Cocktails are all about ratios, ingredients and substitutions. I know, it seems obvious, right? But let’s start with the basics and not over complicate things.
People always want to start with 15 different spirits combined in 0.000005 oz increments to get complexity. But that’s not the best approach. To me, you need to take a step back and start with the basics, then slowly add layers to get to your final product.
We can start simply, then ask ourselves a few questions. Do you have enough tartness? Would the drink be better balanced with more sweetness? Is there a savory component that would compliment the base spirit? How would bitters affect the flavor? What are you looking for and how can you get it?
My goal here is to go through the basic steps you need to start making delicious cocktails. The first thing you need to understand are ratios.
My ratio for a balanced cocktail depends on a lot of factors. But if you’re starting from scratch, go after the basic “sour” and use the ration of 2 oz base spirit, 0.75 oz sweet component, 0.75 oz sour component. Obviously, this is an over simplification of how things work and the variety that can be picked from this is substantial. But it is a starting point that can get you quite far in the world of cocktails. Want a classic daiquiri? Try 2 oz rum, 0.75 oz simple syrup, .75 oz lime juice. More interested in a margarita? Substitute some ingredients but don’t change your ratio. Try 2 oz tequila, .75 oz Cointreau, .75 oz lime juice. Like bourbon? Try 2 oz bourbon, 0.75 oz maple syrup and 0.75 oz lemon juice. The classic Aviation? Go for 2 oz gin, .75 oz maraschino liqueur and .75 oz lemon. You get the idea.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. Some drinks are all spirits. Your classic martini or manhattan sits at a ratio of 2:1 spirit to vermouth plus a dash of bitters. Some have what seems like hundreds of ingredients (see the Singapore Sling or the Zombie). But if you keep this basic ratio in mind, you’ll find it a good jumping off point to make a drinkable cocktail. Don’t feel chained to it, however. Use it as a guide and you’ll be moving in the right direction. You’ll find that sweet components can vary in sweetness and that ratio may need to drop to half an ounce. Or that you like tartness and that ratio should be increased to an ounce. Starting point, people.
The first step to making great drinks is to think about what you’re putting in the glass. That may seem obvious. But often times, people are so stuck on a particular “formula” for their margarita that they never stop to think about the balance in the cocktail or how they might go about improving it. You need to think about the ingredients.
To do this, first taste all of the components that are going into your drink. Taste your tequila. Is it earthy? Smokey? Fruity? Understand your base spirit before moving on. Try your orange liqueur. Do you have oak notes of a Grand Marnier? Or the cloying sweetness of triple sec? How will it interact with the flavor of the tequila? How would you rate the sweetness on a scale from 1-10? What other ingredients does it compare to?
Once you’ve tasted your ingredients individually, mixed your cocktail and tasted it again, you can start to understand how things work together and how to make a better drink. Think about your ingredients.
This is where things can really start to get interesting. As you consider your basic ratio and think about your ingredients, you can start to create variations on classic drinks, making them unique to you.
The starting point can remain constant. Base spirit + sweetener + sour/savory/herbal/dry/ tart = cocktail. Looking for complexity? Change your sweetener from a basic simple syrup to something more interesting like Domaine de Canton, Cointreau, St. Germain, maple syrup or Port. Take your sour component and make it dry, substituting Aperol or Campari, Cynar or Ramazotti, bitters or dry vermouth. Infuse a simple syrup with fresh herbs like tarragon or sage, citrus peels or liqueurs.
Not every combination will work and some will fail miserably. But as you begin to understand the dominant flavors and textures in your spirits and mixers, you’ll begin to see substitutions based on similar profiles. And that will lead to interesting and complex drinks.
Keep these three things in mind and you’ll start making delicious cocktails in no time.