It's hard to take something that I have been doing for so long back to the basics, but I am going to try. Don't let anyone tell you it's hard to do what guys like I do. Bartending is only a skill like ice skating or knitting and a skill can be nurtured and trained. Anyone can make cocktails; it takes someone special with the necessary skills to make a great cocktail, a memorable cocktail. No one is ever a "master mixologist." You haven't tasted every alcohol, mixer, fruit (& vegetable) so how can you be a master. You can only the best you can be right now.
What does it take for someone to make a signature drink the likes of Toby Cecchini's Cosmo or Cox's Daiquiri? Knowledge, the knowledge of everything that goes into your drink, the techniques you use and the final touches.
Alcohol is like the alphabet, there are at least a dozen alcohols per letter. So start at Armagnac and make your way through to Zen Green Tea Liqueur. The more you taste, the more you remember. Always keep an open mind when tasting, even if you don't like it, appreciate the spirit for what it is. Remember every gin; bourbon and vodka have their own characteristics. Build on their characteristics for the benefit of mankind or for a hot girl across your bar on a Friday night.
When using alcohol, remember a little can be a lot. The smallest dashes and rinses can accentuate the entire drink, for example, the Sazerac. Only a dash of absinth balances the bourbon so beautifully. Who would have thought to put absinthe with cognac originally and then bourbon? When making cocktails, being adventurous is always great but you need to be able to sell the drink. I have cocktails with the strangest ingredients, pumpkin pie filling, cucumber, but I can sell them to the customer because they have the trust I can deliver.
Keep your edge, your one step ahead of the pack. The way I stay sharp is by walking through the market and just taking notice of any new fruit, vegetables, syrups, sauces or condiments. Fruit is always fun although a little too easy, vegetables are more of a challenge. When we are dead quiet in the bar, my mates and I would challenge ourselves by picking the most random ingredients and trying to put something together. Sometimes it can come up money or absolute rubbish, but it makes you learn how to balance the weirdest of flavours and use the strangest of techniques.
When looking for new ways to make cocktails, look to the kitchen. Chefs use techniques that can be adapted to the bar without too much fuss. And remember the different ways you mix a drink, the more original it will taste. If you add egg white to a margarita it will have a creamier mouth feel and a taste that is completely different from the norm. When you add egg white to a drink you have the opportunity to "brulee" the top of it with a torch. Bruleeing is a kitchen technique used when you caramelise or burn the sugars on the top of desserts but it can be used to do the same to martinis. Just remember to get good egg white foam you need to shake it really hard.
There are so many techniques and ingredients that are now being used that it is hard to keep up with all of them. My advice is to get in the kitchen, read cook books; these are the best sources of knowledge in the new world of cocktail making. Be a leader in using new methods and the strangest ingredients to give your customers the experience of a lifetime. There is nothing better to see a customers face when you make them a drink with something really out there in it.
When making up your next cocktail, think about what you are using, how you are using it and how you can sell it. Enjoy making something that's unique and may one day be a signature cocktail of your own.