On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by Joey Smith, bar director at New York’s Chez Zou, to discuss everything you need to know about diluting cocktails. The two discuss why the technique is so important, and how to avoid over- and under-diluting drinks. Tune in for more.
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Tim McKirdy: It’s another techniques episode here at Cocktail College. Got Joey Smith in the house. Joey, how’s it going?
Joey Smith: It’s going very, very well.
T: Very excited to talk about this topic with you today because it’s something I think about; that topic is dilution.
T: How much are you thinking about dilution as a bartender?
J: All the time. It’s the final thing. It can make or break drinks, I think. It’s one of the most important ingredients in a cocktail, I think, is the water element, the ice element. It can change everything.
T: And one of the reasons I’m very excited to talk about this is because I am a Scotsman, so I feel like I have a genetic disposition against adding water to hard alcohol. So hoping you can change my mind today. Of course, I do enjoy that in cocktails, but hoping you can maybe put some of my fears to bed because it is one of those things that I’m thinking about when I’m watching a bartender make a cocktail and I’m like, “Is there enough ice in there? Is the ice good enough? Have I left my own Martini on the side for too long as I’m going to get a glass or something?” So we’re going to run through it all today. First of all, though, the natural point to kick off. What is the main reason that we’re diluting cocktails?
J: That is a great question. There’s a lot of different reasons to dilute a cocktail. I’d say the most obvious is to make it more palatable, to make it easier to drink. If you’re having food or you just want to have more than a drink an hour maybe, you can’t be just drinking hard alcohol all the time. I was listening actually to one of your past episodes with Ivy. It was an amazing episode, but she said something along the lines of, “Cocktails are really a gateway to just drinking neat spirits.” A lot of times, cocktails are how people get into just drinking neat spirits. But to get there, you have to lower the octane a little bit with some water. But even a couple Scotsmen have told me, you have to add a little bit of water to…
T: This is very much true.
J: What they call… I think “free the serpent,” or something like that is the phrase. It can really open things up. Things like aromatic elements, esters, a lot of those smells and flavors that we love in different spirits. You can’t really get them in their pure spirit form. You add a little water and they change their solubility, and it really opens up spirits. So dilution is incredibly important to get the full experience of a cocktail or a spirit, I think.
T: And I think, quick sidebar here, but that is something that I’ve come across. Before I was chatting with a whiskey distiller up in Canada and they were talking about during technical analysis, not for the palate, but for the aromatic profile, they will sometimes dilute by as much as 50 percent. So they level half the proof of the whiskey just to bring out all of the aromas, which again is the same as this conversation we’re having today because it seems a little counterintuitive, but I think you’ve explained exactly why we’re doing this.
J: Yeah. I remember when I started, I would say 50 percent dilution for cocktails, people would lose their minds. “That’s way too much water. You’re ripping people off” and stuff. But if you do the math, if you make a Manhattan, that’s 3 ounces and you stir it to completion and then you pour it out. Then it’s going to be about 4 and a half ounces. That’s a 50 percent increase in volume, which is… It’s 30 percent dilution at the end, but it’s a 50 percent increase, which is a good Manhattan.
T: It’s a lot. And also by the way, this same amount of booze went into that cocktail. You’re not ripping anyone off. You’re not serving them less liquor.
J: Sure. And of course people drink to feel the effects of alcohol, but you also drink to enjoy a cocktail over a period of time. And the longer you can extend that without having to take a nap is probably a good thing, I’d say.
T: And I think, definitely. I think the worry, and this is what we’re going to master today, but the worry is we’ve all had that. I always point to the Martini, but we’ve all had that one Martini where you take your first sip and you’re like, “This has gone too far. This has gone a little bit too far, dilution-wise,” and you’re just like, “It didn’t punch me in the face,” and then therefore, this is not the Martini I was looking for.
J: Sure, sure, absolutely. There’s a time and a place.
T: Yeah. And I think actually, my bad, we should have said this from the top, but the way that we are diluting cocktails is either stirring or shaking with ice. Obviously mostly, we’re thinking about the main reason to do that would be to chill drinks, but the dilution is equally as important.
J: Sure. And there’s alternate methods out there. We’ve done some stuff with coconut water, which is a technique I learned at the NoMad, but we still do at Chez Zou where you can use things besides water to lower the ABV of your cocktail. There’s obviously rock and rolling, there’s batching, there’s freezer cocktails. There’s a lot of ways to add dilution beyond just shaking and stirring. And shaking and stirring also serve other purposes beyond chilling, mixing and shaking or aerating, which adds a lot of texture. But dilution is definitely at the core of all of these techniques. Shaking and stirring are the most popular techniques, I guess, for mixing cocktails. Obviously there’s other things out there. Shaking adds aeration where stirring doesn’t really. They both mix drinks, but dilution is at the core of a lot of these techniques that you’re taking a cocktail from order to presenting to the guests. Almost all of these involve some form of dilution with some exceptions, of course.
