Cocktail construction

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

WhiskeySour-001-de1 The making of cocktails often falls unhappily into one of two extremes. If you have previously been subjected to the sickly sweet frozen neon drinks, so beloved of chain restaurants and a certain kind of tourist, you probably think of cocktail making as a base practice that strikes terror into the heart of anyone remotely fond of alcohol. On the other hand, with the modern cocktail revival, it seems easy to be forced up against a bewildering variety of obscure ingredients and cacophonous combinations, surrounded by a subculture presided over by self-important bartenders. The making of cocktails is an art, true, but it is quite easy to make good cocktails at home, cocktails that are faithful to alcohol (rather than trying to disguise it) and that at the same time are simple to make and do not require the memorization of entire recipe books.

There are general principles underlying many mixed drinks, and understanding them makes making and drinking them a lot more fun. Like those underlying any good explanation, these principles are both structural and historical and, of course, structures are historical entities as much as history unfolds within structural confines. All this is to say that this is one possible means of making sense of mixed drinks, but one that hopes to cut reality at some set of natural-seeming joints.

Historically, the cocktail was a combination of liquor, sugar and bitters (and was preceded by a sling, which was a combination of liquor and sugar) and, while the modern cocktail is generally more complex than this, this formulation already gives us structural insight. The Old-Fashioned is a straight-forward instantiation of this principle: take rye or bourbon, a little sugar or simple syrup and a few dashes of bitters and mix them together. Why? At the very least, mixed drinks add a new discursive dimension to alcohol and, like with sex or politics, talking about drinking is almost as much fun as drinking. But there’s much more. Even this simple combination tastes surprisingly good. The sugar, as long as it isn’t enough to overpower, rounds out and softens the alcohol, and the bitters give a herbal complexity and depth. This is admittedly vague and, if you haven’t tried this before, you should compare a rye and sugar drink against an Old-Fashioned and you’ll see what I mean. Even if you have, if the ingredients are available, make one up and sip it while you read this.

Following along the trajectory of the Old-Fashioned, the cocktails we’ll be talking about are alcohol-forward: they modify but don’t overwhelm a base spirit. We will try to think of ingredients in terms of the roles they play. This is not out of some vulgar hostility to particularity or uniqueness; it is simply that abstraction helps to see general principles. In all of this we will be guided by David Embury, the New York lawyer and bon vivant, whose 1948 classic, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, constructs a canon of six basic mixed drinks[1] and then builds a classification and theory of the cocktail, so that classical cocktails can be understood as the expression of certain basic principles (rather than a collection of disconnected recipes) and new cocktails can be constructed by substitution and elaboration.

The Old-Fashioned, then, combines a spirit with something sweet and something bitter and aromatic. Note that this doesn’t mean that the drink itself should be obviously bitter or sweet. Just like a splash of vinegar often balances a sauce without making it obviously sour, certain ingredients can pull aspects of a liquor forward and balance them without themselves being obviously central. The spirit-bitter-sweet triad recurs frequently and you should become well acquainted with it.

Simple syrup is the most commonly used sweetener: sugar takes some coaxing to dissolve in alcohol, so simple syrup is most convenient. To make it, heat equal parts sugar and water, stir to dissolve the sugar and cool. You should keep a bottle lying around; it’s very useful. If you are suspicious of sugar in your drinks, you have the right instincts but they are being misapplied. We will be discerning and mature about our use of sugar and never overwhelm or infantilize the palate[2]. As you will see in what follows, other sweeteners are also used in cocktails. Common ones are fruit liqueurs and syrups (e.g. elderflower liqueur, grenadine), triple sec (i.e. Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc) and honey or maple syrup.

