Happy hour is always happy, but here are six tips from true cocktail craftsman Rusty Lewter, also known as Your Charlotte Bartender.
Source Fresh Ingredients
Fresh ingredients make a cocktail pop, Lewter says. Be sure to use fresh-squeezed citrus juice and fresh fruit or herbs. Grocery store produce is great, but home bartenders get bonus points for sourcing from the local farmers’ market or their home garden. The fresh factor goes for simple syrups as well. Plan ahead and whip up a homemade syrup rather than using something out of a jar. And consider using fresh fruit to boost the syrup’s flavor.
Drink with the Season
“What season it is affects what cocktails I’m making,” Lewter explains. “Enjoy the fresh ingredients that your market offers.” If you’re hosting in the summertime, serve light, refreshing options. Fall calls for cocktails with a touch of sweet spices possibly paired with fruit (Lewter loves blood orange partnered with pumpkin spice). When winter descends, Lewter opts for smokey, spirit-forward mixed drinks that warm guests from the inside out. Come spring, it’s all about floral and herbal flavors.
Use the Correct Glass
In addition to boosting a cocktail’s presentation, using the correct glass can affect its taste. “Just like champagne has a flute and red wine has its tall red wine glass, cocktails have their own glass as well,” Lewter says. He points to the rocks glass—these Handblown Glasses with tall, straight sides work well—which provides a touch more insulation and slows the melting of the ice cube, thereby preventing a watered-down drink. Wider-mouth martini glasses on the other hand help to open up the gin by exposing it to more air; the long stem prevents the cocktail from warming up too quickly.
Don’t Forget the Garnish
“It’s been proven,” Lewter says, “Ninety percent of cocktails taste better if they have a garnish on them. It’s been psychologically proven.” He often garnishes with an ingredient in the cocktail. So for example, if the mixed drink has lime juice in it, garnish with a fresh lime wedge. Using dehydrated fruit is another trick of the trade: It still adds a lovely effervescence to the drink and will keep for up to a month. Sometimes Lewter will add an herb sprig to add a touch of complexity on the nose. And for an extra pop of pretty, he’s a big fan of edible flowers.
Step Up Your Presentation
For those with an at-home bar, presentation isn’t an issue. But the rest of us have no need to worry. “Kitchen islands work great to set up a nice little mini bar,” Lewter explains. No island either? No problem. Even a fold-up table with a decorative tablecloth can do the trick. Lewter also likes to artfully arrange his ingredients nearby so that they’re both easy to access and aesthetically pleasing to guests. Plus they act like a visual menu. He frequently puts dehydrated fruit in classy glass jars and makes sure his Artisan Citrus Juicer is on full display.
Serve with Food
Make sure to have food on hand to balance out the alcohol. “Charcuterie is really big now,” Lewter notes. “It’s so versatile.” Different meats and cheeses pair really well with bourbons and herbal cocktails. The charcuterie board also elevates your presentation, especially if you add some olives, a few smears of jam or mustard, and fresh fruit to accent the heavier proteins.
The Perfect Marg: Your Charlotte Bartender’s Margarita Especial
The concepts of special and simple are not mutually exclusive. Don’t believe us? Then let us present Exhibit A, the oh-so-fresh Margarita Especial, one of Lewter’s signature cocktails. As he explained in depth when talking earlier with Verve Culture, fresh lime juice is what kicks this recipe up a notch. And the Artisan Citrus Juicer is the only juicer he’ll keep on his bar.
2 oz. Lunazul Reposado Tequila
0.5 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. Fresh-squeezed lime juice
0.5 oz. Agave nectar
Margarita or rocks glass
Coarse kosher salt
Lime wedge garnish
Add all of the ingredients to a shaker tin and shake vigorously with ice. Salt the rim of the glass and then fill to the brim with ice. Strain the ingredients over fresh ice into the glass. Garnish with the lime wedge.