Drink of the Week: The Improved Cocktail (Take 2)

Image ALT text goes here.So, as we learned last week, once upon a time, the term “cocktail” was not today’s generic term for any mixed alcoholic beverage but instead was a drink that called for a base spirit, bitters, sugar/simple syrup and maybe a bit of additional water and a fruit garnish of some sort. Thus, the original cocktail — which was not, obviously, called the Old Fashioned yet, as it was actually still kind of a newfangled thing — begat the Improved Cocktail, which adds a small amount of a liqueur to the mix and which, unlike the Old Fashioned today, is primarily served up (i.e. with the ice strained out).

While punches and numerous other mixed drinks definitely predated this Gilded Age classic, today’s drink is definitely something of an ur-cocktail in that it presumably helped open the door for the cornucopia of strong boozy beverages that are now the backbone of pretty much any home or professional bartender’s repertoire.

Last week’s Improved Cocktail recipe, however, was built around genever (the ur-gin from the Netherlands), and while that recipe can work very nicely with base spirits that are now more common, I’m not sure it’s the absolute best way to go when you’re dealing with whiskey or brandy. This week’s recipe is purloined/adapted from several different online sources which, in turn, were borrowed from the original recipe from ur-bartender Jerry Thomas. Compared to my genever recipe, it adds literally just a dash of one more ingredient and cuts the liqueur proportion in half, which may work better with base spirits that are somewhat more sweet.

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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.

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