T: And when you were mentioning dilution using other ingredients there, say, for example, coconut water. Is that a case where you would freeze these ingredients as an ice block so that would also be something that can chill the drink as well? Is that what you’re talking about there or something different?
J: I mean, I’ve played with the idea of making juice cubes and shaking with those, but sometimes those cocktails just come out overly sweet or rich and you really still need that dilution to make it more familiar, I guess. But the coconut water technique is to keep your ingredients chilled. So everything’s cold as can be, not frozen necessarily, but really, really cold. And then you just build it in the glass to order and rather than stirring over ice, to add that water to the cocktail, you just add chilled coconut water to the cocktail. And what that does is, coconut water doesn’t have a very strong flavor. It doesn’t have a very high sugar content, but it does have a lot of texture. So you can add dilution to your cocktail. You can basically lower the ABV of your cocktail without sacrificing the body, the mouthfeel, and you can end up with something that is rich and delicious and cold and lower ABV, but not “watered down.”
T: It’s funny you say that. And the point I was alluding to earlier there, because I did go through this phase during the pandemic where I was drinking a lot of cocktails; I think maybe all of us were at home at least. And my kind of chef side came out. So I was doing a lot of mise en place so I was like, “I’m getting fed up of juicing citrus fresh every time and measuring.” So I’m like, you know what? I bought a batch of limes. Squeezed it, froze it in 1-ounce cubes or half-ounce cubes or whatever. And then if I was making a Daiquiri or something, I would not include ice. I would just shake the other ingredients with that, to chill it down and then serve when it was diluted. Now I will say this: I think this leads into our next point here, because those were not the best Daiquiris I’ve ever had. So what happens when you don’t dilute enough? Because obviously, that Daiquiri would normally have the lime juice and the ice. I was replacing that. So what does happen to a drink when, maybe you’ve got it to the right temperature, but you haven’t diluted it enough because maybe the ingredients were all cold beforehand and you just gave it a super-fast shake. What’s that cocktail going to taste or feel like?
J: Well, I mean that example with the Daiquiri, what I’m about to say won’t make any sense, but temperature and dilution are tied together. You can’t make something colder without further diluting it if you’re using traditional stirring and shaking methods. So if I were to take, let’s say crushed ice and put it in one cocktail and then take Kold Draft, like large cubes and put it in the same cocktail, a different glass of the same cocktail and stir them with a thermometer to the same temperature, they would be at the same dilution. So if I were to pour out the crushed ice cocktail, it would probably take a lot less time because there’s a lot more surface area. It would take five seconds, you’d get it to the right temperature. You pour it out, measure the volume. And then I stir the Kold Draft cocktail, which would take a bit longer and poured it out. You’d find they’d be at the same temperature and the same dilution.
J: Yes, because ice is not changing temperature, the water as it’s released from the cube and becoming liquid, which is kind of adhered to the edge of the ice. That’s being added to the cocktail at the same temperature, which is the melting point of ice. So you’re adding the same temperature, water to your cocktail as you’re stirring or shaking constantly. And you’re just trying to get it to equilibrium within the system.
T: This is blowing my mind right here. You know what it’s making me think of immediately where it’s like someone said, “If you go to the top of a building, say somewhere here in NoMad in Manhattan, and you drop a ton of bricks and a ton of feathers, they would land on the floor at the same time.” You’re like, “No, how can that be? The feathers are going to fly up or the surface area.”
J: Yeah. It blew my mind at first. I learned that from Dave Arnold years ago, but it’s a crazy thing, and bartenders obsess over ice. And as they should, we should; it’s a very important ingredient. It has a lot of uses and can do a lot of things. The reason that you don’t want to stir with crushed ice is because it dilutes so fast, you lose your ability to control and make sure it’s at the right dilution. Stop it before it gets too cold or too watered down. So we choose those ice cubes that are bigger because we can take our time and make sure we’re hitting that moment. But even those cubes, if I’m in a position where I need to make a lot of Martinis really quickly, I will break my cubes up, smack them, and get them cracked. It’ll speed up the process a little bit.
T: I’m so glad you mentioned that because I was about to jump back in there with that. So right. I’ve seen bartenders make Martinis, probably using good ice or I’m not talking about big blocks, but good. Maybe Kold Draft, cracking them beforehand. I think I first came across that with Dave Wondrich. I don’t know whether you saw in the pandemic as well. He was on Twitter every day and he was doing a photo make along of cocktails. And he was like, “And of course, before we do anything, we’re going to crack our ice with a bar spoon.” Again, when I’ve been at home, I’ve always worried about that for my Martini. Because I’m like, is there a risk of over diluting? Because you’re going to get some small chips here or whatever, but so what is the reason you would do that at a bar. It’s purely for speed, but also you have more control there than the fully crushed ice?
