Do you want to learn about cocktails? Maybe you wonder where they got their start. Do you need a cocktail class to learn how to make the classics.
After going to a Taste of Italy wine class last week, we decided to investigate this cocktail class to find out more about the classics. If you have a Total Wine near you, I recommend looking into their classes. Classes change monthly and come with a reasonable price. They even include food, because after all, you shouldn’t drink cocktails on an empty stomach!
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Cocktail class 101: How to identify a classic cocktail?
Did you know that Total Wine has a person working for their company whose entire job is creating cocktails? Sounds like a great career to me! But seriously, creating a cocktail is an art. You need to balance the right combination of ingredients, in the right amounts. Certain flavors can overpower each other.
Basic cocktails combine a base spirit, modifying spirit, sweetening agent, sour agent, and bitters. Although, not all cocktails contain each. Cocktails include about 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of the base spirit such as tequila, rum, gin, vodka, brandy or whiskey. Then approximately 3/4 ounce of a modifying spirit, or cordial, mixes in to add flavor and sweetness. Cocktails need a sweetening agent which can be a modifying spirit or sometimes just a flavored simple syrup.
Sometimes a mixologist adds a sour agent to keep the drink from becoming too sweet. Fresh lime or lemon juice are often used. Lastly, we have bitters. These come in many trendy flavors now, but Angostura are the most traditional. These are usually made from concentrated herbs and spices.
How did cocktails start anyway? To answer this further, we will journey back in time a bit for a brief history lesson.
Beer, it’s not just for breakfast anymore
Beer, the original alcohol, provided a way for our ancestors to get nutrition without hunting and gathering. It wasn’t like the beer of today. It was thick and yeasty, like a liquid bread. Can you imagine having beer for breakfast?
This allowed people to develop permanent settlements because they didn’t have to keep moving around to find food. With permanent settlements came the grape vine which people eventually cultivated to make wine. Although the Greeks had primitive distilleries, they used these for crating perfumes, not liquor.
However, near the end of the first millennium, Arab scholars in Andalucia created a still to use on wine. They found that after several rounds of distillation the wine became highly concentrated. They discovered this new beverage was much stronger and could be used for medicinal purposes. The scholars christened it aqua vitae, or the elixir of life.
After the creation of the printing press, word of this process spread. This beverage was easy to transport because it was concentrated. Plus the high alcohol content kept it from spoiling. Cooler climates soon adapted this process using beer instead of wine. The Irish made this as a precursor to whiskey.
What does this have to do with cocktails?
The widespread new found taste for distilled spirits coincided with the Age of Exploration. Distilled wine soon became currency traded for slaves. Traders brought the slaves to the islands to work on the newly created sugar plantations. One plantation owner soon realized he could distill the by-products from the sugar production.
Hence, rum was born. Distiller found rum much cheaper to produce because it was made with leftovers from sugar production rather than from expensive wine. This soon developed into the new currency.
Cocktail Class 2.0: The development of grog
However, while rum could get you drunk quick, people did not like the taste. Consequently, one British entrepreneur decided to add sugar and lime. And the first cocktail was created. This was known as grog and became the new beverage of choice among sailors. In turn, the lime juice prevented scurvy, contributing to the world influence of the British navy.
After that, the U.S. drank rum as their main drink from the oldest citizens down to the youngest. The poor drank it plain. The well to do mixed it with sugar, water, lemon juice, and spices to create a punch. However, a lot of political friction developed between the colonies, France, and Britain. In school, teachers taught us that tea taxes started the American Revolution. But really the conflict originated from years of abrasive taxes on rum.
Advanced cocktail class: And then there was bourbon
Later, when Irish and Scotch immigrants came to the country, they migrated west away from the coast. Subsequently they used their distilling knowledge to distill grains. Rum was expensive to transport across land so they used corn to create bourbon. Settlers began to associate this unpretentious spirit with independence. It captured the rugged spirit of America.
During the 1800s people began mixing sugar, water spirits, and bitters as an aperitif and digestif to help aid in digesting foods and for stomach problems. Aperitifs are still used today before the start of a meal to stimulate the appetite.
Although these drinks were considered medicinal, they soon were enjoyed for their social properties. In 1917, Mrs. Julius Walsh from St. Louis used the phrase cocktail party. And it stuck.
During prohibition, cocktails were easier to get than wine or beer because people could brew them nearby instead of having to import them. Liquor drinks became the alcoholic beverage of choice.
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Learn what we made in the cocktail class now
I have included ingredients and directions for the cocktails we tasted at the Total Wine cocktail class. For modern cocktails choose from tons of mixology guides available. I recommend getting a hardcover book so it won’t get damaged when you spill your creations on it.
Aperix Spritz for summertime refreshment
- 3 oz. Prosecco
- 2 oz. aperitif (such as Campari)
- 1 oz. club soda
- slice of orange or grapefruit
First pour the aperitif and club soda into a wine glass. Then add ice. After that, top with Prosecco and stir. Once you mix it, garnish it with a fruit slice. Serve this drink on the rocks, which means over ice.
Old Fashioned, my great aunt’s favorite
- 1/2 oz. simple syrup
- 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 1/2 oz. Bourbon or Rye
- orange peel and Maraschino cherry
Begin by adding bitters and simple syrup to a mixing glass. Then add the whiskey and ice. Stir until the drink is chilled. After that, strain using a Hawthorne strainer, into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel and cherry. While garnishes are not part of the actual drink, they make it look fancy.
Manhattan, my dad’s drink of choice
- 2 oz. Rye
- 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
- 2 dashes of bitters
- Maraschino cherry
Pour Rye, Vermouth, and bitters into a mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled. Then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry. When a drink is shaken or stirred with ice, then strained to serve, it is considered served up. Drinks served without ice or being chilled are considered neat.
Sidecar (originally they served the orange liqueur on the side)
- 1 1/2 oz. Cognac
- 1 oz. orange liqueur
- 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
- lemon twist
Traditionally this drink gets a sugar rim. You can wet the rim by rubbing citrus fruit on it. Then dip the rim in sugar. After that pour liquid ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake it until chilled. Strain into the glass and garnish with the lemon twist.
Negroni, the last drink we tried in the cocktail class
- 1 oz. Gin
- 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
- orange peel
- 1 oz. Campari
Stir the liquid ingredients in a mixing glass with ice until chilled. Then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with orange peel. Make sure to scrap the white pith from the inside of the peel. This can cause bitterness.
You can add a splash of water to any of these drinks to weaken them. We live in a hot climate, so we often serve our drinks on the rocks. As the ice melts, the drink becomes slightly diluted.
We hope you try making these at home. Use these as basics, but experiment swapping out the main spirit for another. Or try different flavored bitters or switch up the cordials. Now that you know the basics the world is a blank canvas!
Donna Emperador is a travel and food blogger and copywriter. Donna believes in learning about different cultures while sharing good food and cocktails. She has lived in South Florida for over 20 years and enjoys spending time exploring the road to find unique places to share with readers. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.