Writer Clair McLafferty on Cocktails and the Art of Bartending

Posted by .

Cocktail writer and bartender Clair McLafferty.

Mary Katherine Morris Photography

Cocktail writer and bartender Clair McLafferty.

Writer and WBHM Junior Board member Clair McLafferty was once stuck in a dead-end job. After work, she’d go to a bar in Homewood where she lives and ponder her career options. She started quizzing bartenders about liquor and eventually quit her miserable job, started tending bar and blogging about all things alcohol. Her first book, The Classic and Craft Cocktail Recipe Book, is out now and she tells WBHM’s Esther Ciammachilli how four years into her mixology career, she’s still learning new things about booze.

McLafferty: I am a whisky geek. My whiskey collection has taken over most of my dining room and a good portion of my basement which I’m rather sheepish to …

Ciammachilli: Wow. That’s a lot of whiskey.

McLafferty: It is. But as a cocktail writer you do get some samples. So that compounded kind of the problem. But it’s really cool to be able to go home and have a sip of scotch or a sip of bourbon and kind of get to explore a different part of whiskey culture every day.

McLafferty: And it’s also cool to see how the whiskey changes over time because although some people will tell you that liquor never spoils, it does change. So once you get some oxygen in the bottle, the whiskey itself will actually oxidize. So just like wine will oxidize, whiskey will do the same thing except over a much longer period of time.

Ciammachilli: What’s a good introduction drink for someone who may not like hard alcohol?

McLafferty: One of my favorite go-to summer drinks is the Pimm’s Cup. So Pimm’s is a gin-based herb liqueur, but it tastes kind of like jam when it’s mixed with ginger or some sort of citrus. So it’s really nice and light and you can do a lot of things with it.

Ciammachilli: Describe a good sipping liquor, one that you as a as a bartender, as a mixologist wouldn’t even think about using in a mixed drink.

McLafferty: So I’ll probably be labeled a blasphemer for this, but I don’t believe that there are any liquors that are solely for sipping. I believe that you should be able to taste liquor however you like.

Ciammachilli: And with that in mind, would you consider yourself a liquor snob?

McLafferty: When it comes to my drinks personally yes. But when I’m behind the bar it’s all about the customer. So it’s not necessarily about what I would mix or what I would drink, it’s about what the customer likes because bartending and making cocktails is ultimately a sacred act of hospitality.

Ciammachilli: I like that, “a sacred act of hospitality.” So your book The Classic and Craft Cocktail Recipe Book is available now and you organized this book in a very specific way. Talk about what you did and why?

McLafferty: The book is structured to be as user friendly as possible. It starts off with a very short primer on the liquids that go into cocktails, on glassware, on barware, and basically on stocking your bar. And the key takeaway for that is to stock it with things that you like and that you will drink. So if you are a dedicated gin drinker, start off with a couple bottles of gin. From gin you’re only a half step away from vodka. From vodka you’re only a half step away from rum and tequila. And from there, once you get into the aged stuff because this is a progression, you’re only half step away from whiskey. So the spirits are extremely interconnected.

Ciammachilli: And gin is always a really good introductory …

McLafferty: I would say vodka is probably the best introductory spirit. And it’s a really interesting thing because within craft cocktail bartending there is once again a divide between those who see vodka as a fantastic blank canvas for cocktails and a really introductory, friendly, beginner-friendly drink. And those who see it as unworthy of a place on a craft bar because it has no taste. And by law it must be odorless, flavorless and colorless. So it’s one of those really interesting binaries that’s been set up and I was actually in the camp — to be totally frank — of vodka being not a worthy spirit until I saw how many people came into cocktails through vodka and were willing to take the half step once they trusted me or whoever their bartender was into maybe rum, or white whiskey, or different liquors and eventually ended up somewhere completely different than where they started.