Bitters got their start as herbal tinctures, compounded and sold by 19th Century pharmacists as the cure for a wide range of ailments. There’s been much enthusiasm surrounding bitters of late, and we are slowly returning to the diversity that existed a century ago. A number of companies now sell AdvertisementDrCoppsWhiteMountainBitters1883a wide range and they’re a lot of fun to play with. The diversity can lead to Excess and Self-Indulgence (witness the oft-parodied figure of the hipster bartender with his obsessively curated collection of bitters), but this is only a bad thing if it makes you be mean to your friends. A bottle of Angostura bitters is exceedingly useful and lasts a long time; if you want to explore further, some excellent companies are Bittermens, Fee Brothers and The Bitter Truth. Apart from its role in cocktails, several dashes of Angostura bitters and a bit of honey in a glass of water drunk before bed and again in the morning are wonderful for a hangover (controlled studies have not been done). You can also experiment with using aperitif and digestive bitters (like Fernet Branca and Campari) in your drinks. This is quite common on modern cocktail menus.

David Embury classifies cocktails into two families. The Old-Fashioned is a sterling example of what Embury calls the “aromatic type”. In his words, “The aromatic type of cocktails employs, as a modifier, bitters or one of the vaporous aromatic wines – French vermouth, Italian vermouth, Dubonnet, Byrrh, etc. – or both.”[3] Of his six exemplar cocktails, three are of this type. Apart from the Old-Fashioned, the other two are the Martini and the Manhattan, probably the two most famous cocktails. The two have very different personalities, but are recognizably siblings – two manifestations of the same underlying impulse.

The Martini is a history-laden cultural object and is theorized as much as it is drunk. I will contribute but not at unnecessary length. You will be tempted by very dry martinis, mostly for the ascetic purity. This is fine. Gin is a wonderful thing and neither I nor anyone else should disapprove of you drinking it mostly unadorned. But it is oddly euphemistic to call a glass of gin and a faint dash of vermouth a cocktail. And gin and dry vermouth play so wonderfully well together that it would be perverse not to experience their progeny. Be aggressive with the vermouth! In this, you have tradition on your side – the Martini as originally conceived was much more generous with vermouth. Stir together 3 to 5 parts of gin with each part of dry vermouth, with a lot of ice and a dash of bitters (orange bitters are lovely if you have them), strain and drink. Add a twist (or olives, if you like). Repeat. Shaking is untraditional and is frowned upon by some; it makes a somewhat weaker drink but there seems no point in fanaticism either way. Vodka has many uses besides making infusions, disinfecting wounds and cleaning surfaces but will not be discussed here. Use gin.

The Manhattan occupies a similar corner of the conceptual space as the Martini. It’s a wonderful drink, aggressive and round at the same time, sweet and complex. Rye is somewhat better than bourbon, but both are delicious. Stir 2 or 3 parts of rye and 1 part sweet vermouth with lots of ice and several dashes of bitters, strain and add a lemon twist or a Maraschino cherry. If you find this too sweet, use more whiskey. Legend has it that the Manhattan was invented at a party thrown by Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother. This is probably false, given Churchill’s obvious suspicion of vermouth (see the Churchill martini).

The Sour is the other of Embury’s two major families. It is the founding principle of a whole class of cocktails and once you recognize it you will see it everywhere. Alcohol is brightened with citrus (lemon juice being the most common) and balanced with some sweetness, typically from simple syrup. The citrus is key: it makes these cocktails refreshingly tart. The whiskey sour is whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup; the traditional rum sour is rum, lime juice and simple syrup and is called a Daiquiri; the Sidecar is a type of brandy sour, using triple sec (e.g. Cointreau, Grand Marnier) as the sweetener in place of the simple syrup[4]; the standard tequila sour also replaces the simple syrup with triple sec and is familiar as the Margarita; and so on and so forth. Apart from impressing you with the grand esoteric principles underlying this revealed diversity, the general principle at work should make your life much easier. Similar proportions can be used for all of these sours, tweaked to taste, and you can invent new sours quite easily. David Embury suggests a ratio of 8 parts spirit to 2 parts sour to 1 sweet; this is very strong and 4:2:1 is often better. But experiment and find a ratio you like. Sours are generally shaken. Egg whites are often added and give a charming frothiness[5]; you must shake if you use egg whites.

