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Cocktails 101: Education and Revelation at The Association

Kyle Simone leading a cocktail class at The Association. Photo by Andreanna Ditton.
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A cocktail is four things: a spirit, a sugar, a bitter and water. Sounds easy, right? So why are $15 cocktails suddenly the norm? Because a great drink is about more than putting some crappy flavored vodka in a shaker, pouring it in a glass and adding Sprite.

A great cocktail is a work of art, a tip of the hat to another age, and the science of hand-crafting a drink is largely about taking those original four components and adding a personal spin to the mix. This can mean anything from experimenting with classic mixers - tonic, seltzer, juices, bitters, etc - to making your own infusions to learning the history of the cocktail in order to build your own in similar style.

Fortunately, The Association in downtown LA not only steers patrons directly away from the vodka/Red Bull horror show straight to a terrific Aviation, French Kiss or Sazerac, but also shows them how to create those drinks for themselves. Perfecting the art of the affordable, hand-crafted cocktail since they opened in 2008, the bar now offers free cocktail education classes on Wednesday nights for its members. (For the record, membership is free.)

Bartender Kyle Simone often conducts these cocktail seminars. “The class is an opportunity to allow our ‘regular’ clientele to sit one-on-one with members of our staff and see what really goes into constructing our cocktails. It also gives the patrons a chance to ask questions in a relaxed and casual atmosphere.” Largely self-educated, Simone explains both the origins of the classics - like the Sazerac - and the evolution of the new breed of cocktails that take advantage of LA’s abundant produce and experimental palate. The night we took class, Simone created a “Death’s Reviver” based on the traditionally gin-based “Corpse Reviver.”

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“After you understand why the classics are classics and staples of our cocktail community then you can start to see how different spirits, vermouths, bitters all play together to lead to a balanced drink…this month we happened to have some bottles of Death’s Door white whiskey and a lot of Dolin Blanc Vermouth, so the ‘Death’s Reviver’ was born.”

Kyle’s approach stems from his years in the industry and expertise. He makes many of his own tinctures and bitters, studies new techniques and has a working knowledge of the history of cocktails and their evolution. He’s a big proponent of playing with ingredients. “I experiment all the time, currently at The Association we have a homemade orange and grapefruit bitters with white pepper, as well as a cardamom tincture we like to pair with tequila, lemon and pear liqueur. I have made coffee and habanero bitters recently as well, and I am currently playing with basil, orange and red pepper.”

However, you don’t have to be an expert to make your own cocktails at home.

“Minimal fresh ingredients used in the correct proportions will yield a great crafted cocktail, period,” encourages Simone. “As far as infusions, muddled fruits, spices, tinctures, etc. the world is your oyster. Push the limits of your tastes. Try it out and if you don't like it, who cares? Everybody's tongue is different, so start with the flavors and tastes you enjoy first and foremost.”

Infuse vodka with lavender for a floral note. Add ginger, blueberry, fresh vanilla and lemon peel to another vodka for a complex collection of tastes. Add a dash of bitters, a hint of limoncello, a shot of gin and see what happens. (I can tell you, actually. It's amazing.)

Or take your inspiration from the internet, where innovators like Allie and Georgia (of "Drinks with Alie and Georgia") use everything from McNuggets to marshmallows as ingredients.

Regardless of your palate, the cocktail classes (and the free-to-members tastings, including an upcoming Scotch tasting on August 31st) at The Association will give you the background and the inspiration to start creating your own drinks.

To sign up for the cocktail classes, The Association. Classes will be held August 31 and September 7 and begin at 7 p.m. They are free, but registration is required.

And for those of you who have moved beyond mixing all the way to making your own infusions and tonic water, a few links:
Making Your Own Tonic Water
How to Make Bitters