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Maker’s Mark: DIY Cocktails

One of Alberta’s best cocktail artists talks about the secret to a great Manhattan, the importance of keeping sweet vermouth on ice and why vodka just isn’t any fun to work with. Oh, and he also gave us a recipe

Jan 2, 2014

by Max Fawcett

Whisky drinkers may be experimenting with new ways of enjoying the drink, but they’re also rediscovering some very traditional ones as well. Witness the return of the Old Fashioned cocktail to bar menus and lounges.

In order to find out what separates a good Old Fashioned from a great one and why brown liquor is back, we talked to Brendan Brewster, the bar manager and cocktail impresario at Woodwork, Edmonton’s newest culinary hotspot.

AV: What is it that you like about working with whiskey as a bartender?
BB: It’s easier to hang other flavours off of it. Canadian rye, American rye, bourbon, scotch, Irish whiskey, they all have different nuances and flavours that you can hang other things off of. It’s more interesting to work with. Vodka’s like the tofu of liquors – it takes on any of the flavours you put with it. It’s basically Viagra for your mix – it alcoholizes whatever you put with it, but what you put with it will be the dominant flavour. You’re not really presenting the alcohol.

AV: Why is that presentation of the alcohol important?
BB: There’s a lot of drinks out there that use liqeurs and sweeter things as well where you’re trying to bury the taste of the alcohol that’s in there. That seems like an irresponsible way to drink. It’s a weird thing in bartending: for half of them, saying ‘I can’t taste the booze in that’ is a compliment. For the rest, it’s an insult.

AV: What’s your favourite way to work with whiskey?
BB: The old fashioned and the Manhattan are two of my favourite drinks for teaching bartenders and for learning myself. Each whiskey will work differently with a different vermouth in a Manhattan, and an old fashioned is where everything sort of starts – I don’t think everyone gets that the old fashioned is the original cocktail. I never stop working on old fashioneds.

AV: What’s the secret to a good old fashioned?
BB: It’s the dilution. The sugar and the bitters are barely there – they just add depth and complexity to the whiskey. They’re not there to add flavor. It’s kind of like salt and pepper in cooking. The dilution is the real trick – getting the whiskey just dilute enough that the volatile aroma molecules are going to come up, and you can start smelling it. It’s like going to a scotch tasting where they’ll put a drop of water in to open the scotch up. It’s the same kind of principle.

AV: Is the a right and wrong way to make one?
BB: There’s a split in the world of old fashioneds. The original definition is spirit, bitters, sugar and water, and that’s from 1806. But bartenders being bartenders, they started adding other stuff – maraschino cherries, curacao, muddling in bits of fruit. It was originally garnished with an old-style cherry and an orange peel, but somehow that fell into the drink and got muddled into it. The one that’s depicted in Mad Men is historically accurate for the 1960s, but muddling a sugar cube, bitters, orange and a cherry into a paste and then adding whiskey and soda water isn’t that great of a drink.
I like to do mine the old-fashioned way. I just use demerara sugar cubes, soak them in bitters, muddle that and basically get yourself a simple syrup. Add a little bit of orange oil from a skin and just stir in the whiskey.”

AV: Is there a way to find out whether a bartender can make a good whiskey cocktail before you order it?
BB: A great way is to ask what kind of rye whiskey they have. If they say ‘oh, Jack Daniels,’ then they probably don’t know that much about whiskey. Or, if you see bitters – a collection of bitters – then it’s like ‘okay, these guys are taking a stab at doing cocktails seriously.’ Another great way to tell is to look at where the sweet vermouth is. Before I order a Manhattan, I look for where the sweet vermouth is. It’s wine, and if it’s on the back bar with a speed pour [spout] in it, it can be oxidized and on its way to vinegar. It won’t make a very delicious Manhattan.

Can-Cherry Old Fashioned


1oz Crown Royal 16
1oz Alberta Premium
1/4oz Cherry Heering
dash angostura bitters
dash bitter truth creole bitters
dash fee bros cherry bitters

Stirred for dilution, strained onto large ice.

Woodwork House Sour


1.5oz Buffalo Trace
1oz Lapsang Honey Syrup
3/4oz charred lemon juice
1 egg white

Dry shake all ingredients, add ice, shake hard, double strain into chilled rocks glass, spray and then caramelize top of drink with proprietary O.P. rum blended with angostura bitters.

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