The rinsing technique and the adaptability of spirits

It’s amazing the difference a small change can make in a drink.  I recently came across noted cocktail historian and master of mixology David Wondrich‘s column in the latest Esquire (UPDATE: Now with internets!) on the technique of rinsing.  It’s exactly what it sounds like:  rinsing the inside of a glass with a spirit before putting the traditional drink inside.  It’s not a new technique, it’s been done for ages in classic drinks such as the Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans.

I honestly didn’t think it could ever make that much difference.  I mean really, what difference is about a teaspoon of whatever swirled around a glass (and then poured out) going to make in a drink filled with strong-charactered spirits?  Amazingly, quite a bit.

The one I’ve been big on, and that Wondrich features in the article, is the Firefighter’s Manhattan.  It’s basically a typical Manhattan, served up, but the glass is rinsed with scotch beforehand and the drink is poured into the middle to avoid disturbing the rinse too much.  To me, it’s been a revelation on a drink I’ve drank hundreds of times and never thought twice about modifying the classic ingredients.  I’ve had the most interesting (and tasty) results using single malt scotches that are heavy on the peat and smoke flavors (which is where the “Firefighter” part of the drink comes in).  A glass rinsed with Lagavulin 16, one of the peatiest, smokiest, baddest whiskys on the block (or at least that I own), completely changed the Manhattan for me.  Fat whisps of smoke intertwined with the slight sweetness of the rye and vermouth, with the earthiness of the peat joining the spice-laden kick of bitters bringing it all together.  As a guy who appreciates whiskey (and whisky) of all types, it’s truly something to see a cocktail bring the strengths of single-malt scotch and rye together in one drink.

I think this is the thing that exclusive beer and wine drinkers miss out on.  As much as I love both beer and wine, it doesn’t have the alchemy, the discovery, the experimentation that spirits do.  If you find a good beer, it is what it is, and it may be great, but for the most part that’s all it will ever be.  A wine may get better with age, but there’s still a limited window of it being truly great before it turns to vinegar.  Cocktails are an ever-evolving creature of change:  this brand or that, garnish with this or a twist of that, shaking or stirring or rolling, using a dash of this or a rinse of that, each variation can bring an entirely fresh take on a drink that’s been around for years.  There’s a little bit of mad scientist in mixology, trying things out to see what works, if a 1/4 oz change makes all the difference or using brand X over brand Y changes the drink entirely.  It’s also what makes it endlessly frustrating, knowing that you might just be *this close* to the perfect drink but can’t quite figure out the exact combination that leads to liquid gold.  It’s exploration, mystery, and more than a little fun to experiment with.

So make yourself a Firefighter’s Manhattan.  Take a big, smoky whiff of it before you do, and I promise you’ll be drinking a different Manhattan than you’ve ever had before.

Here are Wondrich’s instructions from the pages of Esquire:

  • Pour a tsp or so of smoky Single-malt scotch into a medium sized (6-8oz) cocktail glass.  Swirl it around until the whole inside of the glass is coated and pour out any excess, preferably into your mouth.  Put glass in freezer.
  • Crack a cup and a half or so of ice cubes (wrap them in a clean dish towel and smack them hard with a mallet, the bottom of a cast iron pan, etc.).  Pour the ice into a pint glass, add 2 oz of Rittenhouse Rye or Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey (I used Old Overholt rye), 1 oz Martini and Rossi Red Vermouth. and a healthy dash Angostura Orange Bitters.
  • Stir briskly for 20 seconds and strain into chilled glass, making sure to pour into the middle, leaving a collar of Scotch-coated glass above the surface.  Twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.  Take a good whiff before drinking.

5 Responses to “The Rinsing Technique and The Adaptability of Spirits”

  1. scotchdrinker says:

    I’m shocked….to think, you just instructed us to pour our rinsing spirit out instead of taking a shot glass and putting that sucker to good use. I’m a little disappointed.

  2. DrinkPlanner says:

    Somebody needs to go back to reading school. Check the first bullet point there, chief.

  3. scotchdrinker says:

    I should have never doubted you, I apologize

  4. tIARE says:

    Great post drinkplanner!

  5. Fitz says:

    I bar tend in Boca Raton, FL (retirement capital of the world) and can attest to how important rinsing is. These old geezers love martinis and Manhattans and for a “dry martini” rinsing the glass with dry vermouth, pouring it out before pouring in chilled vodka/gin, makes all the difference. If you pour the vermouth into the shaker they say it tastes too creamy. If you don’t use any they say it tastes like pure chilled vodka/gin, which it is.

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