Flora, Uptown Oakland’s popular art-deco restaurant and bar, began offering classes for cocktail enthusiasts this year. The first session (offered in February and March) focused on Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, with tips on techniques, a sampling of the history of American whiskeys, some “hands-on” opportunities, and plenty of tasting involved.
The class I attended, the first in a two-part series offered in April and May, was supposed to focus on the coast to coast variations of citrus-based drinks. As happens sometimes in the best teaching environments, an instructor — in this case, the enthusiastic Matty McGee — took his cues from his students, and tweaked the curriculum a bit.
We began with a discussion of the daiquiri. According to my somewhat blurry notes, the differences break down like this: East Coast daiquiris are more sugary, boozier, and made on a larger scale, while West Coast drinks are more condensed with more equally balanced ingredients. The way he describes it, the rebels on the left coast felt it necessary to break away from the more “old-school, classic styling” way of mixing these sour-based drinks.
Along with a lesson in shaking technique (stop shaking if you hear a slushy sound), and cocktail-making equipment (the Boston shaker, which is glass and tin, versus the standard double tin, or the cobbler— which consists of three parts: lid, cap and vessel); we learned the proper way to release the aroma of mint. (It doesn’t need as much coaxing as we think — just a little light press between the fingers or a light “spank”; too much muddling alters the aromatics from “minty” to “muddy.”)
McGee also delved into the history of rum, or “rhum,” when the spirit is Martinique-style. He feels that the daiquiri was “assassinated” in the ‘80s with the introduction of strawberry and other variations. (The ‘80s in general were not kind to spirits, he says.)
When it comes to making daiquiris, he stressed the importance of balance between the sugar and the citrus. Sugar and citrus were historically used to cover up the taste of bad booze, he said. Bartenders had to come up with ways to hide the taste of the alcohol, as opposed to today, when customers frequently ask for a particular “boutique” booze when ordering a drink.
The class nodded in agreement when McGee proclaimed daiquiris “the best drinks in warm weather.” Served in a chilled glass — the colder the better — a daiquiri on a hot day is “cold, tart and refreshing.”
He explained the difference between Martinique rhum (made with fresh pressed sugar cane juice and having a “grassy, rotting aroma”) and Barbados style, which is made from molasses. (An historical note here about the Jamaican “Navy Strength” rum [113 proof] we tasted: The Royal Navy began rationing rum to its sailors after the Jamaican Invasion of 1655. In order to make sure no-one had watered down their precious rum ration, sailors proved the strength of the spirit by pouring it on gunpowder and attempting to light it on fire. If it ignited, they saw “proof” that the alcohol content surpassed the required percentage. Happily, today we don’t need to use this method to determine proof. We just read the label.)
What distinguishes a West Coast daiquiri? According to McGee, the ingredients are blended in almost equal proportions. We tasted a daiquiri #3, also known as a Papa Doble (Hemingway’s favorite, although he asked for one with more rum and less sugar).
- 2 oz. rum
- .75 oz. lime juice
- .75 oz. grapefruit juice
- .25 simple syrup
- .25 oz. Luxardo Maraschino
- Shake and dump into bucket glass
In the world of bartending, we learned, there are standard variations of this drink, numbered 1-5. The most well-known are Hemingway’s #3, and the # 1, served on the rocks:
- 2.5 oz. rum
- 3/4 oz. lime juice
- 1/2 oz. sugar syrup
- Shake with ice and strain into an ice filled old-fashioned glass
For the home bartender, McGee suggests you should “understand how the drink works, then do what you want,” keeping in mind that a half-ounce difference in the amount of citrus and sugar will “create a different flavor profile.” And if you want to bump up the rum and cut down on the sugar, make your own version of Hemingway’s favorite.
The class I attended was “hands-on” only in the respect that we students picked up our drinks to taste them. One eager participant stepped behind the bar for a shaking tutorial, but the rest of us were content to watch the expert demonstrate his two-handed, double-tin technique from the comfort of our barstools.
The second and final class in the series is scheduled for Sunday May 17, 5-7 p.m. at Flora, located at the corner of 19th Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, across from the Fox Theater.
According to Flora’s website this second class focuses on the proportions in a few spirit-based cocktails: the Martini, Martinez, and Manhattan, and how they differ from coast to coast. Cost is $75.00.
Matty McGee has a wealth of knowledge and experience pertaining to bartending, history, and technique. His high-energy presentations have earned him a well-deserved following. Our appreciative class raised a glass (more than one, actually) to thank him for a most informative and fluid presentation. While there is only one more class scheduled, there may be additional sessions to come.
Want to keep up-to-date on all the food, drink and restaurant news in the East Bay? Subscribe to NOSH Weekly, the free weekly email packed with delicious news. Simply sign up here.