“When we opened here four years ago,” says John Miller, proprietor of Level, A Small Plates Lounge on inner West Street in Annapolis, “no one was doing fresh, innovative cocktails.
Now there are several places around the area where folks can find something interesting, handmade and delicious beyond beer and wine.”
Level specializes in Farm to Table food and this ethos is reflected in their cocktails, which are created around seasonal fruits and vegetables and frequently use small batch, hand-crafted spirits.
Cocktails are more popular now than ever. The trend sits directly at the crossroads of everything important to modern foodies: tradition infused with innovation, multi-culturalism and sustainability, to say nothing of flavor and drinkability.
Firmly believing that every woman should know how to light a campfire, “man” a grill and make a good cocktail, I headed over to Level last week for a lesson in mixology.
I can tell you that I am officially hooked. I left the restaurant with the surprising revelation that in fact, cocktails are REALLY easy. “Remember,” John told me. “It’s just an infusion.” You can tell that he loves what he does, but doesn’t take himself too seriously:
A classic, proper cocktail always has 5 elements:
- a base spirit (think bourbon, gin, tequila, vodka, rum etc.)
- a sweetener (often sugar, honey or agave made into simple syrup)
- a bitter or tart component (such as bitters)
- water such as soda water or simply ice
If you make cocktails at home, you can stick with recipes found online or in any number of books, or you can come up with your own by simply building seasonal flavors you know and love with spirits.
For example, cucumber marries well with ginger, lime, mint and a light yet complex spirit such as tequila. Peaches and white nectarines go well with herbs (basil, mint, lemon thyme, lavender, pineapple sage), lemon and a spirit that can cut through the sweetness, such as gin or vodka.
According to John, the singular, most important factors in a good summer cocktail are quality spirits and absolutely fresh, pure fruit. No processed flavors, artificial ingredients or concentrated juices allowed.
To get started you need an assortment of tools, all of which are widely available, range from inexpensive and disposable to very expensive and fancy, and can be substituted in a pinch:
- Shaker tin
- 16 oz mixing glass
- Muddler- to break up fruits or vegetables in the glass
- A Julep strainer – this fits inside the mixing glass and strains the infusion from the cooling ice
- A Hawthorne strainer- this helps strain out herbs and fruit
- Fine Mixing strainer- to filter any fine bits that could cloud the final mix
- Bar spoon- to reach way down in the glass
- Fruit press- to juice the lemon or lime
Level, A Small Plates Lounge Classic Margarita
- 1.5 oz tequila
- ¾ oz triple sec
- 1 oz lime or lemon juice
Shake together, strain over ice.
- Muddle about 2 inches of roughly chopped cucumber, peel and all
- Press a mint leaf into the cucumber
- Add 1.5 oz lime and ¾ oz agave nectar
- Add ½ oz triple sec and 1.5 oz. tequila.
- Shake, strain, pour over ice. Top off with soda and an optional TB of Grand Marnier
- Muddle 2-3 sprigs fresh mint with 1 ts. sugar and 2 oz lime juice.
- Add 1.5 oz fine light rum
- Strain over ice, top off with chilled soda.
- Muddle 2-3 sprigs fresh mint with 2 TB simple syrup
- Add a couple cubes of chopped, fresh juicy pineapple
- Add 2 oz lime juice and 1.5 oz rum
- Shake, strain over ice, top off with soda.
- Muddle chunks of fresh honeydew or melon with 2 sprigs fresh mint and 1 oz simple syrup
- Strain over ice and top with prosecco, champagne or other sparkling wine
- muddle 1 oz peach puree or 1/4 fresh peach
- press 3-4 fresh basil leaves in mixing glass to release the oils
- add 1.5 oz. Old Tom gin
- add ice
- shake and strain over ice into Collins glass
- top with soda and basil leaf for garnish
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