J: Yeah. I worked in high volume situations and I was cracking cubes because I needed to get that Martini out seconds faster. That makes a difference when you’re 10 tickets deep and four people at the bar, but it’s not absolutely necessary. You can stir with one large cube forever and ever. It’ll take minutes and eventually get it to the same temperature and dilution you could with the cracked cubes. There’s another thing at play here, though. The equilibrium that I’m talking about that you want to hit, the temperature that it’ll eventually get to, is not just set by the temperature of the starting ingredients, the cocktail and the ice. The ice is always the same temperature, pretty much. The ingredients can change. Obviously, you don’t want them hot, but they’ll be at room temp. The mixing glass or whatever vessel you’re mixing in is also part of that system. So another thing that’s important to control that system is to make sure that vessel is at least consistent in temperature. So if you decide to be one of those bartenders that chills your mixing glass in between each round, you have to do it every round, or else you’re going to have different cocktails coming out. If you’re mixing in a mixing glass and the cocktail’s only halfway up the glass and the ice needs to actually be all the way up, even if it’s not touching the liquid, because you’re not just chilling the liquid, you’re chilling the whole glass.
T: So when you’re talking about that crushed versus cube there, we’re talking about all of our other variables being the same, right?
J: Yes. Yes.
T: Because otherwise I was thinking if I pull a bottle of gin for my Martini from the freezer and then I start stirring over ice, of course the cocktail is going to come down to the desired temperature much faster, but it won’t have the requisite dilution because it hasn’t spent enough time in contact with ice?
J: Correct. Yeah. Correct. And there’s another factor here that kind of relates to that is wet ice versus dry ice. So if you take an ice cube straight out of the freezer, you’ll notice it’s kind of a matte finish. There’s not a lot of shine to it. It’s not tempered. And if you’re in the middle of a big service, all your ice is going to be wet. It’s going to be able to put it in a tin and fling water off of it because all of that melted water is adhered to the side of the ice. So another thing to think about is if you’re pouring spirits over wet ice, you’re adding a ton of dilution immediately. You’re already adding something like 10 percent of your final dilution just by touching it with the ice. So if you’re starting with a really dry cube, again, it’s going to take longer. You might have a different ratio, but all things considered, the same type of ice in different sizes will get you to the same temperature and dilution.
T: And so just to recap, before we move on to the next point there, if a drink is not sufficiently diluted, same talking about that Martini there, gin comes from the freezer, the profile of that cocktail is going to be what? It’s going to be tight. It hasn’t released, it hasn’t relaxed, it hasn’t had time to… I don’t know, fully release all of its…
J: Yeah, there’s a preference thing there too, obviously. I know there are some very famous, storied bars that have been around for a long time that definitely go all in for dilution. They want their drinks to be palatable to a range of people. And then there are bars that really under-dilute their drinks and that’s their style and you go there, you’re really going to taste it. You’re really going to feel that burn a little bit. And I think there’s a bit of preference there. I prefer on my end to be a little over maybe because like you said, I think it releases a bit more flavor. It makes it just a little more enjoyable. I like to sip my cocktails for a long time. I think you miss out on some of the nuances that you might be distracted from because you’re tasting the alcohol too much.
T: Yeah. It’s very concentrated on the palate, right?
J: Yes, exactly.
T: Almost. I mean probably isn’t this… Well certainly is what it’s like drinking a higher-ABV version of the spirit or the cocktail. Reminds me, we had Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge on the show a while back now, formerly of Plymouth Gin. And he was talking about this exact thing where it came to finding the sweet spot. And he said he judged cocktail competitions in the past where the bartender had gotten to a very, very cold temperature with not much dilution, again, probably because of temperature of ingredients. And he is like, they’d found a sweet spot with the ingredients and the balance of the cocktail, the ratios. But he was like, it was just so tight, and he felt like that cocktail needed more dilution.
J: To me, that’s always the hardest part of competitions, is that the moment where you’re actually preparing the drink and you’re nervous and time feels like it’s moving really slow. So you’re stirring for a long time. You’re like, “Have I stirred it too much?” That’s always a difficult feeling.
T: So this is a good natural segue into our next point here, which is… Sorry, just checking this out actually. Not specially, though. What are the different ways that we can control this technique, we can control dilution? What are some methods out there? We’ve maybe spoken about some with temperature of ingredients, but what are the different things you’re thinking about?
J: I mean, like I said, in my bar, it’s about making sure everyone understands those factors that change things. So wet ice versus dry ice, the size of the ice, the temperature of the vessel, the temperature of your starting ingredients. Something that’s really, it’s been around for a long time, but it’s become a lot more popular I’d say in the last 10 years was batching. Batching used to be the few people that needed to do it, did it. And everyone else kind of stayed away. Now it seems pretty ubiquitous. Bars all over the city are doing it. But batching is a really helpful tool to ensure consistency. And even with freezer cocktails or freezer Martinis, you can control dilution down to the milliliter if you want to. So the level of control you have is based on your understanding of the drink at the time of preparation, I would say. The biggest way that I control dilution is… I’m not stirring with a thermometer. I don’t feel like I need to do that. The skill of bartending is about being able to know when things are done. It looks like magic. But again, if you have that understanding that the dilution and temperature are going to be good, the best way to control it is to taste it. So take a straw taste a couple times throughout stirring your Martini. When it gets right to that consistently good point, pour it out. You’re good.
