Food & Wine Thursdays: Building a Cocktail

Beakers and pipettes aside, making a good cocktail is not rocket science no matter what the current wave of $16-a-drink “mixology” bars would have you believe. When I was working as a bartender in the SF Bay Area in the mid-2000s, we focused on making strong, well-balanced cocktail using fresh juices, unique small-production spirits and then-obscure European vermouths, bitters and digestifs. But we considered it merely our job and we charged $9 a drink and we called them “cocktails.” We focused on the fundamentals of a good cocktail: balance and efficiency.

When building a good cocktail, whether it’s a variation on a classic (my personal preference) or a modern cocktail spun from whole-cloth, the spirit has to be the center of your drink. It’s great that kumquats are in season, but if you design your cocktail using the fruit as your focus, you’ll end up with juice garnished with liquor and not a real cocktail.

Once you’ve decided your preferred spirit you can then determine how you’d like to augment it. The four basic ways to do this are with sweet (sugar, syrups, fruit liqueurs, fruit juice), sour (citrus), bitter (digestifs, bitters, vermouths), and aromatics (fresh or dried herbs, herbal liqueurs, flower water, citrus peel).

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to augment your spirit to produce a cocktail (see a couple recipes below for ideas), building the drink in the glass is the most important part. It’s also where most bartenders, even esteemed mixologists, make the most mistakes.

In 99% of instances, you’re going to shake your cocktail, since a good quick shake is the only way to properly combine disparate ingredients. The only exception is in the very basic spirit-and-vermouth cocktails (Martinis, Manhattans) where a vigorous up and down “chop stir” will suffice.

The order in which you should add your ingredients to the mixing glass is as follows:

First, add any herbs or fruit you’re going to muddle and do said muddling in the bottom of the mixing glass. Then, fill the mixing glass with ice.

Second, add any seasoning spirits. That is, anything you plan on adding only a few dashes of, like bitters. The bitters will drip down the ice, seasoning the glass.

Third, add sugar syrups, if any. Sugar syrup does not cause ice to melt as quickly as liqueur and spirits do.

Fourth, add fruit juice.

Fifth, add your supporting liqueurs in order from sweetest to driest. Cointreau before vermouth, for instance.

Then, add your principal spirit last. This serves a few purposes. First, because in virtually all cocktails you’re adding more of your principal spirit than anything else, this allows you to build the other ingredients on top of each other and keep track of your recipe. If you add two ounces of whiskey first, it’s much more difficult to meter the other components. But more importantly, distilled spirits cause your ice to melt very quickly, so if you add it first, you’ll have added a lot of water to your drink by the time you’re done. I’m amazed at how many bartenders add their liquor first.

As soon as you’ve added the last drop of distilled spirit, put the metal top on your shaker and shake vigorously. A cocktail composed of only liquor and liqueurs needs only a 5-6 second shake. If it has citrus juice, add a couple seconds to that. If it has a lot of sugar, a couple seconds more. If it has milk or cream, the cocktail should be shaken for at least 10 seconds.

(I’m very tired of seeing the handsome, muscled bartender yielding a shaker like a paint mixer for thirty seconds. It looks impressive, but all it does is produce a frosty, watery and worthless beverage.)

After you’ve shaken the cocktail (use two hands, please), strain the drink into the appropriate glass. This is really a matter of preference. Until recently, for instance, Martinis and Manhattans were consumed on the rocks just as often as they were sipped from a cocktail glass.

Once the drink is in the appropriate glass, add whatever final touch you need–a splash of soda water is often nice for drinks served on the rocks–and your garnish. Enjoy.

If you follow those basic steps you should be able to make a pretty damn good cocktail if you just play around for a while. But here are a few other far from hard-and-fast guidelines I use:

  • The principal spirit should be at least 50% of a cocktail’s volume.
  • 2:1 or 3:1 should be your sour-to-sweet ratio.
  • Always use more bitters or herbs than you think you should.
  • Use sweet liqueurs or syrups. Not both.
  • A cocktail should taste like alcohol. If it doesn’t, you’ve made it wrong.
  • Limit your cocktail to four ingredients, plus garnish.
  • Use non-citrus juices sparingly.

Cocktailing’s not alchemy, it’s really just very simple math built around the basic flavors that humans find delicious and the liquor we find intoxicating. Play around at your home bar and demystify it for yourself.

And now, three cocktail recipes:

Ginger Old Fashioned

In a mixing glass, muddle a half-slice of orange, maraschino cherry, sugar cube and two slices of fresh ginger. Add ice, 4-5 dashes of aromatic bitters, 1/4 tsp ginger syrup, 1/2 tsp sweet vermouth and 2oz of Bourbon or rye whiskey. Shake and strain over ice into a tumbler glass and top with a splash of soda water. Garnish with orange, cherry and/or candied ginger.

Sage Gimlet

In a mixing glass, muddle 4-5 leaves of fresh sage. Add ice, 1/2 tsp sage-infused simple syrup, the juice of one lime, and 2 ounces of dry gin. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with a lime wheel and a sage blossom. Alternately, strain into a highball glass over ice and top with soda water for a warm-weather cooler.

Italian Sunrise

In a mixing glass add 2-3 dashes of citrus bitters, 1oz Aperol aperitif, 2oz dry gin and 2 oz grapefruit juice. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass with either sugared or salted rim, depending on preference. Garnish with candied grapefruit peel.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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2 Responses to Food & Wine Thursdays: Building a Cocktail

  1. I agree, mixing cocktails is not rocket science – but I’ve learned that it really does take certain finesse and skill to make a really good drink. Thanks for linking to my sage simple syrup recipe – I absolutely love the sound of the sage gimlet and will be making that soon!

    • David D. says:

      Thank you for the great recipe! You’re right, it does take some finesse but that comes with fiddling around.

      Btw, I used the new St. George “terroir” gin in the gimlet, which also uses sage as one of the botanicals and it was killer, though Bombay worked fine too.

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