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John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab

A Cocktail Seminar of a Different Sort

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John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Photo Courtesy: © Shannon Graham
If you have attended a cocktail conference you will be familiar with the standard seminar set up: a speaker or two in front of a projection screen, rows of tables where attendees sit to listen to the lecture and sample the drinks on the particular topic. Though no where near a stuffy atmosphere, this is the typical format. However, at the 2012 San Antonio Cocktail Conference, Miami Beach bartender, John Lermayer, shook things up a little bit and created a class titled the Interactive Cocktail Lab.

This seminar included 10 participants, each paired up on a table stacked with all of the essentials needed to make the drinks on the agenda. For each cocktail, Lermayer walked the group through, step-by-step, breaking down the drinks and the techniques used. It is, as the title suggests, an interactive experience. You will shake drinks, cut garnishes, learn how to stir and rim, and, hopefully, come out with a far deeper understanding of the basics which you will then take to your bar (home or professional) to improve every drink you make from here on out.

Why This Interactive Lab Works

After sitting in on Lermayer's lab, I am sold on the concept that a class of this sort should be at every cocktail convention from now on. The primary reason is that it gave the 'common person' a chance to experience and take home practical knowledge and real-life experience rather than a bunch of theories that may or may not be implemented in future drinks.

Our class was primarily cocktail enthusiasts, with the exception of two bartenders, and for them I feel that this fun trip through 5 basic drinks was more rewarding than a lecture would be. Some had not made a Mojito prior to this, some did not know why we use fresh ice or the unbelievable power of a small spritz of lemon peel extract when added to a Martini. After this two hour session it was clear they now understood.

Also, given the full cocktail conference experience, this lab was a respite, a place to put into action something you may have learned earlier that day. Every seminar I have ever attended at these events has given me a lot of information, but there are always times when, mid-conference, I want to apply what I've learned. It's almost painful to be miles away from my own bar, surrounded by all of these great tools, spirits, and drinks, and not be able to get some shaker time in.

This class format is not only for the amateur. Professionals can always use another refresher course on mixing. Often, there are techniques to be learned which may enhance your next shift behind the stick, improve efficiency, make a drink look better, or be more appealing to a wider customer base. As in any profession, there are numerous ways to improve and learn and both of us who had experience in bars, we learned quite a bit. Never stop learning, in the bar business we cannot afford to be complacent.

That said, Lermayer hit on a great idea and I hope it takes off and spreads to more of the annual conferences. He was an enthusiastic and patient teacher, the 'students' had light bulbs going off constantly, and everyone enjoyed themselves. After the lab I spoke to a few attendees. Rita Graves, a cocktail enthusiast from San Antonio said, "I loved it. This is a perfect hands-on class." Others appreciated the practical application, the way Lermayer broke down drinks to explain them in their uncomplicated reality. Plus, it was pure fun: 11 people in a single room shaking up drinks, how can that not be a great time?

DNA Then Technique, The Lemonade Base

Sharon Davison of San Antonio shakes drinks at John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab

Sharon Davison of San Antonio shakes drinks at John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Photo Courtesy: © Shannon Graham

Lermayer's premise for the lab was "DNA then technique." Every drink has a basic structure and can be broken down into a simple formula of parts. Many of our favorite drinks use a basic formula that are easy to understand. Often this is a balance of sweet, sour, spirit, dilution, and temperature, and that is all that is needed to make a great cocktail.

To implant this into participant's heads, he began by having us make lemonade. It is the simplest of drinks and once you understand this drink, you can make almost any sour cocktail in spectacular fashion. The lemonade recipe is 1 part lemon juice, 1 part simple syrup, 2 parts water. Shake this and strain it over fresh ice in a highball glass. It is that simple and if you revert to mixing up a pitcher of powdered sugar-laced lemonade for the kids again you need to think twice about your motives. In reality I find it far more difficult to get all those sugar crystals to dissolve than making this freshly juiced, well-balanced glass.

Daiquiri, Mojito, Margarita

With the lemonade base fresh in our memories, we moved on to alcoholic sours. The premise is that the Daiquiri, Mojito, and Margarita are all related, essentially spiked limeades following that same 1:1:2 DNA of the lemonade. Think about it for a minute: a Daiquiri is a lime sour of 1 part lime, 1 part simple syrup, and 2 parts rum. The Mojito is a Daiquiri with mint and lime, and the Margarita is a Daiquiri with tequila instead of rum. Three great drinks right there that need no further explanation (basically) and are far superior to any pre-mixed bottled alternative that are marketed as time saving.