T: And before we move on, because that’s another good connector there. But before we move on, you speaking about that immediately made me think about how this is similar to cooking a steak. You can prod that thing with a thermometer and you’re going to release some juice, but you can do that to find out, have you reached the perfect temperature inside — or, as a chef, you’re going to get so used to cooking it that by visuals, by touching, there’s going to be a number of different indicators that tell you that steak is at the cuisson you want. And also relating to the other points we spoke about, there is no such thing as how much time does it take to cook a steak medium rare, right? It’s going to be, how tough is the meat? How old was the cow? Has it been aged? What temp are you pulling out of the fridge? Has it been resting beforehand at room temperature? So I don’t know. I didn’t think our conversation was going to take us there today.
J: Yeah. I see bartenders do all sorts of kooky things. Like they have a big crystal mixing glass and they’re stirring and they’re feeling the outside of the glass to test whether the drink inside is the right temperature. But it’s like, the outside of the glass is probably not an indication of the correct dilution in the glass. I understand the thought of, “Oh, it’s cold. It must be good.” But it’s not a steak; it’s a drink. There’s other things to consider too. How are you serving it? Are you going to pour it from this ice onto a new block of ice or new cubes? Because like I said, there’s already water ready to be released from those cubes. It’s already kind of clinging to the edge of those cubes through surface tension and whatnot, adhesion. So once you pour into a new glass, it’s actually going to get more diluted immediately. And again, another 10 percent, possibly, depending on the temperature. So you have to factor that in. If you’re stirring an Old Fashioned, you’re not going to stir it as much as maybe a Manhattan up because you’re going to add even more dilution once you pour it over ice.
T: I love it. I love this idea of basically all of these things you become familiar with over time and repetition. And that’s why it takes so much time to become a fantastic bartender, but we’re highlighting them today where we’re talking about the things that matter and the things that you are thinking about, the pros are thinking about. What are some other cues there beyond tasting with a straw that might tell you’ve reached the right dilution? One of the great Martinis, I think, in New York is the one at Maison Premiere, the Old King Cole. Is that correct?
J: Oh yeah.
T: Yeah. First time I had that they were making it and they said that, and that is a Martini where they pulled the gin straight from the freezer. And they were stirring it. And they were saying it’s as much of a visual thing almost. Is that maybe viscosity, is that something you’re thinking about too, or is that just unique to them because they do that so often?
J: That may be unique to them if they’re watching the cocktail in the mixing glass and they can just see it go. That’s interesting. I’ve definitely been able to do things with the wash line. So if I’m stirring a cocktail in the glass, like I said, it doesn’t obviously fill the mixing glass, but you start to see the ice go down and then you see the cocktail level go up. You know at a certain point where the cocktail level’s supposed to be at the end. I’m constantly adding ice to make sure the cold thing is full. But visually you can see what wash line you’re going for in your mixing glass. So I’ve definitely used that before as well.
T: And I guess with a drink like the Manhattan, maybe you can’t tell when it’s perfect, but you can tell visually by color if it’s gone too far.
J: Oh definitely. I hate those anemic Manhattans that you get every once in a while. But yeah, some people, like I said, there’s a preference there too. If you can feel out your guest, if this guy is three drinks in, maybe he does need that little anemic Manhattan. And I guess it depends on where you are in your night to figure out how much water you should be adding.
T: That’s a great point. Reading the room is always very important.
J: Yeah, exactly.
T: You mentioned batching cocktails earlier and freezer. Those are two topics I want to get into related, but also separately. Let’s start with batching drinks. Is there a general rule of thumb, when it comes to dilution, of how much water you’re going to be adding to that premixed, or I’m assuming there are other factors at play too. So can you chat with us through that?
J: Yeah. Again, it depends a lot on how you’re serving it. So I think for most batching, you’re not really adding water to the batch. You’re just kind of creating a way so you don’t have to pick up eight bottles to make a drink. You pick up three. One of them has six ingredients in it. If you’re doing batching for a to-go cocktail type situation, again, if you’re presenting a cocktail to somebody to drink straight out of a bottle, you probably want to add some dilution. I wouldn’t add full dilution because they’re probably going to pour over ice. Again, that thing, they’re going to add some dilution themselves, but maybe they’re not going to shake it. Maybe they’re not going to stir it. So if the ideal dilution, a final dilution level is like 30 percent, 25 percent, you maybe want to add 15, 20 percent beforehand. Then when you pour it over ice, you’ll get that little extra push over the top. And freezer cocktails are a completely separate thing because…
T: Got it. They’re ready to drink in the professional setting.
