Home Bar Basics at Astor Center
I recently spent a very enjoyable Friday evening at the Astor Center taking a two-hour class called Home Bar Basics. It was taught by two bartenders from PDT, a fancy and secretive cocktail bar somewhere downtown. The idea of the class was to teach people how to start making nice cocktails at home. According to them, it’s cheap and easy to make a drink that would cost $12, even if you use the very best ingredients. The class made six cocktails in total: three in each row, all of which we shared with the person sitting behind or in front of us. The class was $95; buying all six of those cocktails at the bar would probably cost about the same.
The room was gorgeous:
Everything was so well organized. Each station had its own sink and was decked out with an array of shiny bar tools and glasses. I was a little concerned when we got started 15 minutes late, but we finished late too and made up for the lost time. We began with a lecture about ingredients. Fresh is the ticket to good cocktails, said the teachers. We smelled and tasted two liquids to compare their flavors. One was sour mix, the other fresh lemon juice. Of course these guys hate sour mix, and I agree wholeheartedly that to call your liquor at a bar is a waste of money if the bartender will poison it with corn syrup and other chemicals. That’s one reason I usually get a simple drink with soda or just a beer.
The most neglected ingredient in bars around the world is ice. Most bars use what’s called shell ice, which is what I’m used to seeing. It’s those smallish cubes with big divots in the middle. They are cheaper to make but they melt so fast and shatter so easily that you can’t make a proper shaken cocktail with them. The ice we use at home is some of the best there is: it’s in big cubes that are frozen all the way through. So, you already have the most important ingredient! Another neglected but necessary component is bitters. At the very least, you should have a bottle of Angostura in your pantry. You can get it at any grocery store for about $7, and it lasts forever.
We made drinks from the three main families of cocktails: sours, martinis/Manhattans, and old-fashioneds. They explained to us that just about every cocktail is a variation on a basic formula. In the case of sours, you have the base liquor, the sweetener, and the sour part. Margaritas, daiquiris, cosmopolitans, sidecars: all sours. The first drink that my row made was the daiquiri: 2 ounces of rum, 3/4 ounce lime juice, 3/4 ounce simple syrup (a note on the syrup: there’s no need to boil it! Just put equal parts sugar and water in a jar and shake it vigorously, and there’s your syrup.). We made these drinks in Boston shakers, which are awesome. We spent a good deal of the evening learning how to use the shaker: getting the proper seal, breaking the seal, and how to shake safely and correctly.
I had never actually had a daiquiri before, because it seemed like such a cheeseball drink. But it’s fast and easy, and it’s going to be a regular in our house:
We went on to make Manhattans, martinis, and both varieties of old-fashioneds (with muddled sugar and muddled fruit). We learned to stir with a cocktail spoon (harder than it looks) and how to muddle (easier than it looks). The most surprising drink of the night for me was the martini. I had absolutely no idea how smooth and wonderful a well-made martini could be. It doesn’t have to burn!
If you have any interest at all in fancy cocktails, this class will be well worth your time and money. It will run again in December.