The best cocktails ever invented are some of the simplest, which is important to remember when concocting a new recipe.
For me, that process starts with the basics, and then I begin working out from there. Small amounts of a new flavor can provide tipplers a fresh perspective on a drink that they already know and love. And the most elegant and efficient way to do this that I’ve found is to add spices. Incorporating some spices, herbs or teas is a wonderful method to create a bespoke experience without tying your guests’ palates into half-Windsors.
I always keep a supply of spice staples at my New York bars Ward III and The Rum House, including ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil, peppercorns, allspice, juniper, anise and clove. I also like cardamom and feature it in my Hell Bent for Leather, a spin on an Old Fashioned. Just a handful of pods gives the classic an exotic feel. It’s one of our most popular tipples at Ward III and has never left the menu.
And to get you experimenting with spices, here are five pieces of advice I’ve picked up during my years behind the stick.
Whole and Fresh are Best:
Between gourmet grocery stores and online sources, fresh herbs and whole spices are easily obtainable. They also have an enormous amount of flavor. Dried herbs and pre-ground spices are generally not worth the effort. (Whole spices will lose their potency after a year or two in a jar, so replace them periodically.)
Be seasonal and regional:
Cloves in November. Basil in March. Ginger to follow your Chinese dinner. Flavors follow seasonal traditions and regional cuisines. Borrow from what chefs are doing in the kitchen for inspiration.
Muddle & grate:
The technique you should employ depends upon the ingredient. Muddle fresh peppercorns or cardamom pods—try it when making a version of the Daiquiri—but grate nutmeg or cinnamon on top of a drink (this is great for a complex Sidecar).
Use a fine-strainer to remove floating bits of leaves, husks or seed pods. While some texture can be interesting in a cocktail, too much tends to spoil the effect and makes it hard to drink.
I love spices for their intense aromas and flavors, so err on the side of subtlety. If the spice isn’t coming through enough, add more to the next round you fix!
Michael Neff is a top New York bartender and co-owner of cocktail bars Ward III and The Rum House.