martini

Embury’s Six Basic Drinks

David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks was published in 1948. Still regarded by many as a sort of mixology bible, Embury’s book lays down some basic cocktail principles before dividing cocktails into two broad categories—aromatic and sour—and then listing the famous Six Basic Drinks. I’ll turn to that presently, but first those principles.

Principle number one: It should be made from good-quality, high-proof liquors.

Principle number two: It should whet rather than dull the appetite. Thus, it should never be sweet or syrupy, or contain too much fruit juice, egg or cream.

Principle number three: It should be dry, with sufficient alcoholic flavor, yet smooth and pleasing to the palate.

Principle number four: It should be pleasing to the eye.

Principle number five: It should be well iced.

It’s important to note that Embury was writing about the cocktail as it was classically understood, that is, as a drink to be had before dinner. A liquid appetizer, in other words. Sweeter drinks have their place, but only after dinner, and not in the world of cocktails.

Now for the Six Basic Drinks. Embury lists them as the Daiquiri, Jack Rose, Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned and Sidecar.

The Jack Rose, for whatever reason, has since fallen out of favor, and should you walk up to a bar and order one you stand a good chance of being asked to explain what it is and how it’s made. Or else you’ll notice the bartender surreptitiously consulting a handbook or their smart phone beneath the counter.

The others are still well-known and widely-enjoyed. Unfortunately, most bartenders do not abide by Embury’s suggested recipes which, as Principle number three indicates, make for very dry drinks. For example, his Daiquiri contains 8 parts rum, 2 parts lime juice and 1 part simple syrup. Good luck finding a bartender who is that generous with his or her rum.

Likewise with the Sidecar, which, per Embury, should be made with 8 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice and 1 part triple sec. Most of the sidecars I’m served are far too heavy on the triple sec, ruining the flavor of the cognac.

When made right, nothing bests a Manhattan. Most bartenders, however, don’t know how to make it right. Embury lists the ingredients as 5 parts American whiskey (rye or bourbon), 1 part sweet vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters. I’ve been handed Manhattans with a whiskey-to-vermouth ratio of 2:1. Once the bartender served it to me on the rocks (I didn’t go back to that bar).

The martini is the one classic cocktail that many, or maybe even most, bartenders understand how to put together. That’s because it could hardly be simpler: 7 parts gin and 1 part dry vermouth, garnished with either a lemon twist or an olive. The only tricky part is timing the stirring phase so as to achieve the right amount of dilution.

A lot of people have to acquire a taste for these drinks. Believe me when I say it’s worth the effort. Now if only modern bartenders would put a little more effort into learning how to make them, the world would be a better place.