Gin and Bear It: a Q&A with Jim Ryan

Photo courtesy of Hendrick's

Last week, the Woodward at Ames hosted two installments of Hendrick’s Gin’s Delightfully Peculiar Cocktail Academy. The classes, run by brand ambassador and longtime mixologist Jim Ryan, give attendees the chance to learn about making great cocktails — and to imbibe a bit, natch. We caught up with Ryan to get his thoughts on the ideal drink and why gin beats vodka any day of the week — plus his recipe for the Carte Blanche, a gimlet with a twist. 

What’s the idea behind the cocktail academy?
Hendrick’s started doing the events at the tail end of last year. The general idea is to bring a little bit of cocktail knowledge to folks who aren’t bartenders, who may have a home bar or are consumers — I actually hate using that word because everyone’s a consumer at the end of the day. This particular event showcases the gimlet, which we make three ways: the original; the gimlet evolved, which has elderflower liqueur; and a cucumber version.

Do you make all the drinks, or is it a more hands-on experience?
Everyone has their own setup and makes their own drinks. The most rewarding thing for me is showing people how to make the classics. You’d be surprised what folks don’t know about making cocktails — how to shake, how to strain, that you need to leave a bit of a wash line [space at the top of the glass], so you can pick up the drink without spilling.

What’s your ideal cocktail?
I’d love to say I have a recipe for the perfect drink, but usually it’s just the drink that’s in my hand at that moment that’s my favorite. How your day has transpired and the occasion for imbibing change what works best. For instance, something with champagne or sparkling wine, like a French 75, is in its nature a festive, celebratory option.

What do you say to people who tell you they just can’t drink gin?
I’ve been with Hendrick’s for three years now, and I’ve had the pleasure of traveling the country and introducing it to folks who haven’t tried it or maybe aren’t into gin. Without fail, in every city I go to someone says, “I thought gin was bad, I thought it was for old men, I thought it tasted like Christmas trees.” Part of my job is making folks understand that they were probably just trying too much of something. The quality of what they had was probably very poor, and there are a lot more varieties available these days than in the past. There’s work to be done still, but the world of gin is not one to shy away from. If you look at classic cocktails, you won’t find many made with vodka.

How do you feel about all the painfully trendy options out there — the bacon-infused, house-smoked whatevers?
I’m excited by unusual ingredients just as much as anyone else; if I see them on a menu, I’m a sucker for it. I generally will try everything once and then just go to something that is classic or something that is simple. I encourage everyone to push themselves as far as they can with ingredients, but the classics are classics for a good reason: because they’re good.

Anything you’ve tried and utterly regretted?
With the last drink I tried that I didn’t like, it wasn’t that the ingredients were crazy — it just wasn’t made well. It wasn’t cold enough; it wasn’t diluted enough.

So can you sum up a well-made drink in one sentence?
Fresh, quality ingredients; cold glass; super-cold ice; a good shake; and a beautiful garnish.

Carte Blanche
1 1/2 oz. gin*
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
cucumber wheels
Brut sparkling white wine

In a mixing glass, muddle 2 cucumber wheels. Add gin, syrup, lime, bitters, and ice. Shake well and double strain into a cocktail glass. Top with sparkling wine and remaining cucumber wheel.

*This recipe’s proportions are tailored to the flavor profile of Hendrick’s, but Ryan points out that every gin is different. “That’s the next territory when it comes to cocktailing: understanding the classic recipe and adjusting it to facilitate the gin or ingredients you’re using,” he says.