Dan Curd’s top ten cocktails

The precise definition of a cocktail can be a bit dicey. Everyone seems to have his or her own ideas. For me, it must include one or more types of spirits. Bitters, fruit flavorings (especially citrus), and sugar or other sweeteners may be included. More often than not, it is properly served after shaking or stirring with ice rather than over ice. As much as I love gin and tonic, booze served with a mixer is not a cocktail.

1. Negroni. I expect I’ll get a lot of pushback for putting this at the top of the list. I love both martinis and Manhattans, but neither is as complex as the Negroni. What’s more, it’s perfectly balanced—a little bit sweet and a little bit bitter—and beautiful to look at. Simple to make, it includes equal parts of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Most importantly—don’t ruin it with cheap vermouth. Personally, I insist upon an orange twist which is more than a garnish since it actually makes the flavors pop. A Negroni is one of the few cocktails just as successful served up in a cocktail glass or on the rocks. An ingenious variation is the Boulevardier, in which bourbon is substituted for the gin.

2. Martini. A martini is always made with gin and dry vermouth. An iced glass of vodka is not a martini! Unlike the Negroni, it’s really easy to screw up a martini. Both ingredients are important. The brand of gin you choice will greatly affect how it tastes (and there have never been more choices). I prefer an old-style variety—Plymouth is my favorite—but Bombay Sapphire is always a reliable fall back. Vermouth should be used in moderation, but that’s not to say it should be eliminated entirely. It gives the drink its desirable and distinctive tang. Shaken or stirred, martinis need to be served as cold as possible, so chilling the glass is more than just eyewash. I regret the modern trend of cocktails served in birdbaths. When it comes to a martini, a smaller glass (3 to 4 ounces) is better since it will help it keep its chill (and they’re less likely to get tipsy even if you do). As for finishing, I gravitate toward olives, but in warmer weather I prefer a lemon twist. Either adds its own personality to the drink.

3. Manhattan. It’s a classic cocktail made with just three ingredients, but again, their province and blend are critical. Traditionally made with rye whiskey or bourbon, I prefer the later. Whatever your preference, it doesn’t have to be tres cher, but something in the 90- to 110-proof range will make a better Manhattan—Maker’s Mark or Buffalo Trace never disappoint. The ratio should always be two to three parts whiskey to one part sweet vermouth. The brand of sweet vermouth will greatly nuance the flavor. Day in, day out, Martini Rossi is hard to beat. A hint about vermouth (sweet or dry): If you don’t use it frequently, buy a small bottle, as its flavor goes off very quickly once opened. In my opinion, Angostura bitters are essential and a Luxardo maraschino cherry favored over one of the omnipresent radioactive-red bombs. Always stir and never shake a Manhattan—it should be a smooth drink.

4. Sazerac. New Orleans has contributed much to our American eating and drinking culture. The city claims to have invented the cocktail. As the story goes, Antoine Peychaud (as in Peychaud bitters) was a French Quarter druggist who immigrated to the city in 1793. He dispensed a tonic of cognac flavored with bitters and sugar that he served in an egg cup (coquetier in French). Over time the concoction evolved into the Sazerac. Conventional wisdom says the drink got its name from the long defunct Sazerac Coffee House on Royal Street. The Big Easy has had a long love affair with absinthe, one of the Sazerac’s unique and essential ingredients. It’s properly made—sometimes with much theatrics—using two old fashioned glasses. One is filled with crushed ice and into the other goes rye whiskey, sugar, and both Peychaud and Angostura bitters. The rye is stirred until the sugar dissolves. Then a single ice cube is dropped in followed by more stirring. The crushed ice in the other glass is dumped out and a splash of absinthe is added. (Herbsaint is the local brand preferred in New Orleans.) After swirling the absinthe around to coat the sides of the tumbler, it, too, is discarded and replaced by the rye mixture in the other glass, adding a lemon twist. Today, bourbon is often substituted for the rye, but in this instance, I think rye works better with the anise flavor.

5. Old Fashioned. This is the only libation on the list that needs to be served on the rocks in a tumbler that now bears its name. Wisconsin has a love affair with the Old Fashioned, so long as it’s made with brandy and diluted with sweet or sour soda. I can do without either. The Old Fashioned was a consequence of mint juleps and other syrupy, fruity drinks trendy in the South during the steamboat era. A nostalgia followed for the drinks previously enjoyed, made simply with whiskey, bitters, and a tad of sugar. The Pendennis Club in Louisville claims to have invented the amalgam around 1889. Obviously, it was made with bourbon. Regardless, a good Old Fashioned contains whiskey—bourbon or rye, but never brandy—and enjoying one is an occasion to splurge on a premium brand. As simple as it seems, making a truly good Old Fashioned is the test of a talented bartender.

6. Vesper Martini. There are many variations of the martini … garnish it with an onion and it becomes a Gibson, a drizzle of olive juice will make it dirty, adding a splash of scotch turns it into a Burnt Martini. Only one deviation do I deem truly noteworthy. The drink was invented and named by secret agent James Bond in the 1953 novel Casino Royale, where fortuitously he give us the recipe: three parts gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Lillet, garnished with a thin slice of lemon peel. Lillet is a style of French vermouth, sweet rather than the dry type normally added to a martini. Who would have ever thought a fictional character could come up with something so ingenious? Please note: It’s the only vodka drink that made my list.

