A decade ago, famed NYC bartender Toby Cecchini found himself struggling to answer a simple question: What exactly is a Gimlet? He dove into the history of the classic cocktail and soon realized that the Gimlet, as most bartenders were making it, didn’t line up with the original version. From there, he went to work to create a lime cordial that tasted great and was true to the history of the gin drink.
In this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy chats with Cecchini about how he reinvented the Gimlet, what inspired him to strive for a better lime cordial, and how his take on the Gimlet has become a Long Island Bar customer favorite.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Gimlet.
Toby Cecchini’s Gimlet Recipe
- 2 ounces gin, such as Tanqueray or Fords
- 1 ounce homemade lime cordial
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- Garnish: 1 lime wheel
- Add gin, lime cordial, and lime juice to a shaking tin with ice.
- Shake until cold.
- Strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass.
- Add lime wheel garnish.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: I’m Tim McKirdy. This is VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” Toby Cecchini, thank you so much for joining us, and welcome to the show.
Toby Cecchini: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on.
T: I’m really excited to talk about your Gimlet today. I think, before we get into that, we need to take a look at the six-feet- tall, bright pink Martini glass in the room and just get something out of the way first.
TC: I’m perfectly happy to get that out of the way first, because when you asked me to come on this podcast, I was like “Oh, no.”
T: What did you think I was going to ask you on for?
TC: Obviously, you were going to ask about the Cosmopolitan. I thought, “Really? Do I have to go do this? When you said, “I’d love to talk to you about your Gimlet and your reinvention of the cordial and whatnot,” I was like, “Oh, happy day. What?”
T: So, that is what we are getting into today. Just to bring some folks up to speed or for people who will recognize your name on the pod, give me a brief rundown here. It’s the late ’80s.
TC: It’s 1988, and I’m working at The Odeon.
T: You’re playing around with a flavored spirit. You reinvent or create a new spin on a cocktail that’s doing the rounds on the West Coast. It’s basically pink. It has the name Cosmopolitan. You come up with a whole new way of making it. It’s a drink for the staff. Then, it bleeds out into New York City and the world to the point where, today, I can go back to my folks at home in England, and I can pass my mum a cocktail glass with that drink in it and she’ll say, “Oh, a Cosmopolitan. I haven’t had one in a while.” That’s the story of the Cosmo, right?
TC: In a nutshell. I wouldn’t say it was making the rounds of the West Coast. It was a very niche thing that had been a really dreadful drink in leather bars in San Francisco. A friend of mine that I worked with brought to my attention that friends of hers in San Francisco had shown her. She said, “Let me show you this drink that my friends showed me last night.” It was made of real vodka, Rose’s Lime Juice, and Rose’s Grenadine.
T: This is very relevant for our conversation today.
TC: Yeah. It was disgusting, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really cute, but it’s grotesque.”
T: One day, perhaps, we’ll be able to persuade you to come back for the conversation about the Cosmopolitan. But today, we are talking about the Gimlet. The reason that I wanted to speak with you about the Gimlet is not to just be contrarian or whatever, but because your approach to one of the ingredients in your version of this drink epitomizes what we’re trying to do with “Cocktail College.” That’s re-examining something, questioning things, and ultimately going beyond what’s accepted and expected in the industry. If you were to go into most good, decent cocktail bars today and ask for a Gimlet, what’s someone typically going to serve me?
TC: In a bespoke cocktail bar, I think most people think, “Well, obviously I have to use fresh lime juice.” This was me 12 years ago. There’s that question of, “What is a Gimlet, exactly? It’s sort of like a Rickey, but there’s no soda. I know there’s gin. I know there’s lime. I don’t know what else.” The Gimlet has a long history, but people these days don’t know the history. They don’t know what an actual Gimlet is. A Gimlet is actually made with lime cordial.
T: Instead of sugar, lime, and gin.
TC: Yeah. Sugar, lime, and gin. I think most bartenders these days or up to some years ago, would make it only with fresh lime juice, some sugar, and gin. There’s your Gimlet. The basic consumer is none the wiser and thinks, “Oh, this is amazing.”
T: It is a delicious concoction, by the way.
TC: Sure. That’s a Gin Sour.
T: It’s just not a classic Gimlet.
TC: It’s not a Gimlet in any way, shape, or form, in fact.
The History of the Gimlet and Lime Cordial
T: I love the tension, almost, here. In many respects, we talk about the cocktail renaissance, or whatever you want to call it, as being largely fueled by re-embracing fresh citrus. In this case, that’s actually causing the demise of the historically accurate version of the drink, which isn’t what normally happens.
