Looking back over the last couple of decades, I've certainly enjoyed my serious journalistic life. But I must admit that some of my best times, my favorite memories, involved not just having fun, but helping other people have a good time—whether by hosting a fun party, deejaying at clubs, emceeing events or mixing drinks as a bartender. And I don't mean throwing together some vodka and tonic and a hunk of lime. I mean creating and serving delightful cocktails—heavenly and other-worldly concoctions that make your toes tingle and your tongue dance in delight: true golden margaritas; unpredictable martinis; saucy mojitos; and my all-time-favorite drink, the Brazilian caipirinha.
As a bartender (never "bar maid")—from ritzy spots in D.C. to the crazy Village Idiot in NYC (which spawned Coyote Ugly)—I would experiment on my regulars who would help me take notes like determined chemists; I came up with a hideous, but popular recipe called the Southern Baptist (after my heritage, of course), involving Southern Comfort and various other additives. I repented for that one a while ago. We would see what we could do with Galliano (that long, tall bottle always in the middle of the top shelf) and coconut rum and flavored vodka. I took notes, believing I was going to someday publish a book called "The Idiot's Guide to Drinking"; my drinks would be divided by color, something I've never seen done to this day. Of course, I never did it.
But in honor of New Year's 2003 and the multitude of parties going on around the city, I thought I'd pull out my notes and anoint the Top 8 Cocktails of 2003; some are trendy; some are retro; all are sure to impress … somebody. And some even taste OK without the alcohol, specially if you pile in the muddled fresh fruit.
Always remember my cardinal rule for what makes a good cocktail (or party, or friend, or relationship)—the more colorful, the better (heck, throw in a little natural food color; it's your party, dye if you want to. Sorry.). The other cardinal rule for cocktailing, which I have grown to appreciate, is that quality in moderation is much easier on one's self and self-esteem than quantity. Sip, baby, sip … slowly.
1. Mojito: I always think that if you want to warm your life up a bit, you look to Latin cultures to see how. To that end, the Cuban mojito is one of my favorite cocktails. Understand now, it's not the sweetest drink imaginable; it does have rum as its base (meaning sugar cane), but it's also doused with Angostura bitters and should be rather dryly tart if done right (the new Jackson drink spot Elixir does them right, by the way). A mojito (meaning "seasoned" in Cuba and "spell" in Africa) quite literally is a feast of the senses—and all of the fresh mint gives it a lovely green, rainforest feel. Recipe: "Muddle" together (with a spoon) about half a lime, a fistful of fresh mint leaves and about a tablespoon of white sugar; on top of that, fill your Collins glass with crushed ice. Then add to that 2 ounces of Jamaican rum and club soda to fill. Add about eight drops of Angostura bitters. This drink can also be strained into a martini glass—as can most good drinks.
2. My Golden Margarita: It is damned hard to get a good margarita. Here are the rules: not frozen; no ice; chilled and strained. No machines or mixes. Fresh fruit juice. Good tequila. NO triple sec, ever. Cointreau and Grand Marnier when you can afford it. Salt. Recipe: 3 oz. Cuervo Gold (or similar); 1 oz. Cointreau; good squirt of Grand Marnier; fresh-squeezed lime juice to taste. Shake in a retro glass shaker (buy one); quickly strain into a salt-rimmed glass (martini my favorite). If you must add fruit, forego the frozen fruit (unless the drink is virgin), and get some guava juice to mix with the lime juice. Mama, mama. (Budget hint: If you can't afford all that good stuff, buy a small bottle of Grand Marnier and throw a little bit into every less-than-golden marg you make. It'll help cool the low-rent burn.)
3. Re-Virginator: OK, this one was born right here in Jackson at Bravo! restaurant. I first tried it burrowed into a comfy sofa at Nick's the night I met my friend Jill Conner Browne, who was out to show this reporter-girl that she knew a helluva lot that I don't. (True.) Apparently, the barfolks at Bravo! concocted the Re-Virginator in her honor; you figure out what the name means. The recipe: three parts Absolut Kurant, one part Rose's Lime, one part Triple Sec, shaken and strained into a chilled martini glass with a twist. This one's potent, and not super colorful—at least on its surface.
