Craft cocktails first came to my attention in a Charleston restaurant a few years ago. Arriving early for our dinner reservation, friends and I were asked to wait in the bar, where we immediately succumbed to its unusual and tantalizing cocktails. My choice was called Hot Basil, a vodka gimlet enhanced with fresh basil and jalapeños. Shockingly delicious!
Until that moment, I’d been satisfied to drink wine, avoiding the trendy faux martinis of the ‘80s and ‘90s – sickly sweet mixtures designed to seduce innocent young things who really would prefer to be drinking Pepsi.
When Bin 54 opened in 2007, its bar menu reintroduced the cocktails of our parents’ generation: Rob Roys, Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and French 75s. The classics were back! How could we have lived so long without them?
Around the same time, Jujube and Lantern served (as they do now) intriguing concoctions. Bangkok Fever, Hot Date and The Milk of Human Kindness showcased unexpected ingredients such as lemongrass, ginger, saffron and orange flower water. We didn’t know it then, but these were craft cocktails.
So what exactly elevates a mixed drink to a craft cocktail? According to star mixologist and author Brian Van Flandern: “Craft cocktails are handcrafted, food-friendly recipes that use fresh ingredients and quality spirits and are pleasing to the eye and palate.”
Does this mean a classic martini becomes a craft cocktail if you use Hendrick’s Gin and substitute a lemon twist for the olive? I think so! Throw in a cucumber slice, and it’s even craftier. Mint juleps, of course, have always been craft cocktails. We just didn’t realize it.
These days, you can find good craft cocktails in bars all over town. The Crunkleton offers some of the most creative, but owner Gary Crunkleton also respects timeless classics. (Try his Sazerac, the best this side of The Big Easy.) A born entertainer, Gary shares his secrets every few months at Southern Season’s cooking school.
Of course, you don’t need to have lessons or go to a bar to enjoy craft cocktails. Anyone able to shake or stir can make them at home. Brian Van Flandern says, “If you use fresh ingredients and balance the sugars, acids and alcohol, you can’t go wrong. Think of it this way: If you put enough sugar and lime juice in anything, eventually it’s going to taste good.”
Here are a couple of very simple craft cocktails to make for sipping on the patio. Besides shaking and stirring skills, you will need a cocktail shaker and a muddler.
Lots of ice cubes
1/4 cup vodka
2 Tbsp. orange liqueur (Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
Shake all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker for at least a minute. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of orange. Makes one cocktail.
1 Tbsp. simple syrup
Lots of ice cubes
6-8 large basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1/4 cup gin, preferably Hendrick’s
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Make simple syrup by boiling together 1 part sugar and 1 part water until sugar dissolves. Muddle basil leaves in a cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredients and shake hard. Serve straight up or on the rocks. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Makes one cocktail.
Moreton Neal is an author and interior designer who lives in Chapel Hill. She is a lifelong foodie, having co-founded LA Residence in 1976.