TC: Interesting point. I do also use, to be clear, fresh citrus in my Gimlet. Cordial, as I make it, is a very thick, sweet, viscous concoction and you need something to balance it out. I use fresh lime juice as well.
T: Let’s talk about that cordial or cordial. Tell us about your journey to questioning this recipe and developing your version of a cordial that’s historically accurate or aims to be.
TC: I’m trying to remember what my original impetus was. Ten years ago or so, I was writing a column for The New York Times called Case Study, and I took this up as one of my pieces. Maybe it just came up in the bar. Maybe somebody ordered a Gimlet and I was like, “You know, that’s that’s one of those things like the Mai Tai,” which I also wrote about, where I thought, “I actually don’t know what that is, and I probably should. I’ve always futzed my way through it and thrown some things in there that sound tropical-esque and that’ll be a Mai Tai.” It was the same thing with the Gimlet. I thought, “That’s lime and stuff, right? I’m not really sure what that is.” When I started researching it, I found out that it was in fact lime cordial and that the only commercially available lime cordial is Rose’s. Rose’s is disgusting.
T: You already knew this from your experience with the Cosmo.
TC: Here we go. Rose’s is not the absolute worst thing in the world in a Gimlet. I’ve had it and thought, “I can live with that.” If you squeeze a couple of fresh limes into it in the worst case scenario, you can live with it, but it’s not good. It certainly has no place in a proper bar where people are doing things correctly. I set out to figure out what actual lime cordial was. I thought there must be a recipe for this kind of thing and there must be a lot written about it. There’s not actually that much. You can do a very deep dive and find some recipes, but the history of it is cloaked and obscured. It really points back to the British naval tradition of some type of antiscorbutic in order to measure out a dose for the sailors who were dying of scurvy.
T: Lime is the prevention there?
TC: Yes. The antiscorbutic.
T: Very nice.
TC: Yes. You have to have a way to jimmy vitamin C into people so they don’t die onboard ships. This was a way of preserving lives. Obviously, there was no refrigeration. They made the stuff initially, I think, with a base of rum, but also a great deal of sugar and lime. They would put it in barrels. These barrels would travel in a ship across the equator, God knows how many times and in how many different climates for years on end. And they were still palatable. It was tough for them to be actually hygienic and render vitamin C.
T: Also, by transforming it from fresh, you’re saving a lot of space. That’s a key consideration if you’re on a ship.
TC: Certainly. You’re saving a ton of space. Also, there’d be no way of keeping those limes fresh onboard ships. Actually, citrus stays afloat for a lot longer than you might expect, and sometimes, up to months. You still need it to last years in extremely torrid conditions. I became fascinated thinking about how there must be some way to actually take the juice or the oils — specifically, the citrus oil that’s incredibly aromatic — and somehow cure this so that it keeps for a long time. I started researching recipes and looking for other people doing this. I only really came upon one other bartender. He was this fellow named Todd Appel, who works out of Chicago. He has his own company that does syrups, potions, cordials, and this and that. He’s a great guy. He and I started communicating about this. He also was in the beginning stages of feeling like, “I have also been fascinated by this, but I don’t know exactly what I’m doing.” I was mixing some juice with water, heating it, putting sugar in, and then putting the peels in. He had extracted all the water and and paired it down to simply the juice and the peels. He was putting the peels in very quickly after heating, then after cooling. We were both messing around with this and contacting each other to share the versions we were making and what we did. The version that I ended up liking the most was one I had concocted after his, where I got rid of all the water. I wanted to extract the citrus oil separately, because my take on my father’s Gin and Tonic had made me aware that the very aromatic citrus oil is maybe the most important part of citrus. It is just so smashing. It’s so powerful. I thought there must be a way to extract that first.
T: That’s what really sets this cordial apart. You don’t need to use it. You’re not crossing an ocean. Otherwise, we’re just talking juice and sugar, which is essentially fresh juice and simple syrup, the way that it’s being made in bars. It’s that citrus oil that really takes this ingredient to the next level.
TC: Right. Obviously, people were doing oleo saccharum at this point.
T: Can you just explain what that is, in case some folks don’t know?
TC: Oleo saccharum is a way of using what’s called the capillary action of sugar to extract the oil of citrus from the peel, wherein basically, you just take dry sugar and bury the citrus peel in the sugar. You leave it overnight, and through this amazing magic, by the next day you have this unbelievably aromatic slush that is simply citrus oil that’s been drawn out of the peel by the sugar. It is now imbued into the sugar. I thought, “That’s the way to go, but where do I take it from there?” Sugar is a preservative in and of itself. We have jams and whatnot, which use sugar as preservatives. Now, you’ve peeled all these limes. Now you have the fruit sitting there, so you have to juice them. You add the juice back into the oleo saccharum. The juice is very acidic. That’s another way of cooking or curing something. You use that in ceviche. You use this extremely acidic juice of lime or lemon, and that virtually cooks protein in a ceviche. I thought, let’s see if that doesn’t work the same magic in this. It’s hard going. You have this oleo saccharum that’s a huge amount of sugar, lime peel, and oil together.
