Drink of the Week: The Improved Genever Cocktail

The Improved Genever Cocktail.If you Google “improved cocktail,” you will find a number of somewhat differing drinks featuring the most venerable of the base spirits (i.e., whiskey, brandy and gin) or genever, aka “Holland gin.” That’s because, as Michael Dietsch puts it, improved cocktails are more of a template and less of a recipe. Still, I’ve just found that the “improved” model is a pretty amazing template with which to build a recipe.

If the name seems odd to you, it’s important to remember that the actual meaning of the word “cocktail” has changed since the Gilded Age heyday of 19th century bartending. If you walk into a bar today and ask for a cocktail, your confused bartender is likely to say, “Sure, which one of the hundreds of thousands of potentials drinks do you mean?”

If, however, you walked into ur-bartender Jerry Thomas’s bar circa 1876 and asked for a cocktail, you’d find yourself with what we now call an Old Fashioned, a base spirit with sugar or syrup, bitters, maybe a bit of water and a garnish. That was a cocktail. Drinks that didn’t contain bitters were not yet considered cocktails — they were just mixed drinks, and some cocktailians still prefer that terminology. Specifically, if you had ordered last week’s drink at Mr. Thomas’s bar, you would have likely asked for a Holland Gin Cocktail, the once popular term for the spirit thatevolved into the dry English-style gins we all know. When you started adding other forms of booze to it, you were getting a bit fancy. Hence, the Improved Cocktail.

The format for the Improved Cocktail typically involves adding a very small amount of a liqueur and, in most versions anyhow, serving the drink up rather than on the rocks. I’m going to start out with the genever version, which appears to be a popular spirit for the improved template in modern day cocktailian thought, and move on to brandy and whiskey next week. I’ll try to keep things from being too repetitive.

The Improved Genever Cocktail

2 ounces genever
1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur, Cointreau or Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon simple syrup or 1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar
1-2 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 lemon or other citrus fruit twist (highly desirable garnish)

Combine the genever, bitters, the additional liqueur of your choice and your sweetener in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass with lots of ice. Shake or stir (I lean slightly towards shaking for this one) and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Enjoy while contemplating the many improvements that life offers us, if only we had the ability to seek them out.


So, of course, I tried today’s cocktail with all three types of liqueurs that I suggested above, following the lead of David Wondrich’s addendum to his classic post on gin/genever Old Fahioneds. All were really quite good, though I lean slightly in the direction of maraschino. Both Luxardo and Maraska brands bring a slight amount of additional richness to an Improved Cocktail. Still, Cointreau works about 99.9% as well, and Grand Marnier isn’t half-bad.

Moreover, considering the small amount, I guess a cheaper triple sec, curacao or almost any other fruit-based sweet liqueur might work in this one. Probably the biggest variation I found was using sugar instead of simple syrup; it’s fine with sugar, but use the simple syrup if you can. (It’s pretty easy to make on your own if you’re not too lazy but, if you’re like me and you are too lazy, Master of Mixes sells an outstanding product that you can pick up in big box liquor stories for about $3.50 or so. Super cheap, except when you remember it’s just sugar and water.)

Finally, I should add that many of the recipes you see online for Improved Cocktails also contain some absinthe. I decided to ignore those for this week’s drink. Genever already contains some interesting bitter flavors I’m not sure will work with a super-strong anise-based liqueur, but we’ll be giving the Green Fairy a chance to further improve things next week with more standard spirits. Stay tuned.