“Double whiskey, single malt.” I did my best to convey the words confidently, hoping to make Patrick Dempsey’s character, Dr. McDreamy, to be channeled in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. If a three-ounce pour of single-malt Scotch whiskey was good enough for a friendly TV neurosurgeon, it was good enough for me, a squeaky 19-year-old with his big brother’s ID at a Manhattan dive bar.
“What?” the bartender yelled at me. I repeated myself, louder but with much less conviction: “Double Scotch, single malt!” He gave me a funny look, turned to his selection of gold bottles and asked, “What whiskey?” When I hesitated, he looked at the man behind me and said, “Next.”
Recipe: Rob Roy
This first embarrassing attempt to order an alcoholic drink led me to several theories: whether Dr. McDreamy drinks good whiskey, or television channels can’t name specific brands.
Just like knowing how to order a menu, ordering a drink is something that needs to be learned. And finding your signature cocktail is an intellectual endeavor – an investigation into yourself and your preferences – as much as a taste. It’s taken me a lifetime to find My Drink, a slow but steady culmination of all the glasses I’ve had before and all the times I’ve anxiously ordered at a bar.
But it’s not just experience and self-awareness that will help you find your potion; it’s having the language to tell a bartender what you’re into, what you like and what you don’t. As with food, “cocktails exist on a spectrum,” says JM Hirsch, the author of “Pour Me Another,” which offers tasting words like “refreshing,” “sweet,” and “warm” to help you sharpen your preferences. For Hirsch, using “language you can taste” is a necessary step in helping people understand what’s in the glass. It’s also, he says, “a good way to build connections between glasses.” And these compounds are ultimately what can help you discover a new drink.
“If you know what basic spirit you’re into, you can’t go wrong with the classics.”
For example, when I drink a Fernet nightcap, I am reminded of other amari I’ve drunk – Montenegro, Nonino and Cynar – who used to keep a diary in front of the Duomo in Crema, Italy. That image from the past brings back fond memories of the many ice-cold Cynar sprites I enjoyed with friends at Bar Pisellino over the summer. Those bubbly drift into my Champagne years, when a co-worker and I headed to Midtown’s underground Flûte for weekly Champagne Tuesdays. Another wine I love is sherry, which reminds me of a martini I drank in Our/New York, a vodka bar and distillery that became my after-work watering hole for a few years (the martini was “dirty” of a splash of sherry). The bar manager at the time, Rustun Nichols, showed me that my go-to martini was actually a 50/50, an evolution of the Bond-inspired Vesper that I thought I liked but had a hard time choking on when I started was twenty. Now that I’m in my thirties, a 50/50 goes down easily.
Your own journey doesn’t have to start at a bar, but a bar – and the person behind it – is a great place to start. While at the Savoy in London, Hirsch told his bartender that he liked Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans served strong – that he liked to be “knocked around” a bit by his cocktail, but that he wanted something more interesting . “What would you suggest?” he asked.
It’s a good question. And it led Hirsch to find his new go-to: the Vieux Carré, a heady blend of rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, and Peychaud’s bitters.
Lamar Curtis, a bartender at On the Rocks, a cozy whiskey bar in Hell’s Kitchen, suggests starting simple: “If you know what base spirit you like, you can’t go wrong with the classics.”
On the Rocks is owned by Howard Ostfsky, who, after retiring in 2008, wanted to establish a global destination for whiskey lovers, not just a local watering hole. A few years later he opened the bar, where you can see him sitting in a corner a few times a week. And it was there, over 10 years ago, that I started drinking Old-Fashioneds and learned what happens to good whiskeys when you add a little sugar and bitters. They round off at the edges. Then I moved to Manhattans, a short but powerful phase that helped me return to my original sin: double whiskey, single malt.
Some whiskey cocktails call for two ounces of the liquor, but a three-ounce pour (a double Scotch) fills a single coupe nicely. Swapping the rye for Scotch in a classic Manhattan, I realized, turns the cocktail into a drier, muskier Rob Roy, named after Scottish folk hero Robert Roy MacGregor. The Waldorf Astoria is said to have invented the drink; the tradition is to use cocktail cherries to garnish the standard version (with sweet vermouth). For the versions called “dry” (with dry vermouth) and “perfect” (with both sweet and dry vermouth): a touch of lemon instead of cherry. Use whatever garnish you like, but I’ve found that the essential oils of a fresh orange peel add a deeper richness than that of a lemon.
Over time, one thing becomes clear: when it comes to finding your drink, the devil is often in the details.