T: It’s labor-intensive.
TC: It’s very labor-intensive. Then, you juice all the limes. You add all the juice in, and you have to stir and stir until you get this stuff somewhat sort of put together. Then, you just have to leave it. Initially, when I made this recipe, I thought, “Oh, you have to leave it overnight in the refrigerator.” In point of fact, you have to leave out at room temp for a couple of days and keep stirring it. Eventually, it comes into its own and becomes this very viscous, sweet but sour mixture that is just brimming with aromatics. It turns into this magic ingredient that is cordial. It’s now cured. The peel is cured. The juice and sugar cure everything altogether. Now you’ve strained it off. You’ve strained the peels out. People will tell you that you have to strain the peels out much earlier because otherwise it makes things bitter. I don’t know about that. This is sort of the bugaboo of the bar industry. Any time people want to sound professional about something, they say, “Oh, that makes it bitter. You have to twist something three feet from the drink because otherwise, it’ll make it bitter.” I mean, don’t we all love bitters? Aren’t bitters the things that we’re all looking for in drinks nowadays? I haven’t found that there’s any particular bitterness to avoid in leaving those peels in there for two or three days, whatever you want. We now run huge batches of this cordial through my bar on a weekly basis. Sometimes, that skin can sit there for a week. It doesn’t matter.
T: It’s complexity as well. This is every part of the lime. We’re not just using the juice or even the essential oils.
TC: You’re incorporating the whole thing. There’s nothing precious about it. You can just throw this stuff together. It’s a lot of sugar. It’s a lot of juice. It’s all the peels. It’s going to make itself.
Perfecting the Gimlet Ingredients
T: I know there was a time after straining — I’m not sure if this is still the way that you do it — but at a certain time you would also incorporate some ginger into that. In my mind, that just works immediately. It makes so much sense, but maybe it’s not historically accurate. I’m not sure. Is that something that you still do or do you not go down that route anymore?
TC: We do that. At the bar, we do that. Our house blend is a lime ginger cordial. At first I was peeling ginger in small batches, blending it up in a blender with the cordial, leaving that for a day or two, and then restraining it out. I went from that to simply buying this enormous industrial juicer that can actually handle ginger. Ginger is insanely fibrous, and will just break down a regular juicer literally within 30 seconds. You have to get a specific machine that costs something on the order of $4.5 million.
TC: But, it’s worth it. It really goes through ginger. It just produces a stream of pure ginger juice.
T: Is it a pneumatic juicer? Rather than those motor ones?
TC: No. It’s a big grinding motor. It’s a brutal thing. We do it down in the basement prep kitchen of the bar. Everyone’s coughing, and your eyes hurt. Ginger is intense.
T: Really? I imagine that to be very nice. Maybe it clears the sinuses?
TC: It’s pretty in a candle. When you’re making literal gallons of ginger juice, it’s pretty toxic. It’s volatile stuff.
T: Geez. The British Navy would be proud.
TC: Then, we pour the juice directly into the finished lime cordial. It’s amazing.
T: The acidity and the sugar content of that cordial is probably helping to preserve that, right? The ginger juice is not going to go fizzy?
TC: It doesn’t ever go off. I actually don’t know. People ask, “How long can I keep this?” I don’t really have an answer for it. I found a bottle of lime cordial that I put in the back of my own home fridge. I took some home from the bar thinking, “I should have some of this at home, shouldn’t I?” I just never touched it because it’s just in abundance at work. I found a bottle way in the back of the fridge and thought, “This has been in here for almost two years. I better pour this out.” Before pointing it out, I looked at it and thought, “It looks fine. There’s no mold or anything. Do I dare drink this?” I tasted it and thought, “Am I crazy? This tastes perfectly fine.” I put it in soda water, and it was delicious. I don’t know how to kill that stuff. There’s so much acid and so much sugar that it really has a half life like barium, effectively.
T: That also proves, or provides some kind of validation, that you’re somewhat on the path to historical accuracy. If it’s lasting that long, that’s what they would have wanted initially.
TC: I think the test is, we have to strap it into a barrel and go around the world several times for a period of two or three years.
T: Have you tried aging this? You can get those small 5-liter barrels or whatnot?