Of the three of these drinks, I was most impressed with Lermayer's approach to the Mojito. The one issue I've had with so many Mojitos over the years is the look of the drink in the glass. It can, after muddling and shaking, look like a swampy mess of mint and mashed lime. To fix this, he had us make the cocktail with two sets of mint and lime: one set was about 10 great looking leaves in the glass with two half lime wheels while the double the mint and two more fresh lime slices were used for the dirty work in the shaker. Though some of the bruised mint did make it past the hawthorne strainer, but for the most part the drinking glass contained pristine, beautiful mint and lime floating among the ice. The other thing I took from the Mojito was in the finishing touch. Lermayer explained that it is best to place the straw on the opposite side of the fresh mint sprig garnish for the simple reason that while you are drinking you get the wonderful aroma of fresh mint in your nose and since 90% of taste is smell, this makes perfect sense for enhancing the drinking experience.

One other note of importance on the sours: rim half a glass when in doubt. This is a great trick when making a Margarita and you are unsure of whether the drinker prefers salt or not. By rimming half the glass with salt, you are leaving it up to them and do not have to worry about remaking the drink if you guessed wrong.

The Martini

Stirring Lessons during John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab

Stirring Lessons during John Lermayer's Interactive Cocktail Lab at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Photo Courtesy: © Shannon Graham

The only non-sour cocktail that we mixed up in this seminar was the Martini. This is the most dynamic of drinks in our world because it is highly subjective to taste and I was surprised at how many participants were slightly scared of making a classic gin Martini. Maybe we have had too many debates about it over the years, and maybe there are too many really bad gin martinis being made worldwide. Whatever their initial thoughts of the drink prior to this class, I did not catch one of them who were not thoroughly enjoying their own Martini at the seminar's end. There are multiple reasons for this, but the primary one is (I suspect) is that Lermayer demystified the Martini.

"Vermouth is your friend." This Lermayer said while extoling the beauty of this fortified wine, which many Americans do not realize, is often celebrated on its own over a touch of ice in many countries. This is contrary to our 'extra dry' martini notions which eliminate vermouth completely from the equation. The key is to use a quality vermouth (he recommends Dolin Bianco) and to treat it kindly by realizing that its two enemies are temperature and oxygen. Thus, keeping your vermouth fresh and chilled will start you off on the road to a great Martini.

The big question, then, is how much vermouth? To this Lermayer's answer is: it depends on how fond you are of the vermouth straight. If you took the advice and chose a good vermouth and stored it properly, take a taste of it and decide how much you would like to add to your favorite gin. This personalizes the Martini and is especially useful advice when you are in charge of your own drinks, but what about making drinks for others? When it comes to this drink, if people have a preference they will tell you. If you have nothing to go from, Lermayer suggests an 8:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, which is what he uses in his bar.

Of course, a quality gin is important, but the other key to a well-made Martini is proper dilution. Lermayer broke down the technique of stirring - keeping spoon back to glass, push and pull, slow and complete movements - until there is a nice amount of water in the drink. Though this cocktail is known as a 2-ingredient mix, it is the appearance of this third ingredient, the water, that makes the drink really great. As he pointed out, without water all we would have to do is mix gin and vermouth in a pitcher, store it in the freezer and pour when needed.

One of my favorite parts of the Interactive Cocktail Lab was observing people as they caught on to the little tricks of the cocktail. The most fascinating to watch was Lermayer's demonstration of lemon peel essence and it is something you can experiment with yourself. Cut a small peel using a channel knife and gently squeeze it over the back of someone's hand. Take a whiff and you will understand how potent these little molecules can be. Taking that into the Martini, when the drink is pour into your chilled glass, hold a peel about 5 inches from the glass at about a 45 degree angle, give it a squeeze and you will be spritzing those tiny oil molecules into your drink. From there it is not necessary to drop the peel into the drink because you have released all that you need, though dropping it in is a nice touch from a visual standpoint.

Wrapping It Up:

Overall, this seminar was one of the best I've attended to date. It was fun, interactive, filled with practicality, and a nice change of pace. Hopefully, Lermayer can take this idea to other venues and continue with the format. I can easily see this style of course running throughout a conference, maybe with various skill levels so that consumers and professionals can get the most out of the experience. It could easily be expanded to a 20 person class and allowed a full 2 hours (ours was scheduled for 1 hour though ran into almost 2). At any rate, if you have the opportunity to take part in such a cocktail class, do it and have fun!

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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