by Marty Demarest
If you're one of the most influential bartenders in the world, it's easy to mix a drink as imposing as a double dry Martini using a plastic children's spoon and a souvenir glass. Paul Harrington isn't even fazed by the tacky paraphernalia as he tips the caramel-colored elixir into several waiting martini glasses, and tops them with twists of lemon.
"The equipment is not the most important thing," Harrington chuckles. "Anyone can MacGyver a drink. I've done it with sippy cups and fishing tackle."
That attitude -- that serious cocktails are something accessible to everyone without too much mystery -- has earned Harrington some serious attention in the culinary world. Wired tapped him to host its popular Web site cocktailtime.com, and Bacardi has recently hired him as a consultant and mixmaster for their upcoming bar.tv site. He also wrote Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, which remains the only book devoted to spirits nominated for the prestigious James Beard award. But even when flying off to mix daiquiris at Microsoft functions and answering questions for the New York Times, Spokane resident Harrington has maintained that simplicity is the key to any good drink.
"The important thing to keep in mind when mixing a drink," he says, "is that the drink will be no better than the ingredients used. That means buy fresh fruit, quality distilled spirits and fresh, clean, cold ice. After that, it's just a recipe."
That's an encouraging thought during difficult financial times like these, because fancy cocktail parties are for when the economy is strong. During a recession, even at the most lighthearted of gatherings you can see people circulating, clutching their gin-and-tonics, concentrating on anything but fun. And if you're being honest -- really honest -- going to a bar just to be seen, dropping four, five, even seven dollars on every glass of alluring liquid seems to be an excess better enjoyed with flush bank accounts.
But Americans have a history of wanting their tough times lubricated with a little good cheer. That's probably why a few years into the Great Depression, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment, and drinking became a legal activity in the United States for the first time in 13 years. Prohibition, which Herbert Hoover had called "the Noble Experiment," was brushed under the rug of history by the time that Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "I think this would be a good time for a beer," and turned the economy around.
Even now, while drinks may not be able to calm the currently fluctuating stock market or replace the gaps left in the U.S. economy by the last few months, they can offer a remarkably good time. So for those of you looking to celebrate St. Patrick's Day without denting your finances, consider inviting some friends over and starting a bar at your home. It's probably easier than you think, and the skills you pick up now will last you through economic boom and bust.
"The first thing to remember," Harrington says about making cocktails at home, "is that the ultimate point is for everyone to have fun. Your guests will probably always be very happy with what you make them - don't worry about it. Keep it simple. Serve only one or two things, and don't give choices. Be authoritative and confident in what you're serving. With some basic knowledge and just a few bottles, you can make great drinks."
One of the ways that Harrington's book has set itself off from the crowd of pretty-but-useless cocktail tomes is in its section "Stocking the Home Bar." In just a few inches, Harrington lays out a plan for what you'll want if three, six, nine or 12 bottles lie within your budget. Any one of the lists would provide sufficient material for several parties.
But even the most enthusiastic home bartender could use some guidance. Harrington's book (which is available at Joel and Vino!) is the perfect place to start. More than just a collection of recipes, it tells you exactly why a cocktail tastes the way that it does and explains how to achieve that effect. There are also some fascinating histories given for some classic drinks, and a dense two-page bibliography for anyone wanting to learn more. Each recipe also comes rated in terms of both taste and mixing complexity.
Harrington does, however, suggest a few pieces of basic equipment that can make the job easier. A simple cocktail shaker ($32, Williams Sonoma) can become the vehicle for countless drinks if purchased correctly: simple, metal and with a strainer at the top. Avoid anything more complex, like the "Super Chill Shaker" ($55, Restoration Hardware), which promises cold drinks, but weighs more empty than a simple shaker would completely full.
Also handy is a set of tools like spoons, juicers and strainers. None of these things is completely necessary, but they will make some procedures easier. Particularly useful, however, is a jigger, which measures alcohol. Restoration Hardware sells a simple version ($5) that empties into the shaker with the twist of a wrist, and the aptly named "Keeper's Friend," ($25) which contains a jigger, corkscrew, bottle opener and ice hammer.
Perhaps the most important and easiest-to-obtain items, are glasses. Buy them new, but resist the temptation to splurge on anything too large: Cocktails are usually only a few ounces of liquid. The Roma Martini glasses ($5 from Pottery Barn) are appropriately sized and would work for hundreds of different drinks. But don't overlook antique and second-hand stores, which often have, for just a few dollars, beautiful glasses that can't be found elsewhere.
Once you have the basics for a good bar, it's time to start crafting drinks. "Make something that you are familiar with," Harrington advises, "something that you've seen elsewhere or know that you like. Maybe start with sweeter drinks, because they're easier to drink, and they taste less complex.
"And learn how to serve a proper Old Fashioned. It seems very simple, but plenty of ice and the right proportion of whiskey to soda and sugar is a fundamental principle. You know that you've done it right when you can taste the alcohol without being hit with it."