7. French 75. The drink supposedly was popularized during the Roaring 20s at Harry’s Bar in Paris, a legionary watering hole for the “Lost Generation.” It’s a type of champagne cocktail, a tipple long favored by the French. (It’s also what Yvonne orders in the movie Casablanca.) It combines gin, lemon juice and powdered sugar with champagne. Later recipes sometime substitute cognac for the gin. Garnished with a lavish lemon twist, originally it was served in a coupe but today a champagne flute or ice-filled Collins glass are more common presentations. If you’re thinking mimosa, think again. Named after French army’s 75-millimeter cannon used during World War I, it definitely packs a punch.

8. Daiquiri. What keeps a lot of cocktails off my list—the Cosmopolitan immediately comes to mind—is their insipid sweetness and attempt to mask the flavor of their alcohol rather than enhance it. Perhaps this is why vodka, a neutral grain spirit, appears so frequently in cloying, fruity drinks? There is nothing worse than a bad Daiquiri that now routinely come frapped in Life Savers flavors. The prototype well-made is another story: two parts light rum, one part freshly squeezed lime juice and a half-part simple syrup; shaken over crushed ice and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. No sugared rims. No garnish. Almost always it’s made with Bacardi Superior, the banned Havana Club (made in Cuba) would be my first choice. Better yet, as far as I’m concerned, is the Hemmingway Daiquiri, which adds grapefruit juice and maraschino liquor.

9. Margarita. Just like the Daiquiri, the Margarita can include a multitude of sins. It also is similarly made, but with tequila substituted for the rum and the addition of orange liqueur. Originally, an inexpensive beachside cooler, there has been a never-ending effort to gild the lily. With the addition of top shelf tequila (which there seems to be no shortage of) and with Cointreau and Grand Marnier substituted for triple sec, it has taken on a whole new status. Regardless, it must always be made with fresh lime juice and should never resemble a neon green slushy!

10. Pegu Club. It deserves a lot more respect than tenth place on my list, but I almost didn’t include it since my guess is too few have ever heard of it—bartenders included. Its origins are as exotic as its name, a private club frequented by Europeans and Americans in Rangoon. Actually, there’s really nothing extraordinary about its ingredients. A combination of gin, orange curacao, lime juice and bitters are shaken together over ice and poured into chilled coupe and garnished with an extravagant swirl of grapefruit peel. Yes, grapefruit peel. Despite the Pegu Club’s composition, oddly it has a definite grapefruit flavor (and maybe that’s why I like it so much!)

There has never been a shortage of places to buy a drink—even during prohibition, but cocktail lounges are a relatively modern institution. They began as hotel bars and took off as standalone operations during the 1930s. Their latest innovation is craft cocktails—drinks made with a lot more attention to detail, whether an old classic or a new creation. Not surprisingly, craft cocktails are trending right now in Madison.

Forequarter. A product of the Underground Food Collective, Forequarter is as much neighborhood bar as restaurant. Food and drink are always imaginative and sometimes downright inspired. Must try: Nom de Plume, a combination of bourbon and plum sherry with a bit of grenadine

Gib’s Bar. An offshoot of Grampa’s Pizzeria next door, this converted house brings artisan cocktails to the ever more hipster (and less hippie) Willy Street. Must try: Paloma Fresa made with tequila and flavored with grapefruit, strawberry and cardamom

Heritage Tavern. I just love everything about this place and it indubitably ranks as one of Madison’s best restaurants … and bars. There is always an appealing bar menu—candied bacon with slow roasted nuts and dried cranberries are dangerously delicious—and specials during Happy Hour (4 to 6 p.m.) Must try: Templeton’s Orchard, a frothy mix of rye and apricot liqueur with local honey and a hint of rosemary

MerchantThis had to be the first place in Madison to flaunt craft cocktails. It’s not only a bar, but a restaurant, liquor store and sometimes a night club as well. It claims to have the best stocked bar in town … “One hundred whiskeys, thirty gins, twenty-five tequilas and twenty rums” … an Merchant regularly carries many exotic items as well. Must try: Toronto, rye, Fernet-Branca with honey, bitters and orange oil

NostranoThe menu is modern Italian and the cocktails are just as contemporary. Happy Hour between 4 and 6 p.m. brings out first-rate apps at bargain price. Must try: Martinez, an antique cocktail made with Old Tom Gin, sweet and dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and tangerine bitters

This would have been eleventh on my list (if there had been eleven on my list.) It’s actually my favorite rum drink, but only if I make it myself. Ordering one out, who knows what mess will show up lurking beneath that pretty little paper umbrella. Two different Polynesian restaurants—Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber—both claim they invented the Mai Tai during a Post-World War II frenzy for anything even vaguely hinting of the South Pacific. Trader Vic was Victor Jules Bergeron who ran a bar in Oakland, California. The following recipe is based on what he claims was the original Mai Tai.

1 ounce dark rum (I always use Bacardi 8)
1 ounce light rum (I usually choose Mount Gay Silver)
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce orange curaçao (I use Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao—it really makes a difference!)
1 splash grenadine (homemade, recipe follows)
1 splash orgeat

Shake all the ingredients with cracked ice and strain into a chilled old fashioned glass. Garnish with a flower blossom.

Grenadine: Put equal amounts of pomegranate juice and sugar and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Heat over medium low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Garnish: Fresh flower, preferably a hibiscus or orchid

Makes 1 drink.