J: If you’re going to pull it right out of the freezer and pour it for a guest, the thing to think about is the freezing temperature. As you add water, you raise the temperature at which it’s going to freeze. You can put a bottle of gin in your freezer. It’s never going to freeze. You start diluting it at a certain point. You’re going to get frozen gin. It’s not going to be ready to serve. So at our bar we do a 25 percent final dilution. So the way we do it is we have this olive oil infused vodka. Then we take 3 liters of that and then 1 liter of water. We pour it in. We put that in the freezer and then when it’s ready to serve, we put it in the serving vessel, and we add some brine, some house grape leaf brine. So then that brine acts also to further dilute the cocktail once they get it. But initially, it’s probably a little too hot to drink right out the freezer. But then you add the brine and it brings it right to where you want it to be.
T: So that three to one there, that’s not freezing at all or not even slightly solidifying?
J: It’s getting very close.
T: Getting very close.
J: But that’s exactly where you want it. Very close.
T: I’ve encountered this problem before when batching freezer Martinis at home, and I’ve gone for that 25 percent dilution. I drink my Martinis exceedingly dry, for the most part, and I found that oftentimes, I’m pulling out a Martini slushy. I think that’s just to do with home freezers being set to a colder temperature than bar freezers. What would you have yours set at there? Because I think that is an important consideration.
J: Well, and also consider our freezers are opening far more frequently than your freezer. So even if it starts extremely cold and this is why we don’t leave them in there overnight. We do this at the beginning of service.
T: Got it.
J: They have about an hour to get to temp unless nobody is ordering Martinis, which does not happen. They usually are coming out before they hit that slushy phase. I think if we were to leave them overnight, they would definitely get that.
T: They would definitely hit there. And that’s also the point too, as much as I love Martinis, I’m trying to save them for Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays only. So that’s another thing. That’s why it’s solidifying too.
J: Right. Absolutely. It’s a great thing to do for a party. I’ve done a lot of movie nights or game nights where if you pull out a bottle of almost frozen Martini, you can just pour and go. Everyone’s like, “Where the heck did this come from? This is amazing.” I love that.
T: And again, on this topic of freezer cocktails, we’re talking about one or two versions of a very spirit-forward drink there. What if it were something like a Daiquiri that’s going to have some dialed-in non-alcoholic components to it. Is there an easy way to calculate dilution or is it just trying to think back to high school, college math?
J: Oh man. I mean, it’s actually pretty much the same as a Manhattan. A Daiquiri has, depending on the proof of the rum you put in, a Daiquiri will be 3 ounces, let’s say. It’ll end up at the same volume after shaking it. It’ll fit in the same glass, so to speak, with the same starting volume. So you’re adding the same hypothetical dilution. The thing to be careful with is, you don’t want to skip the aeration step. You don’t want to skip the shaking step. So if you’re keeping your Daiquiri in the freezer again, it’s going to freeze a lot more readily, because there’s less alcohol in it.
T: Got it.
J: But you still want to add that additional 1 and a half ounces and then you also want to make sure you’re aerating it.
T: So is it more of a case in the professional setting or maybe even just at home here, the better candidates for freezer cocktails are those more spirit-forward ones because they’re less likely to freeze?
J: Yes. 100 percent. And the trick is to, do you want it strong and then have to stir it before you serve it? Or do you want it just to pour and go, but maybe it won’t be able to be as cold because it’ll freeze.
T: Yeah. That’s a good point. I will say this just from an opinion standpoint, when it is at home, I do like making it. I do like having to earn the drink, but also in the professional setting now I completely see when it comes to labor and so many other considerations that batching ingredients or actual having freezer cocktails, it’s so necessary right now.
J: And I feel the industry’s always changing. There’s a lot of ready-to-drink cocktails out there right now. A lot of really great canned drinks. You can get an Old Fashioned from a can on a plane. You can get mixology drinks at the bodega now. It’s really cool to see. But, and for me personally, it’s driven me back towards, I really want to just make it, I want to stir it. I want to shake it. I want to be the one to prepare the thing for someone else. That’s the hospitality of it. And I hope the industry doesn’t go too far in the completely batched, ready-to- drink pour and go section because I do love seeing a bartender make a drink. There’s something relaxing about it. There’s something cool about it. There’s something just romantic about it.
T: 100 percent.
J: So if you have the opportunity to actually make someone a drink, I would say do it. It’s a great kind of garnish for the experience.
T: And I think it speaks into what you were speaking about earlier with the batching ingredients. Yeah, you’re putting two or three components together, but that’s just so that you’re not having to pick those bottles up. So you’re just picking one up in service, and then preparing.
J: Yeah, you get the best of both worlds. You can be fast, you can still do the thing. You can still make adjustments, say someone wants tequila instead of mezcal or whatever. You can still do that, but you’re still making a drink, still putting things together.
