What's Your Signature Cocktail?

Noted food writer and Esquire food critic John Mariani was in Houston recently, only a few months after proclaiming that ours was one of his favorite restaurant cities: "On occasion, when asked what are America's best restaurant cities," he wrote on his personal Web site, "I have sometimes surprised people by putting Houston just behind New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and L.A., and ahead of Boston, DC, Miami, and its rival Dallas."

Mariani hit Oxheart, Underbelly, Triniti and Concepcion while he was here as well as his old Houston favorite and can't-miss spot, Tony's, which is where I met him last year. He handed me a thick, bone-colored business card with pleasant ridges to the paper and raised black lettering that provided nothing more than his name and basic contact information. I stared awestruck at the thing as if I were a tie-wearing, tennis racket-toting character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. And I hadn't even seen the back of the card.

"Turn it over," Mariani instructed with a faint smile. There on the reverse was the outline of a martini glass along with a simple, three-ingredient recipe for his signature cocktail: the Daiquiri. "So that if I order one in a bar and the bartender doesn't know how to make it, I can always ensure a good cocktail."

I had never wanted to be a debonair, worldly gentleman so hard in my young, female life. Women cannot generally get away with business cards such as these unless we can also pull off the whole Diane Keaton-in-Annie Hall aesthetic at the same time.

We can, however, get away with having a signature cocktail of our own -- a cocktail that you can always fall back on at an unfamiliar bar or during times when you require the comfort and familiarity of an old friend...and only alcohol is around. And we shouldn't just "get away" with it; it should be one of those hallmarks of growing comfortably into adulthood, like having a reliable dry cleaner or paying for movers instead of bargaining with your friends.

I've got two signature cocktails, depending on my mood: If it's early and I'm not yet feeling the need to verbally assault my drinking companions that night, it's a Sidecar. Light and sweet yet impeccably boozy, the classic Sidecar was called "the manliest sweet drink" by Ask Men (that actually says quite a lot about my personality, as it were) and contains a 1:1:1 ratio of Cognac, Cointreau and fresh lemon juice served in a chilled martini glass. Some people say the sugared rim is optional, but those people are assholes.

The other is a basic Manhattan: a good rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. The cherry is not optional. I am a lady. My father makes the best Manhattans in the entire world -- handicapping for inherent familial bias, of course -- but pretty much any Manhattan will do if it has those three ingredients.

The key to having a signature cocktail, of course, is keeping it simple: a Gimlet, for example, or a French 75. As with Mariani's own cocktail, keeping your drink simple means far less chance for the bartender to either screw it up or hate you for ordering something blatantly esoteric. This often means ordering a cocktail much older than you are.

The rise of the old-school cocktail movement in the last five years has made that much easier to do, thankfully. When I quizzed my friends earlier this week on their own cocktail standbys, their answers reflected this renewed interest in classic cocktails: Blood and Sand, Tom Collins, Dark and Stormy, Martini, Negroni and Moscow Mule were among the quick replies.

On the other hand, your signature cocktail could just be something that gets the job done quick and dirty: a Long Island Iced Tea or a double Jack and Coke. It honestly doesn't matter; what matters is that you have a favorite cocktail or two that you can slip on like a pair of beautiful, reliable, classic shoes -- even if you don't have a business card to print it on.

What's your signature cocktail?

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Katharine Shilcutt