Cocktails With A.J. Rathbun

Cocktails With A.J. Rathbun

I usually write about cooking. But the holiday party season has begun so I thought we should give some serious attention to entertaining at home, particularly what we drink. For help I turned to A.J. Rathbun, a master of entertaining and mixology.

A.J.'s books include Dark Spirits, Wine Cocktails, Luscious Liqueurs, Party Snacks!, Party Drinks!, the IACP Award-winning Good Spirits and the upcoming Double Take, which is a collaboration with chef Jeremy Holt. As more of us are entertaining at home instead of going out, I think you'll find A.J.'s ideas helpful and his enthusiasm inspiring. Since he lives in Seattle, we did this interview as pen pals instead of our usual podcast and he had much to say.

The City Cook: What makes a successful party?

A.J. Rathbun: Everyone, including the host, having lots of fun. Okay, that may seem a little obvious, but it is something that gets forgotten, and something I always like to bring up. Good cocktails as well as tasty snacks help increase the possibility of everyone having fun, I think, but planning can be awfully helpful, too. I once received a fortune cookie, long ago, that said, “proper prior planning prevents poor performance,” and took it as a party mantra, which means doing as much as you can in advance: getting garnishes ready, having snacks that you can prepare in advance that still taste delish, things like that. I also find that having one or two signature drinks falls into that mantra. If you choose just a few signature drinks that match you party’s personality, it makes planning and preparing much easier. It also makes your party stand out, even in the crowded holiday party season.

TCC: The City Cook has many readers who live in small city apartments. Any advice for entertaining in small spaces?

A.J.: Some of the best seasonal soirées I’ve ever been to have occurred in small spaces. I think you just have to utilize every inch. For example, plan on one of your signature cocktails for a winter party being something served warm, such as cider spiced with rum, cinnamon, hot shot cinnamon schnapps, and nutmeg—then you just keep it warming on the stove.

Maybe for your second signature drink in this scenario you have a nice Christmas punch with Champagne, brandy, Cointreau, and lots of fresh oranges. Then, you whip up big batches and keep the bottles in the closet when you’re not mixing the cider/punch. Another idea, following up this space maximizing, is using a sink packed with ice (or really, clean snow) for beer, saving the fridge for fruit juice and sparkling wine for your punch.

TCC: What basic equipment and glassware should we have in our bars at home?

A.J.: Even if you decide to go the punch route like above, you still should always have a cocktail shaker. It’s key for so many drinks and in so many situations that you’ll be sad if you don’t have one. Try to get one whose metal parts are 18/10 stainless steel to reduce any chance of rusting or tarnishing, and get one that feels comfortable in your hands (not just one that you saw a favorite professional bartender use).

Other items that come in awfully handy are that punch bowl I mentioned and/or a sturdy-but-still attractive pitcher for making larger batches, a bottle opener/corkscrew, a muddler (for getting that essential oil and juice from fruit and spices), a jigger or other measuring device, and a strainer. For glasses, go for real glass if you can (not that I would turn down a delish mix served to me in plastic -- because turning down good drinks is always the wrong choice), starting with a set of cocktail glasses. A set of basic red and white (or generic) wine glasses can be very versatile, too, and Champagne flutes are lovely. For hot drinks (like the cider mentioned above), you’ll need some sort of heat-proof mug.

TCC: If we're stocking a home bar for the first time, what's on our shopping list as we head to the wine and spirits store?

A.J.: Because I like to espouse the “signature” drink idea, I would say whatever is in the recipes you’ve chosen. Beyond raising your rumpus above the fray, the signature drink also make shopping much easier. If you want to cover a few more bases just in case, I’d say pick up one or two of the base liquors, those being gin, bourbon/whiskey, brandy, rum, tequila, vodka, and Champagne (at least the last one seems as important to me). A bottle of white and red wine (or a couple) doesn’t hurt, either. Really though, if you have fun signature drinks, people will jump at them.

