Sable’s Mike Ryan shows the author how make a Sazerac; measuring tequila; Sable’s selection of bitters; the author’s classic margarita

Not only has the craft cocktail movement been a boon to purveyors of mustache wax (oh, you mixologists with your zany facial hair!), but it’s also awakened casual tipplers like me to the subtle joys of a properly made classic cocktail. After years of bumbling around my home bar, mixing mediocre martinis and by-the-numbers old fashioneds, I decided it was time to up my game.

“Make drinks like an expert,” the online offer said, so I signed on for a mixology class and soon found myself in a replica barroom at a dingy Wrigleyville storefront, pouring fuzzy navels, gummy bear martinis, and other Schnapps-laden holdovers from T.G.I. Friday’s circa 1988. Thank God I didn’t have to drink them. (Most bartending schools substitute bottles filled with colored water for booze and foam wedges for fruit.) The whole thing was a waste of four hours, a foam wedge of a class.

At times like these, it pays to be a journalist. I convinced Mike Ryan, the head bartender at River North’s gastro-lounge Sable Kitchen & Bar, to let me shadow him on a rainy Monday night. With his spiky Mohawk, easy swagger, and encyclopedic knowledge, Ryan is an alpha dog among today’s drink slingers. A former sous chef at Homaro Cantu’s science-focused Moto, he brings to his craft a culinarian’s attention to detail but none of his former boss’s futurama. Sure, his cocktail menu features infused brandies and esoteric liqueurs, but he preaches mostly the basics.

Rare tequilas and aged whiskeys shine like trophies along the back wall at Sable. Atop the handsome 50-foot bar are dozens of vials filled with bitters. With so many intoxicating toys at my disposal, I’m disappointed when the first drink I’m assigned is . . . a daiquiri? “If you want to learn how to make cocktails,” says Ryan as he hands me a tin shaker, “the daiquiri is one of those touchstones.” He’s talking not about that Day-Glo frozen drink behind countless bad spring break decisions but rather its more sophisticated older cousin: good rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup shaken vigorously and served straight up.

Ryan’s daiquiri: Measure precisely three-quarters of an ounce of lime juice in the small end of a jigger. Pour it into the shaker, then do the same with the simple syrup. Add two ounces of Flor de Caña white rum, followed by five heavy square ice cubes. “OK,” says Ryan. “Give it a shake.” I grab the freezing cold metal container like a football and, nervous that I might launch it across the room, move it back and forth gently. “You’re supposed to wake it up, not rock it to sleep,” Ryan chides. Soon I resemble a mad maraca player, creating that indelible shaka-shaka-shaka sound. We both insert bar straws and taste. It’s frosty, perfectly balanced, and delicious.

Next comes the holy grail: the classic martini, which Agent 007 has been ordering incorrectly all along. “Any drink that’s all spirit should be stirred, not shaken,” Ryan explains. “The drink evolves as you stir it.” I pour two and a half ounces of Beefeater dry gin and three-quarters of an ounce of dry vermouth into a pint glass. I add a few dashes of housemade orange bitters and five ice cubes, and then I start to stir.

Ryan quickly steps in. “Almost overstir it,” he says, twirling the long bar spoon with the elegance of a jazz drummer. “You’re looking for chill and dilution and a silky texture.”

With one taste, I know what he means. The juniper from the gin, the herbs from the vermouth, and the water from the ice are locked together in a beautiful alchemy. There’s a hint of citrus from the bitters and the lemon twist garnish. It’s the best martini I’ve ever had. “Mixology isn’t hard,” Ryan says. “The devil is in the details.” All I’m missing now is the wacky mustache.


Photography: Clayton Hauck