After a long winter, when all that’s left of the snow are giant brown mounds with tangled shopping carts in parking lots and the trees begin to bud, a switch goes off in me. I stop buying heaping amounts of root vegetables and butter and I begin the transition to fresh and healthier ingredients (white wine counts as healthy, right?). As a direct result, you can always find a stockpile of fresh herbs, berries, citrus and ginger in my fridge. Every time that door swings open, I’m inspired to work every single one of those heavenly bits of refreshing goodness into whatever I’m making. Sometimes I’ll make a salad and toss in some fresh strawberries. Other times I’ll whip up a simple syrup when the herbs are about to decline from the vibrantly green colored leaves to limp and oxidized blandness. But one of the best reasons to keep all these ingredients on hand is for cocktails.
It could be the middle March and after a week of freezing temperatures, it creeps up to 60º which at the point feels like 80º. By law, you’re required to make Sangria. So you do. And all those fresh berries and herbs and citrus marinate in your wine and when you get home from work, you are met with an enlightening start to your evening. But sometimes I don’t want sangria. Sometimes I want something with a little more bite. A bit more subtle. And that’s when I’ll start experimenting.
About a year ago, I went on a cruise. I’ll be honest with you, when it was decided that as a family, that’s what we were doing, I was just “eh” with the whole idea. I had only been on one cruise and that was probably back when I was about 8 or 10. It was a Disney cruise before it became a disney cruise. I had no super fond memories of it. Other than my mom’s perm, my goofy hat, laying on a hammock on some island with coconuts and the photo album we left with that I’m sure my parents were way overcharged for by the lovely cruise people. Add to that all those stories of cruises tipping over and everyone getting sick and using buckets for a week. Then the cruise came and when it was all over, I didn’t want it to end. It was probably one of the best weeks of my life. Have any one of the ridiculously nice staff come over and bring you a drink constantly. Getting to sit out on the deck and watch the ocean go by, shovel french fries into my body everyday. I was obsessed. The minute I got off the boat, I wanted to be right back on it, heading back. I contemplated working on a cruise. I could travel for free and get paid. Sure it’s probably cramped quarters, but I’d be on a boat. I’d be free to roam. It would be heaven. Even if I had to get up early to start baking, I’d only have to just walk up stairs. No biking. No train. Maybe one day.
But of all the memories and laughter and cocktails and meals and games that happened on that boat, there was one thing I picked up that I have been using ever since. A technique that the bartenders on Holland America use to craft their drinks. I signed up for a cocktail class. I only went to one and I wish I went to all of them. However, I still learned a lot from that one class. Let’s say you order a Grapefruit Cosmo. They don’t use grapefruit juice from a box. They muddle up fresh grapefruit wedges. Not only do you get a really fresh taste, but the essential oils found in the skins of citrus are squeezed right into the drink, intensifying the flavor.
After taking a week off of drinking, I returned, ready to try out this simple technique that I don’t know why I never used before. It made sense. It was so smart. I’d muddle everything and just come up with random cocktails. A little lemon, a little orange and a lot of vodka. Or some cucumber, some mint and a whole bunch of gin. I was in awe. I was inspired. I couldn’t be stopped. Why just juice when you could muddle? The gates had been opened and a world of ideas was flooding out.
Now, this whole muddling idea isn’t unique to Holland America. It’s really how it all started. It’s why there’s a tool called a muddler. But when you’re muddling, you’re smashing. Hence the name of this type of cocktail. You could pour it into a martini glass and call it a martini if you wanted to. It would be a little wrong, I suppose, unless you added a touch of vermouth. But in this day and age, names tend to take on broader meanings. When most of us hear the word Daiquiri, we think of a tall glass filled to the top with a slushy, red concoction of strawberries and rum with an umbrella stuck in the top. But that drink started out as just lime juice, sugar and rum. And that is your little etymology history for the day.
So getting back to this smash. It’s just a few ingredients, and if you’re like me, you more than likely have them all on hand at this very minute. All you have to do is get the right amount of everything, throw them into your shaker, smash like the Hulk, add some vodka and ice and shake your love (Debbie Gibson wrote that song about this cocktail…she was psychic) or your groove thing (so were Peaches & Herb). Then strain and drink. And then repeat.
For the ginger, you definitely want to peel the skin off. Use a spoon and it will come off like buttah. As the ginger breaks down, the skin would do and unless you strain through a cheesecloth, you’ll get bits of ginger skin in your drink. It’s completely edible, just not completely delicious. I also find it wise to chop the ginger up just a bit. Smaller pieces will smash a bit easier. Because I am a ginger fanatic, I chose vodka as the liquor of choice since it’s flavorless. This way the ginger and basil will shine through. I added lemon, but just a hint, because the acidity just brightens everything up, but there isn’t enough lemon to make it taste like lemon.
I say this with a lot of things, but you should always adjust to your taste. Want it a little sweeter? Add more syrup. You can add more ginger or basil, add more lemon, take out some sugar, add more vodka. The choice is yours. This is a guide. A starter. An aperitif to the cocktail of your dreams.