TCC: You've written about making cocktails with wine. I know about Sangria and Mimosas. What else can you do with wine?

A.J.: At one point in our cocktailing history (and almost all the time in various locales around the world), there were lots of drinks made with wine, so it’s exciting to bring the idea back--especially because wine cocktails tend to be delightful. You can do almost anything, from summery numbers such as the Maibowle, which mingles strawberries, vodka, simple syrup, and a fruity Moselle, to more wintery weather-beaters like the Bishop, which matched up a hearty Cabernet with rum, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Wine is very versatile in flavor, and so it only makes sense that when matched up with the right other flavors the end result is liquid deliciousness.

TCC: It seems like spirits seem to go in and out of fashion; for instance, vodka has become all about the brand. Are spirits and cocktails trendy?

A.J.: Definitely, in one way, and then not-so-much in others (how’s that for a bit of double-cocktail-speak?). Like many other things, there are liqueurs or spirit brands that all-of-a-sudden seem everywhere, because of a wider release or distribution, or just because of the allure of the “new,” which seeps even into drinking -- a good example of this recently is how about a year ago the elderflower liqueur St.-Germain suddenly was all over (which isn’t bad in that case, as it has a scrumptious flowery, citrus-y personality). Also, people’s tastes change with outside influences, such as how much easier it’s gotten to travel (which makes it easier to taste more exotic spirits and liqueurs). The media, too, can play a role. So, yes, trendiness happens.

On the flip side, the classics, many of them at least, have remained in fashion for multiple drinking decades. Think about it: the Martini is one of the best known objects in the world. The Manhattan is orderable from Timbuktu to Tuscon. There are many other classics that are being unburied too, as people look for those spirited combinations that went through periods of popularity in the past, showing that you can’t keep a good drink down (such as the Mojito, riding a second wave of deserved popularity).

TCC: Some cocktail-makers like to be known for a signature drink. How do you suggest someone goes about developing one?

A.J.: It only makes sense that one who really relishes cocktails and trying new cocktails is eventually going to want to whip up their very own new mixture to entrance and enthrall their friends. This spirit of creativity is what’s led to the fantastic cocktail menus (in bar and home bars) around today. My advice when you’re deciding to start experimenting is to find a classic cocktail, make sure you have the ratios, and then start subbing in different ingredients. For example, if you like sweeter drinks (which, I’m not scared to admit, I do), the Alexander is a great way to start, with its dessert-y combination of equal parts gin, cream de cacao, and cream. Maybe the first thing to try is subbing in an Irish Cream liqueur for the regular cream. Then, maybe you want to add a little more herbal instead of the chocolate, and so try adding Benedictine instead of cream de cacao (this might not be good—but hey, you’re experimenting), and so on.

TCC: What about snacks with cocktails? Is there are formula for what makes a good match? And what about salty vs. sweet vs. spicy?

A.J.: I don’t think there’s a set-in-stone formula (taste is such an individual thing), but I do think it’s a kick to try and match up cocktails and snacks, and there are a few simple guidelines that might not guarantee success, but will help—such as snack diversity. This means that if you’re having roasted garlic hummus, then your second snack shouldn’t be another dip (instead, have some watercress mini-sandwiches, for example). But don’t try to overdo it. A few delightful snacks are better than a ton of less scrumptious snacks.

When trying to mix and match snacks and drinks, start with your own individual taste, because if you don’t think the combinations are well matched up, then your guests probably won’t, either. Use your own instincts; in the above example, if you think the bright spiciness of the hummus might just match up well with an herb-flavored cocktail such as the Bobby Burns (scotch, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, bitters), you’d be right. If one of your treats is a sweet one (never a bad idea to have a sweet option, as people love a little sugar around the holidays), maybe chocolate-dipped strawberries, it might not be a bad idea to have a sweet drink with it—unless you don’t like sweet drinks, naturally.