TC: Stop. Do I look like that much of a nerd? I’m sure I do, actually. No, I’m not interested in how long it can live. This is my whole problem with everything. I like young spirits. I like young wines. I like things to be fresh, upfront, and taste of what they’re made of. Not wood. I like wood in certain respects, just not in everything I drink.
T: I think that’s a key point about your approach to this drink. I want to take a quick tangent here, if we can. On a previous episode about the Martini, we were chatting with our guest, John Clark-Ginetti, about the Bond Martini, the shaken Martini. We both gave it a pretty hard time. Then, I was contacted by someone who we both know — Dr. Jessica Spector from Yale, who actually introduced both of us — and she said, “You and John are both wrong because neither of you have tried that recipe as it was made in the ’50s.” I said, “OK, yeah, I concede that that’s right. We don’t have those ingredients on hand. That may have been a well-made shaken drink at the time.” What I’m trying to get at here is the question of, how important is historical accuracy? Why do we do these things in the bar? We certainly seem to do it so often. Whether it’s reviving old cocktails or techniques, why is it important, and at what point is it not important? Is that point the equivalent of barrel aging your lime cordial?
TC: You have to take everything case by case, of course. Some things are important only as a template. It was a template for the question I asked myself of, “What is a lime cordial? I don’t actually know what this is.” It turns out there’s an enormous history of it in the Far East, with the British Navy, et cetera. That gives you some sort of a trail of crumbs to follow so you can make whatever you think is going to be the most supernal lime cordial. You have to mess around with that. There’s this whole movement now of garnering all these old bitters, old spirits, and whatnot, to make an actual version of a 1923 Sidecar. That’s not really a 1923 Sidecar though, is it? They weren’t drinking spirits that were 70 years old at the time. They can’t convince me.
T: One thing I’ll say, when it comes to whiskey specifically, there’s dusty hunters in the bourbon world and whatnot. They’re looking for old Wild Turkey from 1970. I’m sorry, but distillation practices have improved since then. Sure, you’re drinking a piece of history. As a whole, though, we are doing things better in many respects. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean that it’s better.
TC: I can’t speak exactly to the bourbon industry and the changes in that, but I know a great deal about the changes in the Scottish whisky industry. A lot of things have changed over the course of 50 years there, in terms of actual wood firing of stills versus steam coils, chill filtration, barrels being different post-repeal than they were beforehand, et cetera.
T: We could be more precise.
TC: Yeah. There’s been a ton of people who say, “Well, whiskey’s whiskey, right?” Not always so much. Those things do change. Say you have a gin that’s 70 years old. What’s going to be left of that? That’s just a distilled, straight, supposedly neutral spirit with aromatics. I don’t want that.
Toby Cecchini’s Gimlet Recipe
T: Yeah, It’s not supposed to change over time. Anyway, that was a very wide sidestep, so I apologize for that. I think that is relevant to today’s conversation, though, and to the ingredient that we’re talking about. Do you have any final thoughts about your cordial? Can you tell us your recipe and how your finest, final Gimlet comes out?
TC: I know I published the recipe in the piece I did for The Times. There is a recipe there. My recipe nowadays starts by first peeling 250 limes and add to that such and such kilos of sugar to start it on the oleo saccharum. It’s not a very viable recipe for people at home. It makes something on the order of 22 liters.
T: And things don’t scale so well. I would definitely recommend that Times article, I don’t want to plug myself here, but I’ve written about this before on VinePair. You can check it out, and I link to your recipe just in case you want to find it easily there and also show VinePair some love. So, your Gimlet. You have 250 liters sitting in the basement of Long Island Bar, which is in New York City. What happens next? How do you bring everything together?
TC: I did all this research about the Gimlet and the cordial a couple of years before I started the bar. The bar is eight years old now. It’s in Brooklyn on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Henry Street. When we started it, I had already been drinking these Gimlets for a couple of years. It’s just my favorite thing to drink, so why wouldn’t I put it on the menu? I’d put so much time and thought into this. My whole thing about putting together menus is that, I think a lot of people in this industry are like, “You’re not going to put a Corpse Reviver on your menu. Everybody does that. It’s just so done and common.” You forget that the layperson, the customer who walks in your door, has no clue what a Corpse Reviver is or what a properly made Gimlet is. They haven’t a clue as to what would go into that, nor that you’ve done this enormous amount of footwork, handwork, and labor to produce such a thing. I thought I’d take my favorite things and put them on my menu, because people will be as astonished as you are. If they’re not, then you can take it off and realize that it’s too much work and nobody gets it. That’s certainly happened with quite a few drinks. The Gimlet, from day one, became our sort of “house drink” on the menu. We’ve never really been able to remove it, because it just outsells everything else that we do by miles. It is a ton of work. Limes right now are at $95 a case. There was a point a few years ago where limes were suddenly unattainable and we had to substitute things. I made a lemon cordial and we did something I called a Lemon Quinine Fix, simply because there weren’t limes available anymore. I’m sort of considering whether we should go back to that. Limes are going towards $100 a case, and it takes you two cases to make just a batch, then more for the juice, et cetera. You either offer this drink at $25 or you just can’t do it. That’s a thought for later if these things go on and on. Anyways, it’s become our house drink, and it’s very simple, but it’s also very complex. All the work is upfront in making the cordial, then simply throwing gin in the cordial together with some fresh lime juice.
