Daisies, Slings & Fizzies

A beginner’s guide to thinking like a bartender

My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2014

Imagine working a weekend shift behind the bar of a storied New Orleans cocktail bar. There’s a steady crowd lined up along the 20-foot mahogany runway (or bar) and a dozen or so cozy tables filling the parlor-style room. Your patrons pass through the doors, get settled in for a drink and they ask for … well, almost anything.

It could be a simple beer order, a request for a glass of fine wine or a stiff shot of single-malt scotch, served with just the slightest splash of water.

But if it’s a cocktail order, the possibilities approach infinity pretty quickly. Your customer can ask for a simple highball (gin and tonic), a classic (dirty martini up) or a random phrase they heard in a movie once (“Perfect Rob Roy on the Rocks”).

And when this happens, it’s your job, as barkeep, to not only keep the orders straight, but to remember how to create any of a million fancy cocktails without breaking stride and simultaneously tending to the other 60 guests at the bar. Need a margarita on the rocks? A classic daiquiri straight up? Fancy a lemon drop made with your favorite triple-filtered premium vodka? No problem. They’re all basically the same drink and share a common spiritual DNA.

Chris Hannah, bartender at Arnaud’s acclaimed French 75 bar, draws on a palate and skills honed by decades behind the bar. And while fielding complex orders comes with the territory of the relatively recent craft cocktail movement, he relies on a trusted method for remembering how to re-create a world of adult beverages: Always look for the family resemblance.

“All those drinks — margarita, daiquiri, lemon drop — are basically daisies, and that’s 2/1/1.”

The last part — the numeric phrase — is common bartender’s shorthand for a drink’s basic proportions. “2/1/1” translates to “2 ounces liquor, 1 ounce citrus juice, 1 ounce sweet,” the rule-of-thumb formula for a classic juice-based cocktail. (To be exact, the “sweet” in many cases is equal parts simple syrup and a sweet-flavored liqueur.)

Once you know that simple formula you can make a pretty broad range of cocktails by swapping out different spirits, liqueurs and juices.

This “family resemblance” approach works well for the novice home bartender as well, allowing beginners to simplify their approach and see the stylistic connections the way professionals do. Like a nice old fashioned? You’ll probably enjoy its cousin, the absinthe-scented Sazerac. Fond of the refreshing Vodka Collins? Try your hand at the paloma, made by substituting tequila for vodka and grapefruit for lemon juice.

If you’re a home bartender with an interest in the classics, learning these three families will significantly accelerate your spiritual education and open up new avenues for happy-hour exploration. They’ll also give you a deeper appreciation of the bartender’s art.

The Daisies

Basic formula:

  • 2 ounces spirit
  • 1 ounce fresh-squeezed citrus juice
1 ounce sweetener (simple syrup or half/half syrup and liqueur)

When Hannah explains how to “build a cocktail,” he’ll sometimes use the term “short sour” rather than the more floral family name.

The classic daisy was made with gin or brandy, lemon juice and just enough simple syrup (see sidebar) and Cointreau to counteract the tartness of the citrus.

“It’s really all about balance. With a short sour drink, you want the sweet and tart about equal. That’s the most important thing,” says Hannah.

Replace the lemon juice with lime and the brandy with tequila, and you’re building a Mexican variation of the daisy — more commonly known as the margarita. Another variation: Substitute a nice white rum for the tequila, drop the Cointreau, and you’ve made a classic daiquiri. Team bourbon with lemon and just the right amount of simple syrup, and you’ve got a classic (if notoriously temperamental) whiskey sour.

The Fizz Family

Basic formula:

  • Basic daisy + seltzer/club soda

Once you’ve mastered the “short sour” form, it doesn’t take much to adapt that drink into a tall summertime refresher.

Make a basic gin daisy, but instead of giving it a vigorous shake, stir it into a highball glass, then add ice. Add about 2 ounces of bubbly club soda and you’ve made a classic Tom Collins, a perfect drink for porch-sipping and fighting the Louisiana summer heat. (Pro tip: If you shake instead of stir, you’re making a simple gin fizz, though not the complex Ramos variety that’s native to New Orleans.)

Liquor swaps are easy. Cocktails in this branch of the family tree include the Tom Collins (gin), John Collins (whiskey), Charlie Collins (Jamaican rum) and Vodka Collins (duh).

Other riffs: Muddle some mint into the glass before building a rum fizz and you’ve got an elemental mojito (the bane of many busy barkeeps). The classic Pimm’s cup uses a gin-based liqueur as its active ingredient, with less sweetener, ginger ale or lemonade replacing the fizzy water, and a cucumber garnish. Tequila lovers can use tequila and grapefruit for a refreshing paloma.

Bittered Slings

Basic formula: 

  • 2 ounces spirit
  • 1 ounce sweetener
A few dashes aromatic bitters

This family of drinks contains some of the simpler, yet timeless, cocktails in the American songbook. They also harken back to the very creation of the classic cocktail (in addition to being fun to say).

Here there are three flavor components playing in the glass — the spirit of choice, sweet — often in the form of vermouth — and complex spiciness in the form of bitters or amaro (a bitter aromatic spirit). Bittered slings are simple to make, but always in style because of the near-infinite variations and substitutions you can employ.

In this group you’ll find many of our old-school icons of the cocktail world: the Manhattan (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters), the Negroni (1 ounce each gin, sweet vermouth and bitter Campari), the boulevardier (2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce Campari, 1 ounce sweet vermouth) and even the original martini (gin, dry vermouth, a couple dashes of orange bitters).



The Straw Test

Ask any bartender: The primary virtue of a properly made cocktail is balance — sweet and sour in delicate equilibrium, bitters in just the right amount, etc. — and even the best recipe can’t compensate for super-tart lemons or other variables behind the bar. That’s why you’ll always see the better bartenders perform a quick “straw test” before pouring and garnishing a cocktail. It’s the equivalent of a chef doing a quick taste of a sauce before sending a dish to the table. If any flavor is out of balance, the bartender can tell from a scant taste if any last-second changes need to be made.

It’s a simple process that involves a short cocktail straw dipped into the shaker. Dip the straw into the drink, then place your index finger over the open top end and hold it steady. (The pressure captures a few drops of the cocktail inside the straw.) Bring the bottom end of the straw to your mouth, then release your finger. You’ll get just a tiny taste on your tongue, but enough to know if you’ve nailed the drink. Those last-second corrections (a little more sugar, a splash more soda) can make all the difference.

Simple Syrup

When it comes to a standard sugary sweetener, Hannah suggests a basic simple syrup with a 1:1 sugar-to-water ratio. Bring one part water to a boil in a saucepan (let’s say a cup), add an equal amount of sugar, then turn off the heat and stir until the sugar dissolves completely. After the mixture cools, you’ll have a neutral sweetener that’s the backbone of any home bar, allowing you to add sweet notes without the danger of crunchiness. Simple syrup will last in your fridge for about two weeks.

  • Photo Courtesy Arnaud’s Restaurant