TCC: Some of the cocktails you've written about have outrageous names. Like "The Set Up" or "Blue Wave" or "The Dark and Stormy." How do you give a cocktail a name?

A.J.: Hah, well I definitely can’t take credit for the Dark and Stormy (as it’s one of those unburied classics that’s starting to make a resurgence), though I do appreciate a title that’s as inventive and original and appealing as the drink. This is why one of my pet peeves is the proliferation of drink monikers that only consist of adding “ini” or “olitan” to the end of another word. It’s so sad to find a creative drink with a dull name—seems to go against the very joyful grain of drinking.

When I’m creating a new drink and looking for a name, I often go to objects around me, especially books and movies, but also maps, music, and the outdoors, thinking how a phrase or words matches up with the drink being created. For example, in Dark Spirits, there’s a cocktail I created called “Ti Penso Sempre.” The drink features Italian-liqueur Aperol, which is light but a touch bitter, combined with brandy and simple syrup, and the title was a phrase from a novel I was currently reading (the phrase means “I think of you always”), a book that was lovely but a bit sad, too. It was a perfect match. If I really can’t find a name, though, I always pick up a collected Shakespeare and start flipping pages, because there are so many amazing lines and phrases to choose from, they just start popping out at you.

TCC: You live in Seattle but travel all over the country. Are there regional differences in how we make and drink cocktails?

A.J.: Although I believe that each person’s taste is unique and individual (just like personalities), I have noticed that there are certain flavor profiles that show up more often than not in certain areas. The Midwest, for example, I’ve noticed has more bourbon lovers than the Northwest (not to say there aren’t lots of bourbon-lovers in both places—just maybe more in the Midwest). However, there are lots of equal opportunity drinkers in all areas, too, people who are willing to try most things as long as they are prepared with care, good ingredients, and an eye towards good balance and delicious results. Which leads to the regional differences in making drinks: meaning, I don’t think there is a lot of difference, because a well-made drink, put together by someone who cares about the end result, is usually going to be put together mostly in the same manner.

TCC: Spirits and wine can be costly. What do you advise for holiday entertaining when we're watching our budgets?

A.J.: It’s always worthwhile to remember that all cocktails are mixed with other ingredients—so, you’re always going to be altering the flavor of your base spirit. But, that base spirit is also what your drinks are built upon; it’s the foundation, so to speak. With these two things considered, you should look for bottles that are not going to break the bank, but also that won’t have a taste that echoes gasoline. Look in your local liquor store or online for good, solid, mid-prices bottles, and you’ll be in great shape.

TCC: Not everyone drinks alcohol, or even if we do sometimes, we may be that night's designated driver. What do you recommend for cocktails with no alcohol?

A.J.: You have to, as a host or hostess, take care of your designated drivers, as they make a perfect, and perfectly safe, party a possibility. And, even if a guest doesn’t drink, or if a guest brings someone underage to a party, you still want them to both feel welcome and feel that your party is a memorable affair. This means you should always have an entertaining non-alcoholic option. I like a tall drink with a lot of flavor from fresh fruit juices, maybe pineapple, orange, and lime, and a hint of spice and bubbles from some good ginger ale or ginger beer (this slight tropical-ness brings a “we’re not letting winter break our spirits” feel, too), for my holiday non-alcoholic signature drink. A splash of cream stirred in at the end also adds a delicious touch.

TCC: I understand you are also a poet. Is there something you can share from one of your poems that connects with the world of celebration and cocktails?

A.J.: I love how drinking with friends at parties, bars, and in more intimate situations leads to great conversations and moments that are remembered long after the actual event has happened. And, I love how poems seem to distil experience in a way that brings us closer (among other things). These things, making memorable moments, great conversation, life, art, and good drinks with friends come together in my mind. And, I think there are a number of great poems about drinking and drinks and drinkers — it seems throughout history poets have also found the communal drinking experience worth writing about.

Though it’s not a line of mine, Keats said it well in these lines from his poem about the Mermaid Tavern:

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

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