Derek Yaniger, www.mrretro.com
At some point in elementary school, everyone learns how to write a sentence. You choose a subject, you find a verb, and voilà — a sentence! Soon enough, though, you learn that writing a complete sentence is not the same thing as writing a complex one. To craft one of those, you needed modifiers — parts of speech like adverbs, adjectives and prepositional phrases — to add deeper layers of meaning to your prose and help you tell more vivid and elegant stories.
Crafting a sentence isn’t that different from crafting a cocktail. I know this because I do a lot of both. A basic cocktail, like a basic sentence, has a few simple ingredients. It’s a base spirit (whiskey, bourbon, rum, gin, tequila) combined with sugar, water and bitters. That’s the template for a Sazerac (minus the rinse) and for an Old Fashioned (plus muddling).
Many other cocktails are built with only slight variations on that basic formula. Add a lime or lemon and you’re in the land of sours and daiquiris. Add some frothy egg white and you’re serving a fizz.
There’s nothing wrong with a basic cocktail. Some of the most popular cocktails are based on the fewest ingredients. Two words (well, three): gin and tonic.
Occasionally, however, we all want something more. I adore daiquiris, for example, and they’re easy to make at home. I’m always happy to have a mini-margarita made from a nice mescal, simple syrup and lime juice. But there are nights when I fantasize about my tequila drink tasting more like pears or sour cherries or ginger candy. This summer, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make rum punches that were more aromatic and floral.
For moments like these, the best thing to dig out of your liquor cabinet isn’t necessarily another base spirit (although that can influence flavor too), but a different kind of alcoholic ingredient altogether. (Here comes the grammar pivot.)
Turns out, when you mix a vermouth, a liqueur, an amaro or some other fortified wine into your cocktail along with your base spirit, those ingredients are also called modifiers.
The exquisitely pedantic cocktail reference guide Death & Co. defines modifiers as any alcoholic ingredient that isn’t the base of a cocktail. Knowing about modifiers is helpful when, for example, you get a nice bottle of sherry as a hostess gift and you don’t normally drink that, so you’re not sure how to use it.
Knowing about modifiers is especially helpful for people who have entire cabinets full of half-used bottles of liqueurs. Not everyone realizes how versatile they can be. How long has that bottle of Campari been sitting on the shelf? What about that orange liqueur? Well, Campari and triple sec are both fun, functional and flavorful ways to transform a basic cocktail into a more complex one.
What else qualifies as a modifier? The list is long. For starters, here are 10 things currently in my liquor cabinet (in alphabetical order) that count: amaro, Campari, crème de cassis, yellow Chartreuse, Cointreau, Cynar, Luxardo Maraschino, Pernod, St-Germain and vermouth. There are other things in my liquor cabinet, but these are the ones I actually use.
It’s important to note that while some of these are liquor types, others are brands. That’s not the only difference among them. Other than the fact that all of them contain alcohol, and you usually find them in the same general area of the liquor store, modifiers don’t really have a set of common characteristics.
In Europe, some are traditionally known as aperitifs while others are called digestifs. Served on the rocks, or with a splash of soda, drinks like Campari and Aperol are routinely enjoyed before dinner to stimulate the appetite. Bittersweet liqueurs like amaro and fortified wines like vermouth are often enjoyed afterwards, theoretically to help with digestion. But we aren’t talking about drinking these beverages for digestive purposes.
I find it helpful to think of modifiers simply in terms of what they’re not. They’re not base spirits. They’re not meant to carry a drink on their own. Rather, including them in a drink will make a basic cocktail recipe stronger and more flavorful, both appealing traits.
At the same time, their alcohol strength varies widely. Many modifier-class liquors have lower percentages of alcohol by volume than base spirits, which makes them ideal for starting or ending a long night of imbibery.
While a typical whiskey or gin clocks in at 40 percent ABV (or 80 proof), sweet liqueurs like St-Germain and crème de cassis, fortified wines like sweet and dry vermouth, and bitter vegetal drinks like Cynar, all come closer to 20 percent. Yet many of the amari, Chartreuse (yellow and green) and Pernod all have significantly higher alcohol ratios.
If that doesn’t blow your mind, try this: There is now a higher-octane version of Cynar called Cynar 70, which bartender Alex Kjell at Heritage Tavern recently introduced me to. It has twice the ABV of the original, all of the bittersweet artichoke flavor, and no problem carrying the cocktail on its own.
That’s confusing, maybe, but innovation is the name of the game in the cocktail world. If they invent it, people will come. And really, the fact that crafty bartenders now base entire cocktails on high-proof artichoke liqueurs shouldn’t tarnish their reputation as modifiers.
Mixologists are still mostly relying on these bottles to make classic cocktails like the Martini, the Manhattan, the Aviation and the Last Word. What makes this class of drinks so congenial is that with wildly different tastes, textures and noses, modifiers can exponentially increase the variations on a cocktail menu.
If you need more convincing, consider some of the drinks recently on cocktail menus around town. At Estrellón, for instance, you might find a house cocktail called the G&T #4. It’s a basic gin and tonic with modifiers, made with a botanical gin, Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic and lime, with two additional ingredients. One is the strong and deeply herbal green Chartreuse and the other is Yzaguirre Blanco, an almost spicy vermouth from Spain. This drink is delightfully powerful, though traditionalists should take heed: It’s the most fragrant gin and tonic you will ever have. Welcome to floral cocktails.
While we’re on the topic of Chartreuse, another fun local example is the Secret Garden Slushy, lately on the menu at Forequarter. It mixes yellow Chartreuse — the slightly weaker and sweeter of the Chartreuses — with pear eau de vie, tequila, lavender bitters and lemon. The Secret Garden Slushy is not nearly as slushy as its name makes it sound, but it is a wonderful drink.
If you want to stick with tequila, stroll to the Robin Room for a canonical tequila drink, the El Diablo. The Robin Room version mixes a spicy, golden Espolon Reposado tequila with ginger beer, lime and cassis — a syrupy black currant liqueur that changes the drink into something fruitier and, to use a technical word, yummier.
There are plenty of cocktails being served around town that feature more than one modifier in a single drink. Lucille was making a Red Hook, for example, that mixed Templeton Rye with sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur. Likewise, Field Table has served a modified Negroni made with an iris-infused gin, sweet vermouth, bitters and an orangey Italian liqueur called Strega.
While a lot of modifiers are liqueurs, meaning they’re sweetened and flavored, others are bittersweet or tart. Some people enjoy sweet drinks while others (say, me) prefer intensely bitter ones. And even then, bitterness is subjective. Campari is one of my favorite drinks, for example, while Maraschino tastes like tree bark to me, and not in a good way. I find St-Germain cloying, except when I mix it with dry champagne, then it’s my favorite thing in the world. Your own palate is the ultimate decider.
Cocktails are about complexity and innovation, but they’re also about personal preference. In drinking, as in writing, you are the author of the final product. How it comes out will depend on how sweet, bitter, sour, fruity, flowery, spicy, syrupy and strong you want your story to be.
Classic cocktails that use modifiers
• The Diplomat
French vermouth, Italian vermouth, bitters, Maraschino
Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, orange twist
• The Aviation
Gin, maraschino, crème de violette, lemon juice
Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, orange peel
Tequila or mezcal, Cointreau, agave, lime juice
• Last Word
Gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino, lime juice