“Something Sour, Something Sweet, Something Strong and Something Weak and a Little Spice to make it Nice”
The above axiom has always been a quick mnemonic device for creating a balanced drink. The layout is primarily used for creating punches but, it works equally as well for short drinks and long drinks.
The larger problem is what happens when you aren’t sure how to start a drink? Or when you have an idea for drinks and you become stuck on the recipe? Each person is very different when it comes to cocktail creation. I’ve worked along bartenders who find an existing recipe, tweak it, and put there own mark on it. Others have gone straight to the jigger and started compiling ingredients and working out a drink by adding in and removing various elements. This practice can be really expensive. You could be lucky and find the right drink in one try or end up making upwards of ten variations if not more, all destined for the dump sink.
Some methods work better for some people than others, I will try and walk you through my method and hopefully it will help.
There are some basic ideas you will inevitably have, traits you want to build on and variations of existing drinks and those are great platforms for making your own cocktails. For this reason it is important to learn as many drinks as possible. You would be surprised at how many drinks you will come up with that technically already exist in some form, or how quick you can land on inspiration from an archaic drink that seldom makes it to the spotlight of the cocktail world. With that foundation you go into theory. Before any drink is made, before I am even behind the stick, I sit down with a pen or pencil and paper.
My first thoughts are which season am I in? Autumn? Spring? What is available at the market? Will this drink be Savory? Sweet? Floral? Vegetal? Herbal? Full of Tannins? or Fruity?
The next series of thoughts should be on Spirits that will combine with the flavor profile you want to achieve. Neutral? Woody? Vanilla? Earthy? Smokey? Strong? Weak? Herbaceous? Medicinal? Bitter? Sweet? Peaty?
Next is mouthfeel. What are you trying to go for? Astrigent? Silky? Buttery? Creamy? Dry? Off Dry?
It sounds like a lot to think over, but all of this comes together once you start picking out ingredients. For example Gin; depending on the Producer can have many or few of the qualities listed already. Same can be said about Rum, Tequila so on and so forth.
Now we think about Colors. Not all ingredients are created with the mindset of color theory. Unless intentional and hidden, muddy drinks tend to be underwhelming. Something I learned cooking is that guests eat with their eyes, which can just as easily be translated into drinking culture as well. If a drink looks refreshing and approachable your guest is going to be excited. Height, Color, and Presentation all matter when it comes to how a person makes their decision when it comes to food and drinks. The easiest colors to achieve tend to be green, red, pink, blue, blue green, yellow, golden yellow, white, pearl, and violet. This is because most ingredients tend to lend their colors to our drinks. Greens can come from liqueurs, citrus and herbs. Where as Hues of red can come from syrups, fruits, seeds and flowers. It’s critical to think about how colors interact when mixing a drink. Will these ingredients complement the colors or give me a muted beige or brown?
The following ideas should lead us into Ice, Glassware and Presentation. Are we shaking? Stirring? or Building? If we are shaking are we shaking with Cubed or Pebble ice or a combination? is there any Dry shaking involved? Are we stirring with Cubed iced or cracked ice? Are we building over cubes, pebble ice or cracked ice? The general rule of thumb is: drinks that contain cloudy ingredients should be shaken to achieve emulsification. The purpose of emulsifying is to build a drink that sings in one strong note. Combining ingredients that strengthen each other to make one solid idea come forward. On the other hand stirring a drink will include those ingredients that are translucent. We stir to soften the ingredients with controlled dilution, harmonizing each ingredient individually to make one concert. In between we have drinks which are built in the glass. This is a layered effect, with each layer presenting itself in the same way a new page does in a novel.
Balance. Balance. Balance. So many times a drink is close, it’s almost there but it needs that one thing. Balance can change and entire drink from something that’s just tossed together in mixing tins to something that is well thought out and crafted with care. Culprits usually include acid, spirit, or harmony. Some ingredients clash, they fight one another to be the dominate tone in a drink. More often than not it’s trial and error that helps find those combinations that bring harmony. Another way is to taste each ingredient by itself then identify its profile. Some spirits have notes of vanilla, others carry notes of anise. Palatte training is paramount. Taste. Taste. Taste. There is no cheat sheet for your strongest tool. You own senses.
Presentation is the last step we take. Garnishing can be simple, absent or complex. Garnishing and presentation shouldn’t take away from your final drink. It’s closer to an accent than anything else. So how do we develop the right garnish? I stick with basics-herbs to bring out herbal notes, fruits to accompany existing fruity flavors, citrus peels to bring out acids and sugars but also to brighten spirits etc. There are more advanced techniques such as japanese garnishes, flowers, smoke for effect, ice effects and more, but that sometimes distracts from an already existing visual aide; the cocktail. Smoke and Mirrors doesn’t always make a drink better. Garbage in-Garbage out.
By now on paper there should be an outline of where you want your drink to go, once I have ideas sketched out I go to test phase. Usually the hard part is figuring out ratios. I start off with tried and true ratios and move on from there. Some I use are:
3/4 – 3/4 – 3/4 -3/4
2 – 3/4 – 1/2
1 – 1/2 – 3/4 – 1/2
3/4 – 3/4 – 3/4 – 1/2
The above ratios work pretty well with some exceptions. I start off with these depending on ingredients, which I begin with 3 – 5. From here I will either add or remove depending on the direction of the drink and the intended glassware. The quantity of ingredients weighs in a lot. Too many ingredients the design becomes busy. Too little and it leaves you wanting. There are plenty of times that teaspoons and barspoons full of an ingredients is all you need. And yes there is a difference between the two. Not all bar spoons are created equal. I tend to stick to teaspoons and tablespoons for consistency and I encourage you to do the same.
Once I’m testing the drink, I am also tasting and thinking of the flavors and if they work. Sometimes your palette can confuse you and lead you down the wrong path, having others taste your drinks will help in a great way. After all we are creating drinks to be agreeable for guests en masse. Your palette might be more keen on bitter whilst someone else prefers sweet and vice versa. Granted the drink might taste awful as well, and you should allow yourself to be honest. Not every drink is going to be revolutionary, but we can try damn hard to come close.
Occasionally you will hit that brick wall. Come to a dead end and have a dumb sink full of bad drinks. What I do to find my way back is to step away from the whole project. Wash your tools, put the bottles away and step away. Start something completely different. Find a recipe in a book and test it out, make a drink you’re comfortable making, or just focus on something completely different from the current situation. Eventually that moment of eureka will come and you’ll get back on track. If that doesn’t work there’s always the rubber duck solution. Basically talk about the problem out loud. Vocalize where the issue is and start telling yourself possible solutions and the problem will solve itself in your conversation, just make sure to pay attention to yourself. If that doesn’t do the trick then it’s time to bring back your coworkers, chefs, underlings, apprentices, friends, family members, whomever was there to help you taste your drinks and ask for their input.
Hopefully by now after theorizing, testing, tasting, asking for advice and making mistakes I will have a drink that makes the cut. Sometimes this process takes a few minutes. It can also take much longer. As fun as it is to create drinks, it shouldn’t escape you that tumbling and coming to dead ends doesn’t mean you’re bad and making drinks. A lot of this takes practice, study and becoming familiar with the ingredients and combinations they work with.
The last tips I have is that you should build a list of your favorite resources for reference. Fall in love with a cocktail book and master what is printed on the pages. and lastly, make sure you’re doing it because making drinks makes you happy.