"I make the best Amaretto Sour in the world", proclaims celebrated bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, as I sit at his wonderful bar, Clyde Common, in Portland, Oregon. It's a bold statement and as an experienced bartender myself, of all the drinks I could choose or lay claim to making the 'best' on planet earth, the Amaretto Sour would certainly not make it near the top of the list. Not even close.
The secret, Morgenthaler continues to espouse, is the addition of a little over proof Bourbon (he likes to use Booker's) as it gives the drink more character and let's be real here people, it also gives this maligned drink a whiff of much needed credibility. I'm not sure Fred Noe - the jovial face of Jim Beam (who make Booker's) - would agree.
But as someone who truly despises amaretto as a rule, I am pleasantly surprised, even shocked, at the sublime balance of Morgenthaler's version.
"One thing a lot of people don't realise is that there's a lot more to balancing cocktails than simply making sure the drink is sour or sweet enough", he says. "Another important element is the strength of the drink, and just as a cocktail is unpleasant when it's too strong, a drink can also be out of balance if it's too weak. In order to bolster our Amaretto Sour, which is a traditionally weak drink to begin with, we use cask strength Bourbon to bring it up to a point where it is in balance." I think about proof a lot when creating new cocktails and I certainly appreciate it when a bar or restaurant lists the alcohol content next to each spirit on their wine or spirits list. I find this is especially pertinent to whiskies because quite often these are enjoyed neat, perhaps with a little ice or water, or even shaken or stirred into a cocktail with each of these preparations perhaps chosen by their proof.
Let's use the Manhattan - the most regal of all whisky cocktails - as our first case study. Any good bartender worth their maraschino cherries will always ask a guest if they have a preference in whisky when they order a Manhattan (some might ask for a choice in vermouth; a nice touch). The first thing I ask is if that person is going to enjoy their drink 'up' or on the rocks.
This information will allow me to better choose a whisky that will be more appropriate. If they prefer their Manhattan up in a cocktail glass, I'm more likely going to suggest a whiskey that is not so high in proof.
If someone prefers their Manhattan on the rocks, however, then this completely changes my direction of what whisky to recommend. Without making the drink too cost prohibitive, something like Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek, Parker's Heritage or Weller 107 will be more appropriate because that extra alcohol will shine through as the drink begins to dilute as it sits on ice.
This is where using single large ice cubes in such drinks is always better.
The Whisky Sour is another classic libation that definitely benefits from - no, needs - a high strength bourbon or rye. When any cocktail is shaken, it is diluted significantly more than when a drink is stirred. Plus when you add lemon juice, simple syrup and sometimes egg white, as is the case here, then that extra proof helps.
Perhaps the cocktail that simply must have a boozy dram as its base is the Mint Julep. The one glorious thing about a perfectly made Julep is that icy crust that forms on the outside of the vessel. Though with that crushed ice comes a lot of water, especially in the balmy Southern heat of Kentucky. You'll want something over 100 proof here.
Of course, this is not a hard core, black and white rule. If someone wants to drink a George T. Stagg Manhattan, and have it served with the least amount of dilution, then who am I to argue? But this is certainly a philosophy that makes sense to a lot of people and customers have always appreciated the fact that I am thinking about their enjoyment and their well-being.
"Proof is an oft-overlooked factor in deciding what to serve a guest, especially when it's a 'Dealer's Choice' situation", says Joaquin Simo, owner of new East Village hot spot Pouring Ribbons. "Is it their first round or their fourth? Are they coming straight from work or have they just had dinner?
These are questions that cut right to the core of responsible service."