JANESVILLE—I thought I knew how to make an Old Fashioned. Apparently, I was wrong.
I know the glass in which to serve one, and I consider my muddling skills next-level. But I like my drinks made with brandy, and my friends prefer theirs served “sweet” with Southern Comfort.
Being a gracious host, I always try to give them what they want. Turns out I’ve been doing them a disservice.
First, Southern Comfort isn’t a spirit; it’s a whiskey-based liqueur. I had no idea.
Second, I use 7-Up as a mixer and add sugar from a packet. The preferred choices are actually a splash of club soda and handcrafted simple syrup.
Third, I’m from Wisconsin ... where brandy is king. Why am I giving in to peer pressure and using a lesser libation?
These were just a few of the revelations made during a 90-minute “cocktail class” I recently attended at Lark, 60 S. Main St. The class, part of a regular series offered monthly at the downtown Janesville restaurant, is the brainchild of owners Richard and Joan Neeno and their beverage manager, Billy Burg.
“A few years ago I took a cocktail class in Chicago, and it was a lot of fun,” Joan said. “We didn’t know when we started these if we were going to have an audience for them or not, but I think we’ve only had two in a year that we’ve canceled because we didn’t have enough people.
“I’ve been surprised in general at how open Janesville has been to craft cocktails.”
Burg, a self-described “drink slinger” and the mind behind Lark’s popular “Bourbon Cowboy” and “Hellbroth,” teaches the classes. An expert in all things alcohol, he put me at ease before our class began by explaining I wasn’t the only one with a naivete of alcohol’s complexities.
“Ignorance is common when it comes to booze,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound offensive saying that. It just means people don’t know.”
So, along with seven other aspiring mixologists, I began my road to enlightenment. Along the way I learned the purpose of flavor profiles, the history of barware and commonly-used spirits, and the proper techniques for creating Wisconsin’s signature drink, the Brandy Old Fashioned, and the classic Whiskey Sour.
Burg kicked things off with a quick lesson about the origins and subsequent histories of several more popular spirits. He followed up by explaining each piece of shiny, silver barware placed at our respective workstations. I must admit I had no idea the long, twisted stir stick was known as a “cock feather,” that jiggers are named after the fourth mast on a naval vessel, or that there are three different types of shakers (Boston, Cobbler and Parisian).
Burg also shared that cocktails date back to 7000 B.C., that sugars and mixers—not spirits—cause those nasty hangovers, and that scotch whiskey actually was invented by monks in the 1500s. And when he wasn’t offering tidbits of information, he was imparting his opinions about some specific types of liquors:
On rum: “It’s the next big thing because aged rum can be made cheaply.”
On vodka: “I don’t like it because it has no taste.”
On gin: “A great spirit. Most people don’t like it because they drank it when they were young, got sick and their breath tasted like pine for a week.”
At each step, we were treated to small samples of the spirit to taste test. Fortunately, there were snacks on hand to counteract the natural effects of the alcohol.
By the end of class, we had each gained a wealth of knowledge to spring on our friends, a few new recipes to try and, as Burg had hoped, a new appreciation for the potential of your finer liquors.
“For some, it’s just learning a few little tricks or trends. For others, it’s understanding how to balance a cocktail,” he said, explaining the popularity of the classes. “Most people want to learn the little things so that when they get home, they have that confidence in putting things together instead of having to follow a recipe to a T.
“Plus, it’s a fun social activity,” he added. “You come in, have a few drinks and snacks and let loose a little bit.”
Among those “letting loose” were Jeff and Catherine Barton. The Janesville couple had decided to take the class to further a burgeoning enjoyment of cocktails.
“Right now we make two types of cocktail: the Vesper, which Jeff makes, and the Scarlett O’Hara, which I make,” Catherine said. “My brother-in-law is very into cocktails, and he started us off a year or two ago, so learning about them is great. Now we can make our own and, when we’re lazy, we can come down here.”
Jeff said visits to Lark have challenged him to climb out of his comfort zone.
“I used to have one cocktail, and that is all I make at home,” he said. “But I now have a policy of having a different cocktail every time I come in (to Lark) because every one is a completely different taste experience. I just didn’t realize I would enjoy as many cocktails as I seem to.”
Another student, Julia Penn of Janesville, enjoys entertaining. She said she hoped the class would give her some new ideas to spring on friends.
“You tend to go toward pure ingredients such as wine or hard liquor, and I like the idea of complexity,” she said. “I do that in my cooking, as well. I like the idea of being creative.
“I want to entertain my own guests with some interesting creations, and I just wanted to consult the experts on how to do it right.”
For the most part, Burg doesn’t care what people’s reasons are for taking the class. What he hopes is that, along with a wealth of information, they leave with the understanding that mixology is about a lot more than fancy glasses and a shot or two of alcohol.
“It’s not a contest, and it’s not about getting hammered,” he said. “It’s about having a good cocktail and some good conversation.”