In The Spirit

So Appalled

A duck walks into a bar and orders a diluted drink

By Tony Cross

Last year my company launched a little promotion on social media letting folks know about our bottled cocktails. Previously, we dealt in and delivered growlers of carbonated cocktails, but now we’re offering stirred cocktails such as old fashioneds, Sazeracs and Manhattans, in addition to a few signature drinks of our own.

We’ve done a couple of different promotions, but the very first one got the most buzz in the comment sections. Everyone was kind and excited, tagging their friends and loved ones. A month after the first promo, I received a notification on my phone that we had a new comment. I pulled it up, and it read like this: “Why diluted? Never go into a bar and order diluted drinks.”

This is interesting on a few levels, but first I need to explain this in context. In the promo, we listed the ingredients of the cocktails we were bottling and added that “Each bottle yields nine cocktails and is diluted with distilled water.”

Dilute? What? Yes. Dilute. Why? Easy. When you order a cocktail — let’s say an old fashioned — the bartender will most likely create it with the following steps: She or he will take an aromatic bitters and add a few dashes to a chilled mixing vessel (perhaps with a dash or so of an orange or other bitters); then take sugar, in the form of either syrup or cube, muddle for a moment to break the sugar down to mix with the bitters (if it’s cubed) or use a spoon to mix (if it’s a syrup); then add a couple of ounces of whiskey (bourbon, rye or whatever is on the menu/house whiskey). Finally, the bartender will add ice and stir.

Now, this is important. Why? Because ice is just as much an ingredient as the others. Some might argue it’s even a more crucial ingredient than the others. When the bartender feels that the cocktail is ready, he or she will stop stirring, possibly taste a small thimble of the drink to ensure it’s right, and then strain the old fashioned over a large cube of ice in a rocks glass. Next comes the garnish, and it’s done.

How does the bartender know when the drink is ready to strain and serve? Temperature and dilution. Oh, snap! The bartender stirs the cocktail to make sure that it gets cold, but at the same time, the ice that’s spinning round and round like a carousel has another job: to melt. That’s right, water is an ingredient in the old fashioned. If the bartender simply mixed all of the ingredients together (without ice) and put it in the freezer for a couple of minutes, the cocktail would be cold, but it would also be unbalanced. Without the dilution, the old fashioned would taste hot, or too boozy. 

The very first cocktail book I read started off explaining that ice is as much an ingredient, if not the most important ingredient, as all the others in a cocktail. Admittedly, I was unsure if what I was reading was overly dramatic. It wasn’t. It was spot on. You want your ice made with water that you would enjoy drinking. Sulphur-rich town water ain’t it. Ice that’s been in your freezer with that half-opened box of frozen shrimp ain’t it either. Clean ice. You can have a great rye whiskey, a nice organic cane sugar syrup, and the perfect pairing of bitters, but once you add that old, cloudy ice to stir it with, none of those other ingredients hold as much weight.

I mentioned earlier that the bartender might extract a touch of the old fashioned from the stirring vessel to taste. Many bartenders do this to make sure the cocktail is diluted enough. If it’s not, they’ll stir until it is.

Now, in defense of the person that posed the question, we should agree that an over-diluted cocktail isn’t acceptable. I have never bellied up to any bar and ordered a diluted drink and, to my knowledge, I have never imbibed with any friend or date that has. It would not be a good thing if the bartender stirred your old fashioned for five minutes straight. No thanks. We add distilled water to our bottled cocktails so they’re ready to go — properly diluted with no stirring required. Pour it over ice (or neat), stay calm, carry on, and cheers.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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