One summer evening a few years back I was sitting at my favorite local watering hole absorbing excellent cocktails and free advice. “Julian,” I asked the bartender, "why are your drinks so much better than the ones I make at home with the exact same ingredients?” He smiled. “Because I am aware of exactly how much water I want the ice to shed into each drink.” And there it was. Within two weeks the quality of my home-drinks had increased three-fold.
Water as the secret ingredient in great cocktails seems, at first, a head-slapper. Obviously ice melts while stirring or shaking a drink, but getting the most out of this action takes some thought and no little practice. Considering melted ice an ingredient is step one. Then consider quality, mass, and proof.
The first two are pretty simple. Don’t pollute that $30 gin with bad tap-water — if you wouldn’t drink it from a glass, don’t pour it into your ice cube tray. If you mix with too little ice, too much of it will melt before the drink is properly chilled. As a rule, more ice equals more control — use a lot — it should be piled up out of the liquid in the glass or shaker, and use whole cubes, not fragments.
The real trick is controlling proof: You have to consider how much you want to lower the alcohol content of your drink. You’ve noticed by now that more gin means more “burn” on your tongue — but it doesn’t have to. Keep swirling it with ice for a few more seconds and that 7:1 martini is just as easy to sip as the one that’s half vermouth. Like Mio or cold-brew coffee, liquor is bottled strong for efficiency. Why ship and store water when it's universally available? General awareness of proof of your ingredients and “in the glass” before, during, and after mixing should absolutely inform your mixing process. There’s no need for complex calculations or a hydrometer — just taste off the spoon as you go. Pay special attention to “burn," and minimize it without eliminating it. You will learn in time to sense other characteristics as well.
Do I have an easy rule of thumb? Kind of — it still mostly takes a touch. First, it helps if I’ve made the drink before and know what I’m shooting for, and I often do taste a spoonful before straining. But, mostly, I use my nose. I can’t explain precisely what I’m sniffing for but to say that the mixture sort of “sweetens” or gets more floral or mellow (depending) just all of the sudden. It just smells different; it opens up somehow. It works for me, anyway — give it a try if you’d like. It does look weird if other people are watching.
Homework: Pour a half shot of gin, taste it, then add a few drops of water, taste again, add, etc. Note how the sensation and flavor changes until it finally goes all watery. Then, mix a 2:1 (gin:vermouth) martini, diluting to taste. Finally, mix a 4 (or more):1, also exercising proper dilution. They will taste different but should both drink with the same ease and lack of burn or “heat” as a result of being about the same proof. Now that’s pleasant.
Next week: bitters and garnish. Drink well.