Macbeth was so “of the moment” when he quoth that bit about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeping in its petty pace from day to day. He must have been huffing micro-droplets to conjure such a crystal vision of social isolation in the pandemic. You can scroll through the Bryant calendar until the last syllable of recorded time without bumping over anything but a now-cancelled dental appointment and “turn clk bk 1 hr.” In this featureless social landscape, cocktail hour at our house is no longer an option—it’s an anchor. It’s an event you can count on. It’s conversation and refreshment as the sun drops below the trees. It’s an opportunity to see if we, as a couple, continue to share our deep understanding of what day of the week it is.
If we could have foreseen, like squirrels gathering nuts for winter, that our stockpile of cocktail ingredients would need to outlast global catastrophe, I wouldn’t be shaking an empty Angostura bottle over a forlorn Manhattan that will forever lack complexity. This dwindling of standard ingredients has forced a gradual parting from the canon of classic cocktails, but it has also brought the excitement of stepping into new terrain. I’m no longer an acolyte reverently following a near-monastic tradition; now, I feel like I’m stepping out of the sheltering forest into the open savanna, hunting and gathering with nothing but a sharp stick and reed basket. And, in fact, it’s outdoors where I’ve found the best flavors.
Garden herbs such as basil, tarragon, rosemary, fennel and mint can be muddled in the bottom of your mixing glass to lend an exotic note to any concoction. You’ll have to play with proportions: Use mint and basil by the handful; easy with the rosemary and tarragon. Muddled cucumber and celery, too, add subtle flavor and even a little texture. But that’s just a start. Think of our present circumstances as license to loosen up. Do anything; get messy. Be Jackson Pollack, not Vermeer.
Besides muddling, another easy way to add character to a drink is by infusing simple syrup. Simple syrup is as easy as its name implies: Combine equal parts sugar and water, then boil until the sugar dissolves. But here’s the thing: You can add any herb or spice you fancy. After the sugar dissolves, let it steep for a couple of hours, then strain into a container. It can last up to a month in the fridge. My neighbors, Allan and Jen, have made delicious infusions using mimosa puffs and magnolia, honeysuckle and kudzu blossoms. Or try infusing some cardamom pods or star anise from the spice cabinet. A teaspoon of infusion can even make a bland vodka tonic memorable.
Another fun way to generate a cocktail is to go ur: Take a cocktail you like and abstract its general principle. Many cocktails are built on the formula of two parts liquor, one part sour, and one part sweet. A classic example is the Margarita: two parts tequila, one part lime juice, one part triple sec (a sweet orange liqueur). My wife, Cassie, recently succeeded with this formula by starting with gin, adding lime for sour, ginger liqueur for sweet, and, then, in a moment of inspiration, a dash of cardamom bitters. Wow! It’s like an evening of Asian fusion at Momofuku in a glass.
I have lately been playing with cranking up the contradictory flavors of hot and cold in the same drink. I start by muddling a good handful of mint and five or six fresh jalapeno rounds in the bottom of my shaker, then I build a drink on top of that. So far, my favorite has been with rum, lemon and honey. Shake, strain, serve straight up, garnished with a basil flower. Sure, it burns, but then you suck in and the mint cools your tongue.
Please note that these are the musings of an enthusiast, not a professional. For the duration of the pandemic, I’m operating on the assumption that one’s gustatory aesthetic is more elastic than cocktail books and the classic canon admit. But when the “all clear” horn finally sounds and a trip to the liquor store no longer requires risk/benefit analysis, I’m sure I’ll come crawling back to Sazeracs, Negronis and Manhattans. On that day, the Bryants will throw a huge-ass cocktail party in cramped, enclosed quarters where we can all enjoy the thing we never imagined we’d miss—each others’ sweet and sour breath.
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