Cocktails, diverse and flexible, complex yet not complicated, often are considered one of the most soothing and charming parts of nightlife. The alcohol content counts. Flavor and personalized touches matter.
“A good cocktail is customized by a mixologist based on listening to each customer at the bar. A barman just follows the recipe and produces the drink mechanically. However, a mixologist creates the drink. That’s the big difference,” says David Shoemaker, area beverage manager at Shangri-La Group and a leading mixologist in town.
Leading mixologists in Shanghai say that cocktails are evolving. They welcome the return of the classic cocktail styles popular from 1850 to Prohibition, known as the golden age of bartending, when bartenders focused on spirits in a direct and honest way.
American bartender Jerry Thomas (1830–1885) was considered “the father of American mixology” and is credited with many classic cocktails. He wrote “The Bartender’s Guide,” which became known as the cocktail bible.
Thomas introduced the notion of adding fruit and ice to balance and enhance flavor. He also was known for highlighting the original flavor of spirits through proper mixing and the right temperature. He emphasized the concept of the craft cocktail, making bitters and infusions by himself. Representative classic cocktails include Aviation (made with gin, maraschino liqueur and crème de violette) and Martinez (the original version of martini made from gin, vermouth, bitters and maraschino).
Mixologists now represent the classic with a modern twist. “No matter how we change the recipe and presentation, classic is the foundation, the rule we follow,” Shoemaker says.
He explains that the key rule is using three ingredients to play different roles in a drink. One (usually a strong spirit) gives the body, another gives the aroma, and the other adds sweetness.
Under that rule, more exotic ingredients are incorporated into cocktails, from sake to sparkling wine, from hops to honey, from cinnamon to chili.
Spice is one highlight this autumn. Besides giving the flavor a warm touch, it adds more aroma, depth and complexity in flavor, according to mixologists.
Shoemaker creates a mango and roasted chili martini, in which vodka is mixed with roasted-chili-infused syrup and mango purée. The warm chili flavor complements the sweetness of the mango.
The comeback of classic cocktails indicates bartenders are focusing more on bitters.
“Fruit-dominated cocktails popular during the last few years feature a simple sweet-and-sour flavor that tends to be pushed to the side. We prefer using bitters and a double base to create more balance and complexity,” says Carson Xie, chief mixologist at Park Hyatt Shanghai.
Too much fresh fruit may overpower the original flavor of the spirit, mixologists say.
Barrel-aged cocktails, popular in New York and London while still a new concept in Shanghai, has the potential to become the next fashion.
Cocktails aged in a barrel show a distinctive color, texture and flavor.
“Aging cocktails in barrel is a way of adding flavors such as caramel and vanilla and softening textures,” Shoemaker says.
He was the first in Shanghai to make barrel-aged cocktails. However, he has reservations about their future due to the time-consuming preparation and comparatively high cost.
One of the things that a bartender can do is introducing or reintroducing customers to the possibilities of certain flavors in certain drinks.
Xie, champion of 2013 Barcadi Cocktail Competition, says a cocktail “is one of a few drinks so close to life. A talented mixologist can find a way into a customer’s life and heart through chatting and then represent his favorite flavors in one drink.
A great mixologist can even inspire customers to reappreciate their palate.”
“For example, my favorite question to ask customer is, ‘What’s your most disliked flavor.’ I will mix his answer into his cocktail, from which he finds out ‘that’s not as bad as I imagined’,” Xie says.
Here are eight cocktails made by talented mixologists in town paying homage to the classic.
Strong body, pure and balanced flavor with hint of sweetness and lingering aroma make this drink distinctive, with an obviously masculine touch.
It is inspired by a Chinese dish, hong shao yangrou 红烧羊肉 (mutton braised in soybean sauce with a mixture of spices including clove, ginger, fennel and star anise). Mixologist Xie creates the cocktail from rum, cognac, homemade Asian spice syrup and Dandelion & Burdock Bitters.
Layers of aroma start with earthy and floral, warm and spicy in the middle and end with subtle citrus.
The name of the cocktail expresses the creator’s wish — to bring people back to the golden age of bartending.
It’s a drink seemingly flirty and feminine yet with a solid core. The bartender uses strong and pure gin as the base to reinterpret the mojito, originally rum dominated. A distinctive kind of gin with berry and flower aromas is selected. Raspberry and blackberry are mixed in to complement the gin and add a creamy texture. Mint leaf gives the flavor freshness and aroma.
Its presentation is appealing to the eye, reminding customers of blossoming cherry flowers. A pinky cocktail is presented in a stemless martini glass, which is placed in a larger, round glass filled with crushed ice. The ice not only chills the drink, balancing its sweetness, but also reflects the color of the drink.
It’s made from gin, sake and cherry blossom liqueur, providing body, width and aroma, respectively.
Inspired by tupelo honey, a rare kind of honey originating from the tupelo tree with a distinctive rich and hearty flavor. Shoemaker creates the drink in a ruby color to cheer the coming autumn.
Gin is infused with mint tea and mixed with blackberry, lemon juice and honey. Texture is a highlight, represented by silky granita (a semi-frozen dessert made from sugar and water) added in.
It’s the biggest mojito in Shanghai, enough for four people to share, adding more interactive fun to cocktail drinking. The mojito, following the classic recipe, is served in an oversized glass with ice cubes.
Mojito, a cocktail born in Cuba, consists of rum, sugar cane juice, lime juice, sparkling water and mint leaves. It features a cooling freshness and a balanced sweet-and-sour flavor. It is said that the drink was created by African slaves working in Cuban sugar cane mills by accident.
It’s a long drink made from sweet apple juice, strong vodka and absinthe. Vodka gives apple juice more complexity. Absinthe brings the drink bright green color and an intense herbal aroma. The bartender uses a fresh fennel leaf garnish, enriching both the texture and flavor.
It’s an old drink that can be traced back to 1803, when English traveler John Davis first reference it in his book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America” by saying that it’s “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of the morning.”
The cocktail mixes bourbon whisky, mint leaves and syrup, featuring a strong body, sweetness and a touch of freshness. The bartender insists on serving the drink in a traditional way, placing it in a pewter cup and allowing frost to form on the outside of the cup.
The drink is a highlight in chilly autumn and winter days due to its solid, warm and aromatic flavor. The bartender is inspired by the classic winter “hot toddy,” a drink made from liqueur, water, sugar and spices served hot, which is believed to relieve cold.
Hot rum is made from dark rum, cloves, cinnamon stick and honey. Lemon juice is also added to give the flavor more freshness.
Some cocktails’ stories as flavorful as drinks
Sometimes a customer orders a cocktail not for its flavor but for the anecdotes and interesting stories behind it.
The cocktail made from tequila, Cointreau (orange-flavored liqueur) and lemon juice is said to have been invented by Johnny Dulesser, a champion bartender, who created the drink to commemorate his lover Margarita, who was shot to death.
Margarita loved savory flavors during her lifetime. That’s why Dulesser served the cocktail with salt on the glass rim.
It’s a cocktail made of vodka, Galliano (a kind of sweet herbal liqueur) and orange juice. It is said that a surfer from California lost a championship and went to a pub to drown his sorrows. He ordered a screwdriver (a cocktail made from orange juice and vodka) but asked the bartender to add some Galliano. He loved the taste. After getting drunk, he stumbled into a wall.