T: How often do guests notice, for example, that freezer Martinis are being pulled out and poured? Is there ever a scenario where sometimes people are like, “Well wait, you just pulled this from the freezer.” I’m keen to hear about your experience there professionally and how people react to it. Because I’m assuming that most guests are not thinking about all of these things that we’re talking about now.
J: Well at Chez Zou, our freezer Martinis, the serve is pretty over the top. It’s an experience in itself. We have these things, we call them jars, which is an Arabic word for a wine vessel essentially. But we use these things that have two chambers. It’s beautiful. It looks like an art piece. We put the olive oil vodka in one, we put the great leaf brine in another, excuse me. We put the olive oil vodka in one chamber and then we put the great leaf brine in another chamber and we keep those very, very cold. We serve them in a bowl of crushed ice with house stuffed olives and it gets its own glass. It’s like a multiple piece. You’re basically being served a whole setup. I think that the wow factor of that has offset anyone’s concerns about watching the bartender shake and strain a Martini. There’s obviously advantages to shaking and straining a Martini. The biggest one is the ice chip thing. If someone’s giving me a Dirty Martini, I want it shaken, I want ice chips floating on the top. That’s part of the experience. And we do have guests that ask for their Martinis that way, and we’re of course happy to oblige, but the freezer thing, I think part of it is it has to come with a bit of some flare, a bit of a show, and we don’t get too many complaints about that.
T: No. And that speaks to the other thing there. You’re doing something to save time and you’re making it up for it in a different way. Or it allows you to do that. You wouldn’t be able to do all of it at one time.
T: I get kind of annoyed, again, this is a complete sidetrack, but we’re on this topic.
T: I get kind of annoyed by people saying that Martinis are back. I have the same feeling about disco music. It never went out.
T: It never went anywhere.
J: Where did it go? I’ve been sitting there with a Martini this whole time.
T: But I will say this, the fact that certain media outlets or not even just drinks, the fact that they are saying that the fact that it does appear to have caught on in a bigger manner than maybe it was 10 years ago or whatever. I love the impact that’s having on the New York bar scene right now, because I am seeing some of the most inventive Martinis. Vodka and gin, by the way, in the city, that can only be a good thing.
J: Oh I agree. 100 percent, 100 percent. There’s two drinks in the world that if I see them on the menu, I’m going to order. It’s a Piña Colada. If I see one on a menu, I’ve got to try it because you can get a really great one at a really terrible bar. You can get a really bad one at a really famous bar. That’s one. And then the second is a Martini. If they’re doing something interesting with a Martini, you’ve got to be soft-handed with it. You have to be thoughtful with it. You can’t add too much. It’s just very classy, easy to drink, usually. It’s just fun. I love trying different Martinis around the city. Absolutely.
T: So it’s so funny that you mentioned the Piña Colada there as well, because I was just, before we started this recording, reading some consumer insights data. This sounds boring, but get ready for it. Apparently the Piña Colada has seen a surge in popularity at bars and restaurants in the past second quarter of this year. So basically the end of spring and this summer it’s been the highest climber in terms of change in cocktail ranking popularity. Again, this makes things sound boring, but I love the thought of that because, and I mentioned it on this show before, the Piña Colada song was also my song of the pandemic too. So I’m happy to see it.
J: All right. I remember I listened to that recently.
T: Oh, that was the Ivy one.
J: That was the Ivy one. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’m not going to take all the credit for the rise of popularity of the Piña Colada. We do have, I think, three versions on our menu at Chez Zou. My Instagram handle is @alottacoladas. I taste and review Piña Coladas. I was just at Tales Of The Cocktail. I was talking to a lot of people about Piña Coladas. I’m trying to go to Puerto Rico this year.
J: And do some research and maybe write some stuff and get something together. I don’t know. I love that drink.
T: That’s fun.
J: It’s classic.
T: My idea for this podcast as well is always that no drink… We’re not going to do any drink just once. I think every drink deserves multiple explorations so when you’re ready with that research just come back.
J: I’ll come back. I mean, Ivy’s episode was great.
T: Oh, she was wonderful.
J: Yeah. When you asked me what drink I wanted to do, that’s immediately where I went and then I listened to her episode. I was like, “Dammit. She nailed it.” She nailed it.
T: Well, that’s great. I enjoy the tangents. I will say as well that just to put this one out there, the other big climber in that ranking was the Mojito. So I think all is alive and well, and sorry, bartenders. Maybe that’s not the one that you love to make, but I love drinking them.
J: Yeah. It’s my girlfriend’s favorite.
T: It’s just you two. It’s just because apparently the epicenter for these two things as well was New York City. So it’s just you two.
J: We need to go out less, I think. We’re bumping the needle.
T: When Nielsen’s CGI starts telling you that you’re impacting overall drinks trends, maybe you need to dial it back a little bit.
J: Oh yeah. Well, she’s going to be upset, but I’ll let her know.