T: And what proportions? What ratios?
TC: We use 2 ounces of gin to 1 ounce, currently, of cordial, and three-quarters of an ounce of fresh lime juice. Shake that together and strain it onto fresh ice. Toss in a lime wheel. If you put a lime wedge in, people instantly pick up the lime wedge and squeeze it into the drink without tasting it or thinking about it.
T: It’s the whole pepper thing again, man.
TC: No one likes as much pepper on food as I do. I’ll keep that person grinding that pepper for three minutes on the table.
T: Before you’ve tasted it?
TC: Yeah, absolutely.
T: Oh, man. You serve this over ice, then. That’s interesting. I would assume this to be served up.
TC: Some people get a little bit hincty about that. People say, “You’re supposedly making a real Gimlet, but it’s not even up.” I’ve searched and searched for a proper spec on how the Gimlet is made. Nobody can point to an absolute here. I see it in all kinds of different ways. You can certainly have it up. Lots of people order it up. We serve it on the rocks because it’s so in your face. It’s such an intense drink.
T: It’s punchy.
TC: Yeah, it is really grabby. The Italians have this great word, agrodolce, which means sweet and sour. It’s so sweet-sour, but it’s also just so intense. I feel like it benefits from that dilution. Obviously, it gets diluted from shaking, maybe 20 to 26 percent. If you pour that over ice, you can get something like 30 percent dilution. I feel like it needs that to open up and become palatable.
T: That makes so much sense and sounds so much more compelling than someone saying, “You need to serve this up because it’s this style of drink or whatever,” like I said a few minutes ago. No. You’ve thought about that. You’ve tasted it. That’s your preference.
TC: Some things are just too intense. Since the cocktail renaissance and turn of the century, that was the mode of doing everything. You’re shaking it for very little time on large ice and keeping the concentration and strength, with as little dilution as possible. That is completely anathema to the way I think. I want a lot of dilution and a lot of water to open up a cocktail, make it palatable, make those aromas volatile, and just make it more user friendly. So many drinks are way too concentrated for me.
T: So, you’re using a little bit of fresh lime juice in there to brighten it up slightly and cut through that sweet and sour simplification. Then, what about gin? How much do you think about that? What do you go for?
TC: I think a lot about gin. To be quite frank, you use a gin that you respect and what you get at a very good price. I’ve gone through all kinds of gin. I love Tanqueray. Tanqueray has a very elemental, aromatic profile. It’s a very high-ABV gin at 47 percent. I started with that. We’ve used Fords Gin. We’ve used Citadelle. We’ve used any number of gins.
T: What about Plymouth, with that more citrusy profile?
TC: Plymouth, to me, is the spectacular Martini gin because of its low ABV. It’s 40 percent.
T: I didn’t realize it was that low.
TC: I think it’s just above 40.
T: That’s low, though, for gin.
TC: It’s low, yeah. I can’t use Plymouth in something like a Gin and Tonic. I want something a little more punch-to-punch because there’s so much sugar and acid going on there. You need a gin that punches its weight in this.
T: That’s no longer Beefeater either, sadly.
TC: It used to be Beefeater, but I’m boycotting Beefeater. Sorry.
T: I want my 3 percent ABV back.
TC: It’s 44 percent, which is what Fords is also. Yeah. People have pointed out to me, “You love Fords gin, so why are you boycotting Beefeater?” I’m boycotting Beefeater because they did this really cynical thing of pulling the gin during the pandemic.
T: During the pandemic.
TC: They didn’t tell anybody. Suddenly, through sleight of hand, they reissued it and said “Beefeater’s back. They never said, “We reduced the ABV so that we save a ton of money by selling you a little more water than gin.”
T: In 10 years’ time, people are going to look back and say, “That’s not a proper G&T from 2010. The Beefeater that you’re using today is actually 3 percent lower than that.”
