, smooth, not at all like that harsh stuff that you use to do shots. Those bottles of Jack Daniels and Bacardi you have left over from your college days? Chuck 'em. Stock up on a good, proper bar. At minimum, you'll need a nice bourbon or rye (Black Maple Hill or Hudson Valley); gin (Junipero or Plymouth); rum (Zaya or Ron Zacapa 23 Años); and sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica or Dolin). Vodka is totally unnecessary and best left for "fauxtinis". Other important ingredients for making real old-school cocktails include absinthe, maraschino liqueur, brandy, and the occasional exotic boondoggle like Batavia Arrack or Creme de Violette. If you are just getting started I recommend holding off on these extras until you need them.

Bitters are one of the most important components to a bar. My favorite, by far, are The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters. You should always have a bottle of Angostura on hand, and Peychaud's as well. Orange bitters are used in many classic drinks. Bitterman's Xocolatl Mole Bitters make a great conversation piece. I have six or seven kinds of bitters at my bar and my theory is you can never have too many.

Make yourself a batch of simple syrup: two parts sugar to one part water, boil in the microwave, put into a glass bottle in the fridge. You'll use it all the time. Spike it with a stick of cinnamon or a handful of whole black peppercorns and you can produce a masterpiece. Fresh lemons and limes should always be on hand. I tend to eschew olives and those gross nuclear-fallout colored "maraschino cherries."

Step Two: Get a decent cocktail book. Most of these are utter garbage. The worst are those that simply list a zillion cocktails in alphabetical order by name and don't tell you anything about the ingredients, history, or variations on the drink. The best classic cocktail book is Imbibe! by David Wondrich, which is a modern interpretation of Jerry Thomas' original cocktail guide from 1862 . (Reprints of the latter can now be found on Amazon!) Wondrich's writing is superb; the book is heavy on lore. If you want to make cocktails the proper, 19th century way, this is a good place to start. Online, CocktailDB is fairly comprehensive and makes it easy to search for recipes, but I find this approach overwhelming. Better are cocktail blogs such as Cocktail Virgin and (among many others), which are more focused.

Step Three: Make some drinks. Now that you have your ingredients and your handy guidebook, what to make? I recommend starting with the very basics and go for an Old Fashioned: muddle bitters with a sugar cube and a little bit of water; add a couple of ounces pour of good bourbon or rye; stir with ice. That's it. This is not the Old Fashioned you will get at a typical bar (which loads the drink with a fruit salad).

Variations: Improved Rye (or Bourbon) cocktail: same as above, but add a dash of absinthe and maraschino liqueur, stir with ice and strain. A Manhattan made with proper bourbon and Camparo Antica vermouth is to die for. Substitute Fernet-Branca for the vermouth (and add a dash of simple syrup) and you have a Toronto Cocktail, probably my favorite drink these days. Flame an orange or lemon peel over the drink and you are gettin' really fancy.

A good gin martini -- with dry vermouth and orange bitters -- is an excellent thing. Use sweet vermouth instead (again, Camparo Antica) and sub Old Tom Gin instead of dry gin and you get a Martinez, the precursor to the martini, very 1880's. That one needs a lemon peel rubbed on the rim of the glass for full effect.

If you want to show off, make a Trinidad Sour -- a full ounce (!!) of Angostura bitters, orgeat (or sub simple syrup), lemon juice, a bit of rye. I guarantee you're not going to find that at Applebee's. This is for advanced cocktail drinkers only.

Step Four: Research. You can never go wrong by leaving it to the pros. In Boston, the best places for classic and modern craft cocktail making are Drink, Eastern Standard Kitchen, Green Street Grill, Craigie on Main, and Deep Ellum. Don't just order a drink that you already know -- talk to the bartender, get to know them, learn about the craft, get their recommendation. Drink encourages this by not having a cocktail menu; they expect customers to discuss what they like and don't like with the bartender. Usually when I go there I just tell them to make me something good, and they do.

Off to make up another Jamaican Ginger Cocktail #3...


  1. You know, I'm going to be in Boston next week for USENIX. Perhaps I can talk the rest of the Board into a trip to Drink.

  2. As a fellow computer scientist who becomes the bartender at a social gathering, I would like to also recommend "Cocktail" by Paul Harrington, if you can find it. It was on the web at one point as the Hotwired cocktail guide by The Alchemist (who was Paul Harrington). Thanks to the Internet Archive, it may still be found and is good reading and has many recipes with attendant history -

    I have had good luck at parties with getting people to try cocktails when I have made several of the same cocktail using many different ingredients. It turns out that people (or at least may of the people I hang out with) who might be unwilling to stretch their palates are willing to try most things "for science"!

    Doing this, I found (among other things) that high-quality vermouth is more important to your martinis than a high quality gin. In single blind testing, a wide variety of subjects all agreed. :)

  3. Peter - absolutely agree. When I throw parties I actually make up a cocktail menu with four options. I find this gets people to experiment much more readily than just saying "what do you want to drink?"

    Brian - Drink is amazing. Wish I could join you....

  4. ObLink:

  5. Here's a better recipe.

    - put ice in a glass

    - add some high quality bourbon, or high quality vodka

    - (don't stir) and enjoy

    - my captcha word was "Dingli" (irrelevant to drink, but somehow funny)

  6. Matt, what's your opinion of Hendrick's gin?

  7. Michael MitzenmacherJune 24, 2010 at 6:21 AM

    I'd just like to point out that I find a wide range when I order a Long Island Iced Tea. Some can be very very good, and others are just sort of there. So I suppose it is like the pizza of drinks, which perhaps explains why it's my default order.

    These days I'm loathe to order something besides a Long Island Iced Tea when I go out with my colleagues, because for some reason it seems to amuse the heck out of them so much when I order one. (Not just Matt.)


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