Bartender’s Notes – Michael Benavidez

The Best Things to Drink: Fall

A beverage professional’s guide to the drinks you’ll want to try.

Oktoberfest Beers

In 1810, the crown prince of Munich got married, and threw an absolutely killer party. It was such a historically good time that it became an annual celebration and is still an absolutely killer party today. Oktoberfest is a celebration of a great culinary tradition, of which beer is an important and culturally significant part. The traditional beer served at Oktoberfest is a rich amber lager redolent of slightly caramelized malt sweetness. It’s an absolute treasure.

“Oktoberfest Beer” is a protected designation and only six breweries (Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker Pschorr-Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spatenbräu, and Hofbräu-München) are allowed to label their beers as such, but the American craft industry has produced some delicious takes on the style, also known as a Marzen lager. Oktoberfest-style beers make a great pairing for any kind of grilled food, as the caramelization from grilling will harmonize with the roasted character of Oktoberfest malts.

Michael recommends:
Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio.
The Kaiser, Avery Brewing Company, Boulder, Colo.
Märzen Bier, Augustiner BräuKloster Mülln, Salzburg, Austria


Autumn is a great time to drink our way back through our nation’s history with the original American craft spirit, applejack. Popular during the colonial era, applejack was a substitute for European brandies,  made by freeze-distilling cider until only a high-proof spirit remained. Modern applejack is made much like brandies and cognacs, but still retains its rustic and uniquely American character. Try it in a Sidecar: 2 ounces of applejack, 1 ounce of fresh lemon juice, and a teaspoon of sugar.

Michael recommends:
Laird’s Blended Applejack, Scobeyvile, N.J.

Don’t Call It Mixology: The Sour

Go beyond following a recipe! In Don’t Call It Mixology, I show you the big picture of good cocktail making. Learn to improvise, adjust, invent, and trust your palette to make a drink that YOU enjoy. Because isn’t that what drinking is all about?

I have a T-shirt problem. I’m a grown man, a professional about to hit my 30s, but T-shirts are the staple of my wardrobe. In my mind they go with everything, can be easily classed up with some quick accessorizing, and make any situation a little more comfortable. The sour is the T-shirt of cocktail families and is incredibly simple to boot.

A sour, in its most basic form, consists of a spirit, a sweet component, and an acid. Balance is the underlying principle here. Acidity in a cocktail is similar to salt in food: it enlivens, brightens, and enhances the flavors around it, but becomes unpleasant when the dominant sensation. Sweetness similarly anchors a drink: it adds body, substance, and texture but becomes cloying when excessive. The spirit is the backbone of the drink and the star of the show, but if the heat of the alcohol isn’t mitigated by the other components, then we may as well just drink straight liquor—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we’re here to talk cocktails today.

What I’ve described so far may sound complicated, but many of the common cocktails we enjoy are sours or close cousins. The Whiskey Sour is obvious, but other memberss of this family include the Sidecar (brandy, lemon, and sugar), the Cosmopolitan (citrus vodka, lime, and orange liqueur as the sweet component), and the Margarita (tequila, lime, and triple sec providing the sweetness). This range of drinks serves to illustrate the versatility of the sour, which makes it a great family of cocktails to keep in your arsenal. Just about any bottle on your home bar can be utilized in the form of a sour, so with the home bartender in mind here are some things to think about when putting a sour together:

General preparation: The typical ratio for a sour is right around 2 parts spirit to 1 parts each sweet and sour. This is a very loose prescription and can be adjusted to your personal palate. Sours are mixed in a shaker and served over ice in a highball or “collins” glass.

Spirit – The base spirit sets the tone for your drink. Clear spirits usually result in cocktails that are lighter and citrus forward, while a dark spirit results in more mid-range notes, restrained flavors, and elegant smoothness. (Most brown spirits have spent time in oak, which has a profoundly mellowing influence.) Choose a spirit that has characteristics that you enjoy, then think about an sweetener/acid combination that will emphasize those flavors.

Sweetener – Sweet components typically take the form of either a syrup or a sweet liquor. Syrups are preferable to solid sugar crystals as they integrate into the drink easier. The most basic form of a cocktail syrup is the appropriately-named simple syrup, made by mixing sugar and water in a 50-50 ratio until the syrup is completely dissolved. This syrup can be used to sweeten cocktails, or become a blank slate that can be infused with almost any flavor you can imagine. Honey, maple syrup, molasses, and other sweeteners can be utilized but again, be careful to to maintain balance, as each of these sweeteners has their own distinct flavor that impact the finished product. When using honey and molasses, you want to first dilute them with a small amount of hot water to help them incorporate better into the cocktail and avoid clumping or crystallization.

Sweet liquors can also fill the role of a cocktail sweetener and can add an additional level of flavor for a elegant cocktail. Orange liquors are often utilized for this purpose (Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and Triple Sec being common examples) but many other options exist. Try Domaine de Canton (ginger), St. Germaine (elderflower), or Licor 43 (vanilla and orange peel) and see what you like!

Acid – Use fresh! The difference between fresh-squeezed citrus and off-the-shelf juice is night and day. Not only do the flavor compounds begin degrading immediately upon contact with oxygen, but squeezing your own citrus results in intensely aromatic oils from the flesh of the fruit intermingling with the juice itself. The two most common fruits used for these purposes are lemons and limes. Lemons are more highly acidic but have a milder flavor, while limes are less acidic but have a more intense flavor. Use care here; lemon and lime can easily overpower the other components of a drink, especially since more lime is required to achieve the same levels of acidity.

I’ll leave you with a few ideas to try as you get a start on mixing your own sour cocktails. Remember, the only right way is the way you like best! Your goal is to create a cocktail that fits your palate, one that you enjoy drinking. Feel free to play around until you find the perfect refreshing note.

  • Spirit: Spiced Rum
  • Sweet: Ginger Beer
  • Acid: Lime
  • Spirit: Blended Scotch
  • Sweet: Honey and Earl Gray Syrup
  • Acid: Lemon
  • Spirit: Gin
  • Sweet: St. Germaine Elderflower Liquor
  • Acid: Lime

À votre santé!