TC: Yeah, but I’m going to be a millionaire because I put my two cases of the old Beefeater that I had on hand online. I’m just waiting for the nerds to come around. Anybody listening, you can buy these for $1.27 million a case right now.
T: Then, you can get three or four new juices for your Gimlet.
TC: Yeah, exactly.
How Cecchini’s Father’s Gin and Tonic Influenced His Gimlet Approach
T: I want to talk about something here and move past the Gimlet slightly. You’re the second guest on our show who has not only authored a book, but also narrated that book on Audible. The name of your book is “Cosmopolitan,” funnily enough. And I want to say, first of all, I’m a big fan and I enjoy the narration, too. Good job on that. I’ll put that out there first. There’s a part in the audio book that really struck me, especially knowing the way that you approach the Gimlet. It’s pretty early on. You talk about the way that your father approached making G&Ts and how, besides wine, which you’d had as a younger kid and it was watered down a little bit, this was one of your first experiences with a real, properly made drink. You talk about the extreme length with which your dad goes to peel the citrus. You mentioned it earlier here in this episode. It struck me that this is so natural that you would approach the Gimlet in the same way. Your dad has the G&T recipe down. There are so many crossovers between the G&T and the Gimlet if we want to talk about the Navy and just the ingredients. I don’t want to go too far into psychology here, but that’s just something that struck me.
TC: My father was Italian, and he was a research chemist. He was also a spectacular cook. It was just nothing for him. He loved Gin and Tonics, and he had a way of preparing them that was sort of my initial entry into mixed drinks. He would let us have these from the time I was around 15 years old, in small amounts, of course. We’d just have a glass of Gin and Tonic at the end of the day. He would take a lime, but he wouldn’t peel it, he would juice it, and then he would julienne the peel and the entire husk. He would then take all of those julienned lime peels and huck them in a big crystal pitcher. Then, he’d pour a pretty fair amount of gin in on that. It was initially just supermarket gin. I tried to convince him that, in fact, the gin makes a difference. He thought, “That’s nonsense.” I brought him a large handle of Tanqueray once as a gift.
T: Handle of the Tanq. The best.
TC: I won that argument. Ever afterwards, he would use Tanqueray. He would effectively macerate the lime peels in the gin. He pointed out, being a chemist, “I’m simply using the gin as the solvent it actually is to extract the oil from the peels.”.
T: That makes sense.
TC: That oil is extremely aromatic, and you should incorporate it in the drink. And yet, no one does. You simply make a Gin and Tonic. You pour gin with tonic water and you hock a lime piece in there. That’s supposed to be a Gin and Tonic, but the lime has so much more to give. That was my introduction to the Gin and Tonic. He would then thwack ice cubes until they were sort of cracked, and he put them in on top of that. Then, he’d carefully pour in chilled tonic water down the side of the pitcher and stir it very cautiously with a long glass rod. Then, he’d take the whole thing out to the porch and we would pour Gin and Tonics. This was sort of my introduction to drinking. That set a template for me that you can take the simplest things. I’ve used my dad’s Gin and tonic in lectures and whatnot to illustrate for people that you can take the simplest, most barebones drink that you can possibly think of. I now substitute the Vodka Soda for my dad’s Gin and Tonic, because it’s an even simpler drink that most bartenders hold in absolute revulsion. It’s a similar thing, though. You can think about every single element of a cocktail and really take it in. How much ice are you putting in the glass? That determines how much tonic you can get. If you don’t think of a Gin and Tonic or a Vodka Soda as having a spec, the way you do every other drink, you’re not taking the care with every single cocktail that you perhaps should be. When my own bartenders say, “They want some stupid Tito’s and soda,” I think, “Why are you holding this particular person in disesteem simply because you don’t happen to like Tito’s and soda?” I always say, “If this was your mother, and she wants a Tito’s and soda, are you going to spit in the ice and hand her some drink that you fobbed off in this terrible way? Or, are you actually going to think that Mom wants a Tito’s and soda, so I’m going to make her the perfect Tito’s and soda. It’s going to be 2 ounces of Tito’s. I’m going to put half the glass filled with ice, so that I have enough volume left so that there’s some real spritz in there. Mom might be English, and she might want a lemon rather than a lime. Americans like lime, but the English might want a lemon, so I’m going to put both in there.” Have you really thought about this drink enough to think, “If somebody orders a Tito’s and soda, how do I make the perfect Tito’s and soda?” Are you thinking you want to make a perfect Old Fashioned because that nerd wants an Old Fashioned, but this fool wants a Tito’s and soda?
