Not your father's cocktail

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My father was fond of telling this story. He returned home one day to find my mother playing cards and drinking with her friends. In a pique of outrage, he exclaimed, "They were mixing my Crown Royal with ginger ale! Why would they ruin good whiskey like that?" He shook his head at the thought of these daffy females, doing such a thoughtless thing.

Well, dad, it's like this. Mom and her buddies were ahead of the curve. They were simply acknowledging the central tenet of the "craft cocktail" movement: good ingredients make good drinks.

It's a very simple concept, actually. If the chefs are assembling creative dishes from scratch, then so should the bartenders. Yet for a long time, that wasn't the case. Liquor choices were limited, and dull: a low-cost "well" option and one or two "call" choices. Commercial mixes and soda guns were the staple of every bar. The universal five-slot garnish dishes held the same garnishes: lemon twists, lime wedges, pimento stuffed olives, orange slices, and bright red maraschino cherries. Maybe a celery stalk in the cooler for the Bloody Mary.

One time, when I tended bar at a local restaurant, I brought in some mint leaves from my garden and offered to make mint juleps. Management freaked out and wondered if I was breaking some kind of health code.

Fast forward to today. The best bars are doing three things well. First, they offer a rich selection of liquor, beer and wine. It helps that there are so many well-made brands, including artisan breweries and distilleries. Second, they are paying homage to the cocktails of the past, and making them in the classic fashion, with no shortcuts. Third, they are creating their own drinks, with homemade sweet syrups, tart shrubs, seasonal fruits and fresh herbs - and bartenders who are as experimental as the best chefs.

I checked in with my go-to cocktail expert, Tammy Coxen (tammystastings.com), for a sample of something she's making that is also appropriate for the season. Her recipe takes a little time, but if you make the syrup in advance, it's easy to make for your next holiday bash.

Cranberry

Bourbon Smash

"One of my favorite ways to use bourbon is in a bourbon fruit smash. It combines some great winter flavors - cranberries (of course), rosemary (for the Christmas tree), ginger (gingerbread) and orange (there was always one in the bottom of my stocking). And the bourbon brings it all together."

Ingredients:

5 cranberries

2 slices ginger

2 oz bourbon

1/2 oz fresh lemon juice

1/2 oz rosemary-infused simple syrup

(see recipe below)

Garnish: rosemary sprig

Directions:

Muddle cranberries and ginger in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredients and ice and shake well. Strain into ice-filled old fashioned glass. Garnish with rosemary sprig.

Rosemary-Infused

Simple Syrup

Ingredients:

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

3 generous sprigs rosemary

Directions:

Bring ingredients to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and let stand 30 minutes. Strain and store refrigerated up to 1 month. Makes about 3/4 cup, or enough for 12 cocktails.

Thank you, Tammy! Indeed, today's bar scene is a far cry from when I mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth, finished it with a neon cherry and called it a Manhattan, always serving it with the same lame joke: "That'll be $24 worth of beads and trinkets." Definitely, it's a different era. Dad would be frustrated, but Mom would be proud.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at nroumel@yahoo.com. His blog is http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Mon, Nov 16, 2015