Jonathan Pogash entered the bartending profession the same way many young men and women do in New York – as means to subsidize a fledgling acting career. His day job, however soon became a career when he started working for liquor companies, consulting bars on cocktail recipes and traveling the country.
He began to spread the word that – with a few basic mixing principles, the right tools and dash of inspiration – almost anyone can learn how to create unique, craft cocktails.
During a San Antonio Cocktail Conference seminar Thursday afternoon, he continued to share his knowledge to a fresh batch of bartenders-in-training, bar and restaurant owners, casual observers and curious retirees at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel. The "Mixology 101: Build Your Own Signature Cocktail" class was kept at a small size, about a dozen, to allow for a more intimate, hands-on setting to learn from Pogash, "The Cocktail Guru."
Each student was supplied a cocktail shaker, strainer, long bar spoon, jigger (measurement cup), a variety of juices, syrups, fresh fruit, garnishes, cocktail glasses and, of course a selection of quality alcohols of all types. Most took notes while Pogash outlined the history and theory behind mixology.
"'Mixology' is actually an old term," he said. A book titled "The Mixologist, How to Mix the Makings" is dated 1933. But the cocktail forefathers came long before that. Pogash cited "Professor" Jerry Thomas, who wrote "Bartender's Guide: How to Make Drinks" in 1862.
Understanding the history of the trade and learning how to mix established drinks is important when creating your own, signature drink, he explained. This study provides context for ingredients, creativity and can prevent you from re-inventing the wheel – or in this case, an Old Fashioned.
"The building blocks of the cocktail are simple," Pogash said. "Start with 2-1-1 then add and subtract from there."
That is: two parts strong (base alcohol), one part sweet and one part sour.
Student began following his lead, step by step, pour by pour, to create a classic rum Daiquiri.
Combine one and a half ounces light rum, one ounce of fresh lime juice, one ounce simple syrup in shaker with one cup of ice – preferably large, square cubes. Shake for eight seconds for dilution and temperature. Strain into glass. Boom. Done.
After this first technique lesson, Pogash walked the class through typical base alcohol and flavor pairings and combinations, a sort of complex color wheel of primary and secondary flavors. Click here to download one for your own use. This part involves tasting the alcohol in small doses as you would a fine wine – to truly allow your taste buds and mind to absorb the subtle flavors in order to select a complimentary ingredient.
"Memory is very, very important when trying to come up with flavor combinations," he said. A good cocktail recipe is one part inspiration, one part experimentation, one part balance and one part technique, "but you also have to have the proper tools – just like Van Gogh – and know how to use them."
If you'd like to diverge from James Bond's recommendation and get your Martini stirred, not shaken, the spoon should be twisted while submerging and lifting the end in and out of the shaker or glass for twice as long, 16 seconds. This is why bar spoons have a rounded handle, to allow for spinning the head.
Students were then allowed a half hour to experiment with the libations and tools before them. Some jumped straight in, some cautiously examined and screened each ingredient, all were smiling and tasting experimental cocktails 10 minutes in. Pogash wandered from table to table giving advice on both selection and technique to students of various backgrounds.
Megan Fleming attended the conference and class in order to hone her skills for work at the Blue Door in Midland, Texas. "My boss paid for it," she said. "It's in the middle of nowhere ... but you need good cocktails there, too – if not more so."
Charla Marsh and her husband, both retired, are attending the conference in hopes of discovering a way to avoid going out to bars and start "using up all our liquor at our house," she said laughing.
While her husband attended the "F*%# Wine: Cheese and Cocktail Pairings" seminar across the hall, she learned how to solve their abundance "problem."
"It's a good problem to have," she said.
While surveying his students, Pogash reflected on this year's conference compared to the 2013 event.
"It's certainly bigger than last year," he said. "But just as professional and well done ... when they asked me to present again, I didn't bat an eyelash – of course I said yes."
Does he ever use the recipes his short-term students create?
"No, I leave them with their creators," he laughs. "But I'm always learning (and their novice recipes) are often inspiring."
There are still plenty of seminars and events throughout the weekend for curious cocktailians of all expertise to attend. Check out the full conference event schedule here.
Follow the Rivard Report’s coverage of the 2014 Cocktail Conference here.