T: It reminds me of the way I would see some chefs prepare a well-done steak. That really used to piss me off. They would prod at the thing on the grill to try and make it cook quicker. It’s like, what’s it to you, the way that someone likes their steak? Treat it with respect as well.
TC: This is somebody who wants something a specific way. They’re to be denigrated, while somebody else who orders something that you agree with won’t?
T: It’s antithetical to everything that we’re supposed to be doing in the hospitality industry.
TC: Exactly. I point this out constantly to my bartenders. You think you’re some hot-shot bartender, but you’re looking down on certain people for certain drinks. I know this because I used to do this. I had to take myself in hand and say, “You’re a bit of a jackass. Look at your own behavior and understand, if your mother ordered this drink, you would make it happily and with great forethought and caution. But, because this person wants this drink that you don’t agree with and that you personally wouldn’t drink, you’re now being snarky about it.” It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It makes you, in effect, a bad bartender. Look at yourself in the mirror and realize, “Oh, I’m a bad bartender.”
T: It’s been a really enjoyable exploration into history, into more recent history, and into modern times. Do you have any final thoughts about the Gimlet before we move on to our stock questions to finish things?
TC: I don’t, except that you should try one. It will blow your mind.
Getting to Know Toby Cecchini
T: Question No. 1: I’m going to actually change this question a bit, regular listeners will realize, so I want to point that out. I’ll tell you the normal question beforehand, just so that we’re not catching you off guard, but I think the new one is better. Typically at this point, I would ask people, what’s the first bottle that makes it onto any of your bar programs? I think a better question is, which category of spirit is best represented on your back bar and why?
TC: Wow. I don’t quite know how to answer that question, because when you are putting together a bar, you have to have all the categories.
T: Purely in numerical terms and quantity-wise.
TC: You have to have a certain breadth of base spirits in order to have a bar. It’s like, “What instrument do you bring out to make a band?” Wait, you need all the instruments. You can’t have a good band with just the drums. You need all the things. That’s the same with the bar. One thing that I will point out that’s interesting is that certainly vodka is there. There was just an era, in the beginning of the cocktail renaissance, where everybody decided vodka is bad and vodka is anathema to what we do. We make drinks out of rum and whiskey and genever and all these things. It’s sort of an inside joke with myself for people who are putting too many flourishes on a drink and whatnot. They’ll say “This has chili pequin, lime juice, passion fruit juice, grapefruit juice, and it also has genever.” I always say, “What? No Batavia Arrack?” People take the question very seriously. There was a moment where Batavia Arrack was in everything. Yet, people were actively eschewing vodka because it’s looked down upon because the “normies” drink that. To me, nothing’s off limits. I’m not looking for a million of anything. You should just have what you think are the best few spirits. Have your pick of the top six or seven gins, rums, et cetera that you need to formulate drinks.
T: Are you still on that premium rum thing? That’s in the book, if you want to know what that’s about. Go out there and buy it, read it, or listen to it. Are you still still a big fan of high-end rums, as you were?
TC: The rum thing has gone through the roof since I wrote that book.
T: It’s the next Pappy.
TC: The knowledge of rum and the following of rum in this country was reprehensible, really, at that point. Now, the rum thing is just through the roof. But, yes, I’m a huge fan of rums.
T: Fantastic. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
TC: Oh, that’s easy. The OXO oyster knife. You wouldn’t think so, right? The most useful tool in the history of mankind, actually, is the OXO Good Grips oyster knife.
T: Are you joking?
TC: No. Not at all. That’s why I’m being that specific.
T: OK. In case folks aren’t aware of what exactly that is, could you explain?
TC: It’s an oyster knife.
T: As in, small?
TC: A small knife with a big handle that is not sharp, but is pointy, for opening oysters.
T: What are you using that for?
TC: Every single thing that you need it for, and you need it for everything.
TC: You need it for opening boxes. You need it for pulling things out of the drain that you can’t reach. There are 175 uses now for this thing. I’ve turned so many people onto it. They tell me, “Oh my God, you’ve changed my life. That stupid oyster knife, I use it for everything.” Yes, you use it for everything, because you have beautiful knives that you keep impeccably sharp. You can’t use those for a lot of things. You can use the oyster knife for anything. “Oh no, I have gum on the bottom of my shoe.” OXO oyster knife. “I have this olive oil container and I can’t get the last third out because there’s a vacuum formed in it. I have to punch a huge hole in the top of this olive oil can.” OXO oyster knife. You can do anything with it. It’s indestructible. It’s short. You can’t break it. You can’t dull it. It has a great tip. You can certainly hurt yourself with it, so be careful.
T: Maybe get one of those chainmail gloves.
