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The idea of an apprenticeship has always appealed to me. I’ve got nothing against book learning. It’s just that there’s something romantic about learning a trade directly from someone who’s mastered it. It was this thinking that led me to Shady Lady Saloon, where craft bartenders are reviving old-time cocktail recipes for a new generation.
This is not Red Bull territory. You’ll find no Jägermeister shots here. Shady Lady is where serious bartenders practice the liquid arts, even coming in on their days off to perfect their techniques and experiment with new recipes.
In my earnest search for cocktail wisdom, I sat studiously at the bar while Jason Boggs, one of Shady Lady’s congenial owners, prepared a gorgeous horse’s neck (bourbon, housemade ginger syrup, Angostura bitters, whole lemon peel), took me on a brief jaunt through cocktail history (where I learned the origins of the julep strainer, among other trivia) and imparted his intimate knowledge of how to make a great drink.
Here are a few notes from my master class. The rest you’ll have to learn for yourself. (And trust me, it’s better that way.)
Use the right tools for the job. “The No. 1 most underused tool in most bars,” says Boggs, “is the spoon.” It’s the secret behind an impeccably stirred cocktail. Other indispensible utensils: Hawthorn and julep strainers, a peeler and channel knife for removing zest from citrus, and a muddler for crushing herbs and fresh fruit.
Know when to stir, when to shake. “The rule of thumb is that if a drink contains juice, it’s shaken. If there’s no juice, it’s stirred,” explains Boggs.
It’s better with bitters. Just a few drops of bitters—the concentrated tinctures made from botanicals, herbs and spices—can elevate a drink from so-so to “Whoa!” Says Boggs, “Bitters are like salt and pepper to a chef.” Shady Lady bartenders have 20 different types at their disposal, from traditional Angostura to sunshine bitters made from saffron and cardamom.
Keep it real. You’ll find no artificial flavors at Shady Lady, where even the cola syrup is made from scratch (and puts Coke to shame). “The first thing I’d ask all bars to do is throw out the sweet-and-sour mix,” says Boggs. His go-to ingredients: lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup (always housemade), Angostura bitters and mint.
Measure. A properly balanced drink requires ingredients that are precisely measured, says Boggs, who relies on a measuring cup when preparing cocktails. Leaving nothing to chance, Boggs, who spent the earlier part of his career as a chef, also carries a well-worn cocktail recipe book in his pocket.