WTF is a Craft Cocktail?

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Your first impulse upon hearing the question “what is a craft cocktail?” may be a scoff followed by a comment that involves the word “hipster” and “frilly.” I understand the sentiment, but there is quite a bit more to the world of craft beverages than you may think. Bartenders at craft cocktail bars look at this work as a career, not just something to do for extra cash on the weekends. Sure, the drinks typically top out at around $12-15 a pop, but at the right bar with the right kind of bartender, there’s usually a reason: the cocktail at hand has actually been “crafted.” Now, what does that mean? Well, that’s why I’m here. My attempt with this piece is to introduce a short lesson on what a craft cocktail really is because a craft cocktail, after being exhaustively sourced, measured, shaken, and garnished, is quite delicious.

As complex as the craft cocktail may seem, the foundation of all craft cocktail recipes takes root in the same three focus ingredients: spirit, acid, and sweetener. While cocktails at your local dive may be similar, the ingredients are nowhere near as fresh. Take your typical margarita. At non-craft cocktail bar, you’re getting ice, well tequila, sweet and sour mix, and a dry lime on the rim. I already have a headache. A margarita at a craft cocktail bar will be, again, the same focus ingredients, but a different approach altogether. To begin, the bartender will ask you what type of tequila you prefer. Well tequila just isn’t a thing at these bars and any bartender worth their pink himalayan salt won’t touch the stuff. Next, the bartender will add nice triple-sec (orange-based liqueur), agave syrup, fresh lime juice, and will probably add lime peel twisted into your glass because the peel releases oils that contribute to aroma and overall flavor.

The very fact that the description of the crafted margarita took longer to explain should tell you that there is more going on in the world of the craft cocktail. The attention to detail and taste sets the craft cocktail apart from the typical barback rush on a Saturday night. That’s the trick. In this age of the aesthetic, the focus settles around time and taste. From coffee to beer to cocktails, “craft” means more than just an empty adjective; it’s the new standard.

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