by Luis Prada
You can make classic cocktails competently enough, and your abilities to crack open a beer are unrivaled. But those are everybody’s drinks. What about your signature drink? What about a drink you can call your own, maybe literally, because you’ve named it after yourself?
There are thousands of liquors and bitters and juices and whatever that can be mixed to create an almost infinite number of new cocktails. Finding a starting point could intimidating. That’s why step one on your cocktail creation journey is to always be repulsed by the term “mixologist.” Now that you are appropriately grossed out by that douche term, the real first step is to ...
Remix The Classics
Classic cocktails like martinis and margaritas were built upon simple, easily repeatable principles that have withstood the taste test of time. Their one advantage to you, as an aspiring cocktail inventor, is that they come with a built-in structure. You know that gin, dry vermouth, and maybe a dash of orange bitters, are the building blocks for a classic martini. But they aren’t set in stone. Keeping the same measurements in mind, swap out any one of those building blocks for something similar and all of a sudden your journey to inventing something brand-new has begun. By slightly modifying a pre-existing cocktail, you’re like a scientist, swapping out chunks of DNA to see what happens to the monkey.
"My God. You've ... made him pretentious."
If you’re making a Martini, you can swap out vermouth for a little bit of sherry. A Gin and Tonic can have a spritz of lemon instead of lime. Adding those small twists can spin you into a new creative direction and flavor profile. This is like riding a bike with training wheels until you get the idea. Just keep small modifications to the old standards until you build enough confidence to really start experimenting.
When it comes to stocking your bar, pretty much every mixologist [fights back a dry-heave] whose advice found its way online recommends buying high-end liquors. But you don’t have investors opening up their wallets so you can buy a $150 bottle of whiskey. So until you hit the Powerball, buy what you can afford.
Cocktail culture has own set of tools and doodads like any other enthusiasts venture – Shakers! Jiggers! Strainers! Stirrers! Muddlers! Squeezers! There are 11 piece sets, 13 piece sets, 16 piece sets, 18 piece sets. You could spend a fortune buying yourself the tools needed to essentially accomplish the same thing you did when you were a kid mixing yourself a glass of chocolate milk. Not to mention the fact that getting yourself a high quality set could cost a fortune.
If all else fails, just outsource the work to tiny, tiny workers.
Luckily, Sarah Mitchell, the manager of Lab Bar, one of London’s best watering holes, has compiled a list of alternative tools you probably have lying around that adequately replace the specialized ones bartenders use to whip up thousands of cocktails a year.
- Measure/Jigger: Egg cup
- Cocktail shaker: Thermos flask
- Muddler: Small rolling pin/End of a wooden spoon
- Juicer: Squeeze by hand
- Mixing spoon: Long teaspoon/Fork handle
- Strainer: Tea strainer
Since no one has owned an egg cup in the past 50 years, you can instead use a shot glass or, better yet, the ring of measuring spoons you’ve had lying in a kitchen drawer for so long you’re pretty sure it came with the apartment.
On second thought, don't open that. There are ghosts in there.
Learning How To Balance Ingredients
Understanding the nuances of individual ingredients helps you develop a better idea how they’ll mingle together in a glass. Jim Meehan, proprietor of PDT, one of New York’s most renowned cocktail lounges, suggests familiarizing yourself not only with the flavors of each ingredient, but their scents as well. After selecting a base spirit, he calls the notes he detects in each subsequent ingredient his “road map to tailor a cocktail for that product.”
In other words, trust your tongue to help you figure out what combo of ingredients work best. Sounds simple enough, but even that might be a little too advanced if you’re just dipping your toes into the cocktail game.
Or dipping someone else's toes in there.
Celebrity mixologist [gags] Eric Alperin further simplifies the equation by suggesting you think of ingredients not as individual pieces but as larger categories you can mix and match as you please until you get something that works.
Strong (Gin, whiskey, vodka)
Sweet (simple syrup, raw sugar, sweet vermouth, juices)
Sour (lemon/lime, champagne)
Bitter (Angostura bitters)
Floral (mint, basil)
Smoky (bourbon, tequila, cinnamon)
Spicy (cayenne pepper)
So a Manhattan would be a Strong (rye whiskey), a Sweet (sweet vermouth), and a Bitter (Angostura bitters). A margarita would be a Smoky (tequila), a Sour (lime juice), and a Sweet (agave), and maybe a Bitter (orange bitters). Once you start thinking of cocktail recipes as a series of interchangeable parts that can be toyed with at your leisure instead of a sacred text that must be strictly adhered to then you can really start innovating.
OK, maybe we need to go over the term "innovation" first.
