In my home office I am surrounded by bottles of whisky from across the United States and a few from outside it too. I keep Glencairn glasses close by in case I fancy a dram.
Some of the reasons I have reached for my Glencairns lately include sharing in a distiller’s enthusiasm when they send me a sample of their latest creation, and the start of all my closest friends turning 40 in succession.
So when it came time to start experimenting with cocktails again, I happily gathered all my bar tools and set to work.
I invited my neighbour to socially distance on my back porch and help me drink them after I took photos, and who could refuse an offer like that?
As I began to think through the process I was about to embark on, I realised it had been quite some time since I had even thought about a cocktail. I couldn’t even remember how to get started. Squeeze the citrus, that’s always the first step in making a whisky sour.
Except that I forgot to make the simple syrup, which was the crux of the whisky sour. I should have done that ahead of time but it did not even occur to me. My neighbour politely sipped what was basically straight lemon and lime juice and whisky while I stared at my bar tools trying to remember how to make an Old Fashioned.
Dear reader, I have made both of these cocktails more times than I can count. I’m no professional bartender, but I have studied cocktails extensively, both through home experimentation and through going to the best whisky bars across the United States and learning from the masters. I have taken classes, read books, and even published my own works about the intricate details of making whisky cocktails, down to pairing the right vermouth with the right whisky for a Manhattan. And I was drawing a blank.
From the outset of the pandemic, it seems as though anything that wasn’t vital to keeping my family alive has been squeezed out of existence as far as my brain is concerned. We moved and sold our house during the pandemic, which was certainly one of Dante’s levels of Hell. We watched, helpless, as people we knew began to test positive for COVID-19, the economy ground to a halt, and I watched as friends and neighbours joined the fight for justice for Breonna Taylor and David McAtee in the streets. Cocktails were the last thing on my mind.
Until they weren’t. Many of the publications I write for, including this one, were put on pause for a few months, which provided me with a welcome break to take care of other business like selling a house and home-schooling my kids. But once it was time to start thinking about whisky again, remembering how to make a cocktail was suddenly a struggle.
I managed to pull together a decent Old Fashioned after some work. I literally couldn’t remember what went in one until I stood there and searched the depths of my mind to find the cocktail folder. Whisky, simple syrup or sugar, bitters, orange peel, cherry. OK, I can do this.
Since then I have talked to many bartenders, brand reps, and cocktail enthusiasts about how they have been making cocktails during the pandemic. A lot of bars are selling cocktail kits, both with and without the alcohol depending on local laws. They have proven to be very popular in the absence of bars because they allow people to experience an elevated cocktail at home. Perhaps the best part is that they come with fool-proof directions, often including pictures, and sometimes the ingredients are even pre-measured for convenience. You really can’t screw them up. But even if you do, whisky doesn’t judge. If you can’t remember how to make a cocktail, enjoy your whisky neat or on the rocks, or pour a jigger into your mixer over ice; my favourites are Ale-8-One and Copper & Kings Ginger Beer.
We’ll all be back at the bar in good time, I’m sure.