In the modern bartending pantheon, Sam Ross is a fellow of epic proportions. Having helped his mother and sister open Ginger, a cocktail bar at the forefront of the Melbourne cocktail revolution, he headed to the States in 2004 where he mixed drinks at three of New York's legendary locales, Milk & Honey, Little Branch and the Pegu Club, working with fellow cocktail gurus Sasha Petraske and Audrey Saunders.
During this time, Ross also came west to help craft the cocktail program at Comme Ça, David Myers' Melrose Avenue bistro, open since 2007. When the cocktail renaissance was a nascent blip on the Los Angeles radar, Comme Ça led the charge in no small part due to Sam Ross's vision and bartender training. Now, many of L.A.'s best bartenders, Julian Cox and Marcos Tello among them, have passed through Comme Ça's doors. Of Ross, Cox has this to say: "Sammy Ross's cocktail program at Comme Ça defined an era of change and craft in the Los Angeles restaurant scene. More than any other restaurant or bar for that manner."
Currently, Ross is busy with Attaboy, his new bar with fellow bartender Michael McIlroy, in the old Milk & Honey space. Still, he makes sure to find time to keep an eye on Comme Ça, a labor of love for both him and Myers. Recently Ross held court at the Comme Ça bar, feeling very much at home as he mixed up a slurry of classic drinks from past and present, and discussed what makes a truly great cocktail. Turn the page for his 5 tips.
5. Learn to use citrus:
Citrus in a drink is like bread in a sandwich. It's the holy binder of ingredients, allowing for a balance of sweet and sour when the proportions are executed properly. A 3/4-part citrus to a 3/4-part simple syrup is your starting point. From there on, you can tweak proportions as necessary. For instance, Ross mentions, when making a gimlet, you use lime juice, which is far less acidic than lemon juice. So, you adjust your measures and go with an ounce of lime juice instead of the usual ¾ ounce. Ross says this is quite common, noting that even the tried and true recipes are constantly adjusted. Bottom line, though: Know the formula before you experiment.
4. Mind your dilution:
"Nothing is a better example of over or under-dilution than an Old Fashioned," says Ross, referencing the traditional mix of whiskey, bitters, a sugar cube and water. It's a sort of Goldilocks dilemma. An under-diluted drink is too strong; an overly-diluted drink is too weak. A perfectly diluted drink is, of course, just right. Dilution is controlled by two factors. How you mix and how you use your ice. Chipped block ice melts more slowly than cubes, while cracked ice (most often used for shaking or long drinks) chills and dilutes a drink more quickly. Going back to the Old Fashioned, which is a stirred drink, Ross offers a just-mixed version, stating, "That's strong because it needs time -- it's 'hot.'" Wait a few moments and take another sip, he instructs. Presto, as the ice melts and blends, it softens the drink.
3. Skip the vodka:
If you're a vodka drinker, it is probably a constant annoyance to you that most of the city's classic bars don't offer the stuff. There's a reason for this, says Ross. With a smile, he says, "I'm not a vodka hater." It's simply that, in a classic bar setting, vodka is as out of place as a go cart at NASCAR. Vodka didn't show up in America until about the 1940s; it just isn't part of the old-school repertoire. More to the point though, says Ross, "When you mix with modifiers -- sweet, sour, etc. -- the vodka only delivers booze." And booze is actually the least of what classic cocktails are about.
2. Always keep a bottle of Angostura Bitters handy:
Bitters are essential in a multitude of cocktails, adding a slight piquancy that ties everything together. These days, there are hundreds of bitters to choose from. If Ross could have only one, it would be Angostura. Its classic profile -- woody, herbal, slightly spicy -- is his go-to because, while he likes to play around with fancier flavors, "the fancier the flavor the harder to integrate the ingredients."
1. Don't be a cowboy:
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Ross's credo is consistency. When people come into his bar -- or any bar -- they expect a drink to taste a certain way. If a bartender free pours instead of measures or makes up a drink on the fly, it's not consistent, nor can it be easily recreated. Recipes exist for a reason -- because they produce the same results time after time.
The above rules are by no means the definitive solutions to the making of great drinks, but when you get advice from a master, you're wise to heed it. And then maybe have a stiff drink.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.