None of this is exhaustive, of course, but it does surprisingly well even when trying to decipher complicated modern cocktail menus. Still, one more category worth mentioning is Champagne (or sparkling wine) based cocktails, which play to Champagne’s strength as the perfect aperitif. The classic Champagne Cocktail is sparkling wine with a cube of sugar soaked in bitters dropped in, and it often gets fortified with brandy. If you were paying attention when we talked about the Old-Fashioned, you should recognize the principle. You can also omit the bitters and, as elsewhere, replace the sugar with other sweeteners like fruit liqueurs or syrups; elderflower liqueur with sparkling wine is sublime, as is crème de cassis (called a Kir Royale). Hemingway used to drink Champagne with absinthe added (in an instance of self-plagiarization, he called it “Death in the Afternoon”)[6].

So where do you go from here? Now that we have a schema, with ingredients that occupy structural roles rather than being unconditioned monads, we can begin to make meaning by substitution. As you saw in the section on Sours, this is not a radical move; consciously or unconsciously, cocktail makers have been doing this for a while. So you could make a rum or brandy Old-Fashioned, or experiment with sherry instead of vermouth in a Manhattan, or use elderflower liqueur instead of Cointreau in a Sidecar. You will see these principles at work in many cocktail lists. For example, go here and glance at the list: http://www.cloverclubny.com/cocktails/. They have a well-commented menu and you can immediately see the directions they’ve taken the Sour in. But look also at the “Cocktails” section (for miscellaneous drinks) and try to do some classification of your own. Behind the “Louisville Cathouse”, for example, lurks the same principle expressed in the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan: whiskey, a sweetener (here, crème de cacao) and some bitterness (Fernet Branca). Something similar is happening with the “Tokyo Drift”. And there are several modified sours on the list. You can go further by hybridizing, though you’re less certain of success: bitters can work interestingly well with members of the Sour family, as can vermouth (occasionally), and a splash of citrus can do wonderful things to some aromatic cocktails. You can even use all this to improve the standard gin and tonic: a little less tonic and a few dashes of bitters makes it much more interesting. Thinking about ingredients as liquor, simple-syrup-like, lemon-juice-like, bitters-like, vermouth-like and so on also helps to mentally organize the baffling range of ingredients available to the modern bartender and to suggest uses. You can also create metonymically rather than by substitution: if you remember two ingredients going well with each other in some cocktail, and you’re using one of them in a new cocktail, you can follow the chain of association and see what happens when you add the other.

I’ve been talking about cocktail ingredients in relation to the roles they play, but, finally, it’s good to remember that in the last instance good cocktails work because of the unique natures of the ingredients and some wonderful, rather unclassifiable cocktails play particular unusual aspects of ingredients against each other. One of the most charming examples I can think of is the “Smoke and Flowers” at the Hotel Delmano in New York, which marries the peat of an Islay whisky (I think Lagavulin) with sweet floral elderflower liqueur (St. Germain).

If you want to keep playing, here are some suggestions. Lots of good cocktail bars have menus online, and these are great sources of inspiration, especially if you try to reduce particular cocktails to the principles at work. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks was out of print until recently, but you can now buy it from Mud Puddle books. Among the many other cocktail books the ones by David Wondrich are particularly good. There are plenty of blogs and one of my favorites is at http://12bottlebar.com/ ; it attempts to use a limited set of ingredients and thoroughly explore the possibilities. Eventually, you'll start making your own bitters and then the chance of redemption is slight.


[1] The Old-Fashioned, the Martini, the Manhattan, the Daiquiri, the Sidecar and the Jack Rose

[2] I confess to an odd fondness for Pina Coladas, but this will not affect anything I write

[3] The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks

[4] If we’re being pedantic, a Daisy is a Sour that replaces simple syrup with another sweetener

[5] The yolks can be used for mayonnaise. If you don’t already make mayonnaise, you should – it’s quick, simple and sublime. Mix some lemon juice with the yolk and whisk in oil, slowly at first and then more rapidly, until the mixture becomes as thick as you want. You can elaborate on this, of course. The egg yolk proteins yoke together oil and water, making mayonnaise a symbol of harmony and understanding.

[6] As quoted in Harold McGee’s New York Times article on absinthe, here is Hemingway: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

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