The Perfect Cocktail: 6 Steps to Crafting a Masterpiece
As cocktail culture continues to evolve in the United States, restaurants and bars are increasingly feeling the pressure to offer their guests unique offerings on their cocktail menu. Social media has put to the forefront, the allure and dazzle of the modern mixologist, and dining establishments across the country are doing their best to get people in the door by offering a memorable drinking experience. This heightened pressure has created some less than ideal menus that are rushed, stale and devoid of any basic cocktail theory. Modern bartenders have more tools and ingredients at their disposal than ever before but few pay attention to the small nuances that go into crafting a great cocktail. Read below on my definitive guide on what it takes to take a drink from good to great.
Most cocktails involve the use of ice in some capacity. Water is the key to life, and in its frozen state, it gives life to masterpieces that we are achieving to create. Before ice could be manufactured industrially, it was cut from frozen lakes and ponds in the winter, shipped to cities and stored in icehouses. Ice was seen as a luxury good and its continued use has changed the way we consume alcohol since the 19th century.
Those days are long gone now and now the frozen stuff can be made at home or on a much larger scale, at an industrial ice house. The best ice comes from industrial-grade ice manufacturers that are able to craft solid clear blocks that have to be broken down with hand tools. This allows an establishment to craft any form of ice suitable for their needs. From solid cubes, to spears, to crushed ice, any form is possible. A high amount of labor is required to craft ice from a block and it may not be the most economical nor efficient option for many applications. There is also a safety concern as ice saws, picks and chisels all require a certain degree of skill to wield without injuring yourself or someone around you. If implemented, however, you will clearly set your program far above than those of your competitors.
Because the learning curve and cost for implementing block ice can be high, an ice machine is a great option for high volume bars that want a consistent product. For serious cocktail bars, a Kold-Draft machine will usually be preferred as these are able to produce large volumes of nearly uniform ice cubes in various sizes. The large cubes melt at a slower rate thus providing a less diluted drink that stays cold for longer. This ability comes at a premium, however, as these machines can cost upwards of $8,000 for high-end models. Another option is to use a Hoshizaki ice machine which produces half moon shaped ice that is smaller, and isn't as effective at chilling and dilutes faster than Kold-Draft cubes. I've used both machines and can attest to the beauty of Kold-Draft although when properly compensated for, a Hoshizaki can be quite sufficient at producing cubes suitable for all but the most serious of bar programs.
Lastly, an option is to make your own. There are a variety of molds available that allow for ice to be made in various shapes and sizes and are a viable option for more cost sensitive beverage programs. Now, it'll be hard to gain the clarity of professional ice blocks without some serious experimentation but most guests won't mind if their cubes are a bit cloudy. Also, there is a high amount of labor and storage space needed to keep up with demand but I've seen programs that have ice programs which are entirely housemade. (On a side note, The Dead Rabbit in New York City, one of the world's greatest bars, has figured out how to achieve clarity in homemade ice blocks and they're not telling!)
There are many ways to introduce acid into a cocktail but we'll focus on only three ways: citrus, vinegar and acid phosphate.
Unless you live in an area where citrus grows naturally, you're likely going to be importing it from a place far away. Lemons, limes and grapefruits all have unique characteristics that change depending on the season and where they're grown. Tasting your citrus throughout the year attunes you to how the fruit gains and losses acidity over time and how you may have to adjust certain recipes accordingly. Buying organic is great for home bartenders but for those in the industry, it's usually highly impractical due to the higher cost and shorter shelf life. When selecting your citrus, avoid any fruit that is bruised, under ripe or contains any traces of mold or mildew.
Long used in preservation methods during Colonial America, vinegar has found its way on the menus of craft cocktail menus across the nation. The style of vinegar you chose (i.e. sherry, champagne, apple cider, etc...) will greatly affect the outcome of your drink so you might want to use different styles for different applications. In my experience, apple cider, sherry or champagne vinegar works great with shrubs as normal white distilled vinegar lends a flavor that's too harsh. Play around with different vinegars or even create a house blend that will be unique to your establishment be versatile in many applications. Local versions are great to use, but the cost and consistency are factors to keep in mind when choosing to support a local producer.
Acid phosphate sounds like a modern creation but its origins date back to the 19th century and became wildly popular at soda fountains of the early 20th century. With a pH of around 2.0-2.2, it's similar to lime juice in terms of acidity but rather neutral in flavor. There are some classic recipes that call for it so it's worth looking into if you want to offer something off the beaten path. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way and with many consumers becoming more conscious of what goes into their bodies, some may be turned off by the use of such an ingredient.
Like any other agricultural product, buying your herbs or flowers in season will often time yield the best results. This holds true more with flowers than herbs as they can be grown all year long with little effect on quality.