TC: Then you’ll really hurt yourself. Just this summer, I used it for the first time to open oysters. I have to say, it’s not great at opening oysters.
T: It’s overrated, by the way, shucking oysters. It’s not that fun. Leave that one to the pros.
TC: A friend of mine who was a fishmonger showed me the way to do it. You actually don’t need anything sharp.
TC: You get in there and you turn it, and it’s just a pop. Then, you cut the abductor muscle. It’s really simple.
T: It’s like if you want to saber Champagne. You should see the way that our producer here, Keith Beavers, sabers a bottle of Champagne. He’ll do it with anything.
T: Yeah. We digress. You could probably saber a bottle of Champagne with an oyster knife as well.
TC: You absolutely can. You could absolutely use the OXO Good Grips oyster knife. I’m going to do it.
T: I am sold. I’m buying one. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
TC: Hmm. Ouch. I’m going to hearken back to my book, but I wouldn’t say it’s in this industry necessarily. When I went to Florence to visit my family, my uncle Giuliano was there, who was he patriarch of the family. He was a larger-than-life figure. He asked me how things were going in New York and what I was doing, blah, blah, blah. I very embarrassingly said, “Things are going all right. I’m just bartending right now. It’s just kind of embarrassing. I’m thinking of going to law school and thinking of doing this and that.” A storm crossed his brow that just cut into me. He said, “What are you talking that way for? You have a job. That’s something to be proud of. Don’t denigrate your job.” That guy had lived through the war and came up to be chief of police of Florence. He had worked in restaurants. He said, “Every single job you do, you do to the absolute best of your ability. That’s the way you advance into other things in life. If you’re ashamed of something you do, you’re never going to get ahead.” He just dressed me down brutally, with eyes of fire. I was like, “Yes, sir.” I really took it in. I thought, “OK, yeah.”
T: You are still doing it.
TC: It made a sea change in my thinking about bartending. I suddenly realized, I didn’t value this job and was sort of embarrassed by it. I would treat people badly because I thought the job was sort of beneath me in some way. Ergo, I was a shit bartender. I looked at my own bartending. I thought I was some hot shot bartender when I was just plainly a shit bartender. That’s when I started becoming a good bartender.
T: Fantastic. Question No. 4: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, which one would it be? Can be past or present.
TC: If I could only visit one last bar in my life, I would visit the now-no-longer Le Fitzcarraldo in Paris, which was a bar that was in Paris in the ’80s. It was just an absolute zoo, but a thing of beauty. It was sort of in the dead center of Paris, right by the Beaubourg. It’s like imagining something in the center of Times Square that’s cool. It’s a very similar scenario. It was this crazy bar that was run by people who were artists. Every two months or so, they had the bar completely redesigned by a different artist. One day, you would come in and it would be completely decked out in silver mylar with plastic baby dolls all over the place. Two months later, you would go in and it was done in a sort of timbered setting, with live trees all over. You never knew what you were walking into. It was this incredible mix of Parisians, emigrés, students, and everything else. It was just a wild space. I’ve never been in a bar that was quite that open and free.
T: It sounds magical.
TC: It was amazing. Of course, as such, it could never last.
T: Final question for you. If you knew that the last cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you make or order?
TC: That is an excellent question. You’ve really got to go down slugging, don’t you?
T: I would say so.
TC: I think I would probably just have a glass of superb Champagne if I was thinking, “Here I go. Goodbye, lovely world.”
T: Raise your spirits just for a short while.
TC: You need something bubbly just to be a little defiant.
T: Bonus question because we let Alperin have this one, so I feel like we should let you.
TC: All right.
T: Knowing that you’re a music fan, what would you be listening to at that time? Actually, as a Brit, which Beatles album would you be listening to at that time?
TC: Which Beatles album would I be listening to with my last final glass of Champagne? Probably “Revolver.” Yeah.
T: That’s where are you going?
TC: I think so.
T: Nice. Is that the best Beatles album?
TC: There’s no best Beatles album. There are different eras of the Beatles, and I can’t think of a bad album that they put out.
T: I might have to argue with you on that one.
TC: You can.
T: Best Beatles album is “Best of the Beatles.” It’s excellent. They even knew it when they came up with the title.
TC: But which one? The red one or the blue one?
T: I think it’s the blue one that has the later stuff. That’s really good. Toby, it’s been a blast.
TC: Thank you for having me on.
T: Let’s go have a G&T. We’ll follow it up with a punchy Gimlet.
TC: I’m ready. Cheers.
If you enjoy listening to the show anywhere near as much as we enjoy making it, go ahead and hit subscribe, and please leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts — whether that’s Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher. And please tell your friends.
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.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.