4. Casablanca Oasis: Here's one from the "Be My Guest" book (reviewed in this issue) that I just added to my classy cocktail list, partly because Rick's American Café is one of my favorite places on the planet, cinematically speaking. Anyway, the recipe: 1 oz. Stoli Oranj (or any good orange vodka, but Stoli remains the smoothest, especially if you still indulge in shots; personally I left that habit back at the Idiot); 2 oz. Captain Morgan's rum, 1 oz. Amaretto (homemade is good); splash lemon juice; splash fresh lime juice; splash of bitters. Combine, shake, strain into a champagne glass. Top with decent champagne, garnish with a long, curly lemon twist. Oui, oui. Who needs Paris?
5. Singapore Sling: Gin was my first liquor. My Neshoba County mama, God rest her beautiful soul, had a European attitude toward young people and alcohol. She believed that if we were going to drink, we should be able to drink at home and in moderation, and not be out sneaking around and driving and having wrecks (and, of course, the drinking ages were more reasonable then as well; don't get me started about folks who can be killed in Iraq, but can't order a damn bourbon). So when I was about 18 or 19, Mama and one of her girlfriends introduced me to gin-and-tonics and, most pleasingly, Singapore Slings. I remember the juicy Slings that my friends and I ordered at some little joint in Fort Walton Beach that we snuck into as the waitress rolled her eyes at us. Well, Slings are cool with the trendy crowd again these days. And, boy, are they a lovely shade of crimson. Recipe: 1 shot Tanqueray gin; 1/3 shot cherry brandy; 1/2 splash grenadine, fill with equal parts lemon juice and orange juice. Garnish with an orange slice, a cherry and one of those little umbrellas (required; lay in a stock) in a Collins glass.
6. Caipirinha: This is my favorite cocktail, bar none, pronounced "Ky-peer-een-yah." I had my first in graduate school; it was made by one of my classmates in my wee little Upper West Side kitchen on Y2K. Yep, that day. It seems like she was in there forever slicing and squeezing limes for what she described in her lovely accent as a "kind of Brazilian margarita." I quickly saw why all the effort. The key is the Brazilian elixir, Cachaca, which doesn't taste like tequila. The other two ingredients are sugar and a whole boatload of fresh-squeezed lime juice and the meat and peels of the limes all dumped in there to ferment. This drink is pure nectar of the gods when done right. Recipe per drink: 4 oz. Cachaca, 2 T sugar, tons of lime wedges and time to mash and squeeze them. The "Be My Guest" book gives a Cherry Blossom version with fresh mashed (muddled, they call it) cherries mixed it. Sounds appropriately colorful and yummy, but I don't know if I can cheat on the original. We'll see. (Café Brasil in Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans also does a mean one.)
7. Watermelon Martini: I'll leave you with another one from "Be My Guest," because it seems so fitting for my homeland. The recipe is easy: Get yourself 3 ounces of good vodka; muddle up a little pile of fresh watermelon, throw in a little sugar. Then shake it over ice and serve in a chilled martini glass. (The book pictures this one served in a baby bottle. Hmm.) Garnish with fresh watermelon.
8. Blue Hawaiian: OK, one more, mainly because I want to leave you on a blue note. We had a lot of fun with Blue Curacao back on those Idiot(ic) Sunday afternoons. I like to do my Blue Hawaiian with coconut rum just to make sure the islands are fully represented. Recipe: 1 shot coconut rum; 2/3 of a shot of Blue Curacao; 3 splashes pineapple juice, 2 good squeezes of fresh lemon juice. Shake over ice and serve in a hurricane glass with umbrellas and fruit falling out all over the place, or strain into a chilled martini glass, perhaps with a lightly sugared rim.
There are other cocktails to adore, but this list will get you through New Year's night. Just remember: Don't be an idiot when you drink, or drink like an idiot. On that note, do what I say, not what I did. And never, ever drink and drive. Life's too short to be cut short.
Find all sorts of drinking and bartending advice online:
• Great bar advice (Deciding What Cocktails to Serve, Glassware, Party Equipment, and Toasts) as well as links like eGreeting Card, What to Bring, a Ready-to-Drink Cocktail Fact Sheet, Party Cooking, Bartending Guide, Home Bar, and Related Topics.
• Glassware Guide
• A Guide to Bar Gadgets
• The Right Glass Makes the Cocktail
• Bar Measurement Table
• Blood Alcohol Chart
• Blood Alcohol Chart—Be Safe, Not Sorry
• Hangover Helpers
My new favorite drink? The Chocolate Monkey... A fauxtini with chocolate and banana liquers! Extra vanilla vodka please!