T: Well, we do digress and any final thoughts on dilution there before we move into the final section of the show today?
J: I think it’s hard to do without doing. You can’t read about this. It’s hard. You’re not going to learn… You might get bits and facts and tidbits from listening to us here and books. And “Liquid Intelligence” has an amazing chapter on dilution. If you haven’t read it, you have to, but it just takes practice and feeling it. It really is the skill of a bartender is diluting, aerating and mixing. That is the skill. So practice it, do it at home, make drinks from scratch, play with your freezer, get cool ice, and just do it. That’s how you learn how to dilute.
T: I love it. That idea of this being ultimately maybe the most important test of a bartender in a way, because balance or comes down to ratios, which comes down to ideally having a jigger that’s correct and jiggering. So what’s left to do, it’s the technique and it’s the dilution. Otherwise it’s also time, but maybe that’s a serve. That doesn’t impact the drink, per se.
J: Sure, sure.
T: Dilution. All right, I care about it now. I’m not skeptical anymore.
J: I’m glad. I’m glad. You’ve had Schramm on this show several times. He’s talking about centrifuges and brix adjusting and all of that. I’m like, “You skipped the basic one.”
T: Skipped the basics. Yeah.
J: Skipped the basic one.
T: I feel like that guy just probably was born with a rotovap or something. Just thinking about that kind of stuff.
J: We used to live together for a long time.
J: You should have seen our apartment. It was a lot more kitchen technology than apartment, I’ll say.
T: That’s funny as well because I was thinking there too, you’re not only both former NoMad grads here. Also Dave Arnold as well. Yeah.
J: So I moved to New York 2015. Within three days I had gotten hired at Booker and Dax, where Jack was the head bartender. So I spent a lot of time with those crazy guys.
T: So basically Dave Arnold is the unofficial godfather of the “Cocktail College” technique segment here.
J: Yes. Yes, he is. 100 percent and other technique segments, I’m sure.
T: I’m sure. Yeah. He has his own wonderful ones out there as well. He does a couple of stuff there, multimedia-wise. Check it out.
J: Yeah. He’s a genius.
T: All right, Joey. Actually, speaking of Tales, I arrived at the airport on Wednesday, walked at arrivals, and Dave was walking in departures, and I saw him. We don’t know each other very well or anything, but he knows my colleague more well and just sort of caught his eye and he kind of looked down and I’m like, “Yep. That looks like someone who’s leaving Tales.” I turned to my colleague and I said, “That’s going to be us in three days.” And it was.
J: Sure enough.
T: Sure enough.
J: That’s great.
Getting to Know Joey Smith
T: All right then, let’s dive into the final section of the show. The quick-hit questions so we can get to know you more as a bartender and as a drinker, a Piña Colada fan. Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
J: Ooh. Well I told you at the beginning that I’ve gotten all these narrowed down to at least two answers, but for the bar at Chez Zou, it’s rum, for sure. It’s the most versatile for cocktails. There’s a lot of different styles of rum. You can blend and make your own styles, and other spirits just don’t enjoy that same amount of versatility, I would think. At home, it’s a very close tie between whiskey and mezcal because I get them and they’re so unique and then I’m afraid to drink them because I know once that bottle’s gone, I might not get it again. So it ends up just multiplying and taking over the whole shelf.
T: And which whiskey, which part of the world, might you be exploring? Or are you democratic there when it comes to that?
J: Very democratic there, I have all kinds. I’d say the Scotch sticks around longer because I feel like it’s even harder to get, the bourbon goes pretty fast because I’m like, “I’ll just get it next release.” But I have some old and rare Scotches that I only break out when I’ve got special-occasion vibes going on or I’ve already had a couple bourbons.
T: I love that. Sometimes it does take a little bit of liquor to build up the courage to crack open the good bottles. But I always don’t have too much beforehand.
J: I’ve never regretted opening the bottle. So yeah, the thing is I’ve never regretted opening the bottle the next day. It’s just before you open it, that anticipation it’s like opening a new toy. Ready to go for it.
T: I tell you one thing I like to do whenever anything arrives or I buy something new, I rip the Band-Aid and I say, you know what, because it’s just, you got to do that straightaway. And you’re like, I’m going to drink this. Even if it’s half an ounce, I’m going to drink, it’s going to be open, and then I’m going to feel good about it.
J: That’s exactly right.
T: That’s what you got to do.
J: I gotta be better at that.
T: Otherwise, then, stuff ends up on the secondary market, and no one wants that.
J: Nobody wants that.
T: Not that I’m saying you’re guilty of that.
J: No, definitely not. I smash the bottles too.
