Two weeks ago, I posted a quick guide to stocking your bar for $100. Since then, I’ve been toiling away on a Bar Stocker tool that will help you stock your bar at any budget.
I’ll be posting this tool soon, but before I do I want to reveal the secrets of bespoke (i.e. custom) cocktails for you, so that no matter what ingredients you decide to purchase, you can still make a phenomenal cocktail.
You can buy the highest quality ingredients and fanciest gear, but if your cocktail lacks balance then it will taste like shit. Utter shit. Perhaps even a bit like udders themselves. This is why you pay 30, 40 or 50 percent more for a cocktail made at a place like PDT as opposed to the non-ironic sports bar around the corner, because the staff should be that much more likely to produce a balanced cocktail.
Kindred Cocktails has a great series on balance, including sections on acidity, sugar, bitter and alcohol. I won’t regurgitate it all here but I will give the following guidelines:
1) Know what your base ingredients taste and smell like on their own before using them. You probably don’t want to drink a pint of Elderflower Liqueur, but you should know its standalone flavor before using it.
2) Exciting and interesting tastes come from contrast, not congruence. Think yin-yang, push and pull. You want dynamism, though you should stop short of all out flavor annihilation.
3) Use your nose. There are 5 or 6 types of taste but some 10,000+ smells that humans can identify. Relying only on your tongue to craft a balanced cocktail is like using your knees to type.
4) If you can remove an ingredient and lose nothing, you do not need it. Imagine each ingredient as a pole of a tent. It should contribute to the overall structure and, if removed, should collapse the entire cocktail.
Learning to balance takes time. Don’t be afraid to screw up or to try something completely off the wall. You will fail many many times as you develop an intuition about what combinations go well together and even then, once you think you’ve mastered it, you’ll fail some more.
But it’s not a test, it’s an ongoing experiment, so have fun with it!
So, experimentation’s great and all but unless you’ve got a base to build off of, it can be really fucking hard. That’s where ratios come in. They act as a template that you can use to substitute ingredients in classic cocktails or make entirely new concoctions.
To start, all you need to know are the following two ratios:
1) The Sour: 2 parts Spirit, 1 part Sweet and 1 part Sour. In terms of ounces, this is usually stated: 1.5oz Spirit, 3/4oz Sweet, 3/4oz Sour.
2) The Spiritous: 2 parts Spirit, 1 part Fortified Wine and 2-3 dashes of Bitters (with 1/4 part Sweet if so desired). In ounces, this usually comes to 2oz Spirit, 1oz Fortified Wine and 1/4oz Sweet (You may have seen something similar on Raising the Bar, called the “Golden Ratio”).
Spirit = Your Base Spirit, typically 80 proof or higher
Sweet = Usually a Liqueur, like a Cointreau, Maraschino, etc., or a Syrup
Sour = Citrus Juice, typically Lemon, Lime or Grapefruit
Fortified Wine = Such as Vermouth, Sherry, Quinquinas (25-45 proof or so)
Bitters = Non-potable Bitters, like Angostura’s, Peychaud’s, Bittermens, Bitter Truth, etc.
Will these ratios produce the BEST cocktail every single time? No. But the overwhelming majority of the time they’ll give you a solid, balanced cocktail which you can then modify to your liver’s content.
Once you’ve got the ratios down pat, try these:
1) Modifying the ratios: For The Sour, the base ratio is 2:1:1, but you can get a stiffer drink by using a 4:1:1 ratio and a softer one with a 3:2:1. Similarly for The Spiritous, you can use a 3:1 of Spirit:Fortified Wine for stronger drinks and 3:2 (think 1.5oz to 1oz) for less intense fare.
2) Hybrids: You can use multiple ingredients to play the role of one part in a ratio. For example, replace a Spirit part of 2oz of Rye with 1oz Rye and 1oz Cognac, a Fortified Wine part of 2oz Sweet Vermouth with 1oz Cynar (an Italian amaro) and 1oz Sweet Vermouth, or replace your Sour part of 1oz Lime Juice with 1/2oz Lime Juice and 1/2oz Grapefruit Juice.
3) Lengthening: You can take the result of either ratio and add a lengthener, such as club soda or tonic, to make the drink cooler and more refreshing. The ratio between base and lengthener should be around 1:3 ratio (think 2oz to 6oz for an 8oz drink).
4) Texturizing: Similar to Lengthening, you can use some ingredients to modify the texture of your cocktail, like raw egg white or a small amount (~1/4oz) of rich gomme syrup (2:1 mixture of gum arabic to water)
5) Rinses: For greater depth and complexity, add a rinse. Really pungent items work best, such as Mezcal, peaty Scotch (Laphroaig!), Absinthe or Green Chartreuse. Coat the inside of the glass with these or give the glass a few spritzes with a spray bottle (Note: There are also essence spritzes too, like the ones from Aftelier, but they’re pricey).
6) Aromatics: Using fresh ingredients, like citrus twists, mint, rosemary, dill and sage, you can provide an aromatic quality to your cocktails in a different way than a rinse will. Either muddle these (but use wedges instead of twists if you do), or you can go all BDSM and “pinch” your citrus twists (skin-side down), “spank” leafy items (mint, sage) and “whip” the spriggy types (rosemary, dill).
When you’re just starting out with cocktails, your goal should be getting basic gear and learning fundamental technique. From there, you begin to stock your bar and practice your skills on established recipes; this tells you if you’re doing it right.
Next you branch out. You substitute vital ingredients in classics, seeing what works and what doesn’t — and why. You learn the difference between what an original recipe calls for, how you like it and how your best friend/wife/husband/parents like it.
Then before you know it, you’re slinging together unheard of combinations. Recipes are no longer etched-in-stone instructions, but instantiations of the laws of balance. Each new one you encounter carries its own little secret for you to unravel, understand and throw back into your own creations.
You’ll never look at a cocktail menu the same again.