Unless you live in a region with little seasonal variation, growing your own to keep up with the demands of your bar will be difficult. The amount of mint used in even one mojito can decimate half of a plant. Imagine a busy Saturday evening in the Summer and you can see how quickly you can go through multiple plants. Now it's not impossible to grow your own herbs for a high volume cocktail bar, but finding the real estate in an urban environment can be quite challenging. And if you do have the space, then you have to worry about tending to your garden by managing weeds, pests and water levels. Some bars and restaurants do it but many use these herbs for garnish and not necessarily for the creation of the drink itself although there are exceptions.
Whether you choose to buy from your local farmer's market or a large food distributor will be based on your volume and available budget. When selecting herbs or flowers, choose ones that retain their aromatics and color and avoid ones that are bruised and seem dull. Locally bought flowers and herbs almost always have bugs crawling around on them so please be careful to carefully rinse any produce before using it in a drink. I've had bugs crawl out of edible flowers that I've used, and it's never a good thing.
This is where bartenders get very nerdy and frankly a bit dogmatic about how to sweeten their drinks. Personally, I believe that there isn't a one-size-fits all approach to selecting a sweetener but you should consider the innate nature of the sweetner that you decide to use. Some sweeteners will be more neutral in flavor, which may be great in some applications, while others may offer more complexity which may not be appropriate in many applications. For instance, I love a highly refined white sugar when making a mojito because I want the freshness from the mint and lime juice to shine without any nuttiness that a raw sugar might impart. Similarly, I may reach for a Demerara simple syrup when making an Old Fashioned because of its rich body and caramel flavors which brilliantly compliments aged spirits like cognac and rye whiskey.
Honey is a complex sweetener in that it is created by living organisms with very little, if any, human refinement. Depending on what region and the diet of the bees, it's flavor can vary wildly. Complicating matters further is the amount of dilution you choose to employ which further affects its flavor and mouthfeel. Local options can be great but beware of inconsistencies from batch to batch in flavor, color and texture. Like most local agricultural products, expect to pay a bit of a premium, especially if you're buying small quantities.
It is impossible to craft a great cocktail without first seriously considering all of your raw ingredients. Skimp out on any one of them and run the risk of creating a forgettable drink at best and at worst, one that consistently is sent back. Everything from ice to acid choice greatly affects the flavor and mouthfeel of each drink and ultimately determines whether or not your guests stay for that coveted second and third round.
Balance of Ingredients
Achieving balance in a cocktail should always be the end goal when creating your own recipe or reimagining an existing one. The two main areas where you should focus is spirit balance and the play of dry vs. sweet. In almost every cocktail created, these two elements play a pivotal role in determining its likeability.
Needless to say, your base spirit in your cocktail sets the stage for its flavor profile. A stronger spirit will be able to stand up to other ingredients of similar strength. Powerful liqueurs like Green Chartreuse and Fernet Branca pair find harmony with higher proof spirits while non-alcoholic ingredients such as rich simple syrup and very sweet fruit juices work similarly as well. The key is not to overpower nor underwhelm the spirit by choosing a secondary ingredient of too high or too low of an intensity. Don't rely solely on color as the basis of your balance as weak spirits can be quite dark in appearance and stronger ones can be as clear as water.
The battle of sweet vs. dry is one that has been going on since the days of Jerry Thomas in the 18th century. Over time, ingredients change in flavor so the classic recipes themselves have also changed. Adding to this complexity is the fact that regional taste differences greatly influence how sweet or dry a recipe will ultimately be. When deciding how sweet or dry your cocktail will taste, you must pay attention to two concepts: perceived sweetness and absolute sweetness.
Absolute sweetness is simple the total amount of sugar in your cocktail. Tiki drinks are notoriously high in absolute sweetness due to all of the syrups and fruit juices used. Perceived sweetness is the amount of sugar relative to alcohol, acid and water and ultimately is the sensation that you can taste in a drink. Generally speaking, a cocktail's perceived sweetness lessens as the alcohol rises as alcohol acts as a counterbalance to the sugar You can also alter the perceived sweetness by varying the amount of available water. By diluting a drink, you're essentially lowering the sweetness by increasing the ratio of water to sugar. Lastly, playing with the acid balance will also affect the perceived sweetness and the more acid you introduce, the less sweet the drink will taste. As stated earlier, the tolerance for sweetness varies greatly depending upon the culture and region in which you live so be mindful of whom you're serving when determining how sweet or dry your cocktail will be.
Regardless of your geographic location, you always want to achieve balance in whatever you create. Every ingredient should play off the next leaving a drink that is a true sum of its disparate parts.
Let's face it, we all are biased. All of us comes from different backgrounds which make us predetermined to be in favor or against certain flavors. This natural bias will undoubtedly creep into whatever cocktail you create and you will find yourself gravitating to certain flavor profiles while avoiding others. A great way to combat this is through peer review. Having others in your industry give you feedback on what you create is an invaluable step in building a great cocktail. Whether you think your creation is great is irrelevant, quite frankly, because public opinion should be the only metric by which your drink is judged. If people don't like it, then it's not good and no amount of internal justification will ever change that.