If you want the most practical advice out there, designed specifically to help cocktail novices better understand how to balance flavors, we turn back to Sarah Mitchell of London’s Lab Bar. She recommends practicing balance by lowering the stakes as you try to make a glass of lemonade before you use any precious bottles of liquor. Good lemonade requires careful balance between its three ingredients: water, lemon juice, and sugar. Too much or too little of any one of the three can throw off the experience. We all have in our heads a solid idea of what good lemonade tastes like. Use that image of perfection as you incorporate the ingredients little by little, slowly nudging the flavor toward your ideal lemonade. If the end result is too watery or too sugary or too sour, well, the ingredients in total cost you no more than five dollars, so just keep making it into you get it right.
Lemonade, it turns out, is Cocktail Making 101.
The Nitty Gritty Details Of Cocktail Creation
A lot of what you’ve read up to this point has been a mix of theory and practical advice on how you can make the next great drink that will sweep the nation, leaving you solely responsible for millions of hangovers should it catch on. But we’re done with theory. From here on out, it’s all about the tangible advice you can immediately apply to the invention of your signature cocktail.
For instance, never put a meatloaf in your drink.
First, ice. You probably don’t put much thought into the ice you’re using your cocktails, and why should you? It’s just frozen water that makes the drink cold. Stir it, shake it, dump it out and move on.
If that’s how you think, ask yourself this: why is it that every cocktail that you order from a good bar or restaurant, comes with those big blocky cubes of ice that are magically transparent in a way your Dollar Store ice cube trays can’t replicate? Those cubes aren’t just for show; they actually play a huge part in the foundation of a cocktail.
Bartender-style cubes melt much more slowly than regular ice, which helps to maintain even dilution and temperature. The ice cubes that your fridge’s ice dispenser spit out are fine and work in a pinch, but if you really want to give your home cocktail that professional look and taste, here’s a trick: whether you’re using a cheap ice tray or dope silicone trays that make huge spheres, the real secret is in the water. Instead of filling the mold with tap water, bring filtered water to a near-boil then fill your mold or regular ice tray and freeze as usual.
Remember to thaw them out, overnight, before use.
This makes the ice form more slowly and allows for the release of tiny air bubbles that would normally cloud an ice cube. Ice is the phantom ingredient influencing everything in the background of nearly every cocktail you’ve ever had and will ever make. Treat it with the same respect as the rest of your ingredients.
Long or tall drinks (so called because they’re usually served in a tall glass) are typically cocktails where a nonalcoholic beverage like a juice or soda is spiked with alcohol, are mellowed by the dilution of ice. A shorthand for nailing the ratios in a long drink is 2:1:1 -- that’s 2 ounces of alcohol for every 1 ounce of tartness and 1 ounce of sweetness.
Short drinks, where alcohol was mixed with alcohol, generally don’t have to be any more than 4 ounces total -- 3 ounces of ingredients plus 1 ounce of diluted ice.
If you're just serving beer, make sure the ice is on the outside.
According to Joel Lee Kulp, the owner of two popular Brooklyn-based the bars, a lot of classic cocktails prove you don’t need any more than three ingredients to make a great drink. So when you’re designing your own signature cocktail, keep it simple. Kulp suggests no more than five ingredients. The flavors will be easier to balance, and keeping the ingredients list short makes the drink easier to replicate for guests.
As a general rule, you should be building cocktails on a foundation of 50 mL of a base spirit, which equals a little over one and a half ounces. Be stingy with everything else. When you’re starting off, it’d be wise to add your base spirit at the end after you’ve added your cheaper ingredients into the shaker. That way if you screwed up the ratios of the cheap stuff like grenadine or vermouth, you won’t have to toss out your expensive base liquor along with it. It’s always easier to add than subtract.
Speaking of shakers, James Bond has terrible taste in martinis. Martinis should never be shaken. The only cocktails that deserve a vigorous shake are those that include fruit juices, like the previously mentioned long cocktails. Stirring ensures a more even dilution of ice, which results in a smoother cocktail. Juices are denser than the liquor, bitters, or fortified wines you would use in a cocktail like a martini or a Manhattan. Juice cocktails need the violence of a good shake to combine these disparate densities. Straight cocktails, like James’ martini, should be stirred.
It should be so pretty, you want to comb its hair.
The Emergency Ratio
If all else fails and everything you made just outright sucks, just plug some ingredients into this handy formula devised by the hosts of the Cooking Channel’s Drinks with Alie & Georgia and you’ll be able to call yourself a mixologist [barfs].
2 ounces base spirit
¾ ounce of citrus juice
½ ounce of simple syrup
1 oz liqueur (you can also substitute a better aperitif like Angostura or a fortified wine like sweet/dry vermouth)
So start practicing, because the next time The Modern Rogue comes to your town, you owe us all a drink. Or five. Also, we'll need to crash on your couch.
Like this article? Check out "How To Talk About Beer Without Sounding Like A Snob" and "The Weirdest Products That Scammers Have Counterfeited".