T: Good. Yes. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
J: Well, in the spirit of the episode, I gotta say water, the ice. I’ve had so many home cocktails ruined because the ice sat in the freezer too long and just took on that smell, that old refrigerator smell. And I don’t think it’s necessarily underappreciated. I think most experienced bartenders know that, but again, I’ll shout-out Dave Arnold. There’s this piece of technology, the Booker and Dax cube, which is a very simple little silicone cube that kind of mimics the density and weight of an ice cube at the same size. So if you’re at an event that has terrible ice, or even if you’re at home and you don’t have large ice cubes, you throw this in your shaker with some crappy ice, you shake it, and you get that aeration while still getting the chilling and dilution. And it makes beautiful shaken cocktails. They are unavailable currently on Amazon. I’ve been texting Dave, “When are these coming back? I want to buy 50 of them,” but it is an amazing piece of technology that I just wish were more popular throughout the bartender’s arsenal.
T: That’s crazy. Maybe a niche use case scenario, but vital when you’re using it.
J: Yeah. It’s not gimmicky, it’s not flashy, but it really works. It does the job.
T: That guy, his mind.
J: I know. I know.
T: Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
J: There’s a lot. The one that stuck with me the most and this may be simplistic, but a mentor of mine, Pietro, who was a bar director at the NoMad. I don’t even know if he thought this was as profound as it was when he said it. But he said at the end of the night, “You guys do a good job, just be professional, and have fun.” And it really just stuck with me that those are the only two things that you really need to focus on. Be professional, take your craft seriously, take the job seriously, do it the best you can, but have fun. You can’t forget that people are there to have fun. People are there to see you have fun. So if one of those things is getting in the way of the other thing, then you need to rebalance your situation behind the bar.
T: If you’re having too much fun.
J: Yep. You’re not being professional. If you’re being too professional, you’re not having fun. You’re failing. So you gotta do both.
T: Nice, that balance there, like the dilution. Keeps coming back…
J: It’s just like dilution. Exactly. Bringing it back.
T: Penultimate question here: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, past or present, what would it be?
J: I was afraid you were going to…
T: Throw that one in there?
J: Yeah. So if it was present, it would be Maison Premiere. I love that bar. I love it when it’s a little too hot in there. You’re kind of crammed into the seats a little bit, but you get that Martini, that Old King Cole Martini and a big thing of oysters. You may have just seen a movie at the theater nearby or had dinner somewhere. I love that experience. So that’s probably my No. 1 answer. Past, I’ll throw NoMad in there. I do miss it dearly. And Suffolk Arms, which was Giuseppe Gonzáles’s bar down on Suffolk. That was a great Piña Colada, great original cocktails. Just a good vibe all around. I loved that part.
T: Glad you mentioned Maison there. I mean all three wonderful bars there. Glad you mentioned Maison because I always talk about the Martini there, but the Sazerac tableside service that they have, too, is wonderful. So I would check that out. I lost a bet with a writer friend of mine, fellow writer for VinePair Aaron Goldfarb. And I had to buy him the $86, I think it’s $86 Sazerac. Which is made with pre-World War II Cognac and all kinds of stuff. He was gracious enough to let me taste it. But it’s out there. If you want to have a mind-blowing cocktail, move on to that one after the Martini.
J: Absolutely. I’ll break the piggy bank, we’ll go over there.
J: Let’s go.
T: Final question for today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you make or order?
J: Piña Colada, I think that’s obvious.
T: Do you want to give us your spec? Or should we save that for the…
J: We’ll save it.
T: We’ll save that for the re-Colada.
J: Yes, exactly. The reckoning. That’s the one. I’ll also say a Martini, though. There’s nothing after a long day, whatever it is, and you finally get to sit down with a friend or your significant other, whoever, and you get that first sip of cold Martini. There’s few more enjoyable experiences in the cocktail world, I would say, than that. So that’s definitely up there, neck and neck.
T: If I can add part B onto this question for you then.
T: If I’m allowing you a round of those two drinks, but I’m going to say one of them is going to be a miniature kind of Snaquiri vibe. Which one are you going for that? And which one are you going for the full size?
J: I’m actually very glad you brought that up. That’s crazy. The Piña Colada should be smaller.
J: I do love a whole one, of course, but we recently got these 3-ounce, not even 3, maybe 3-ounce, little coupettes — these tiny little Martini glasses — and we’ve been serving Piña Coladas in them as a greet, for our friends and stuff at the bar. We call them Teeny Peenies.
T: Teeny Peenies.
J: Yeah. And it’s a night… It’s a great little amuse-bouche, it starts the fun kind of experience and the little atmosphere so that would be the move. And then you move into your Martini and oysters after that.
T: Wonderful. What more could set off the mood than that fun cocktail there? Maybe you got the song going on in your head. You’re thinking about cheating on a partner and drinking Champagne, dancing in the rain.
J: Getting lost in the rain.
T: Yeah. There you go. Getting lost. Well, Joey, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
J: It’s been a hoot.
T: I have been drinking water this whole time as well. Thank you for joining us here. Yet another Arnold alum on the technique section here at VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” It’s been a blast.
J: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. This has been great.
OK, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.