Anyone can mix a few ingredients together and call it a cocktail, but that does not make for a good cocktail. We’ve encountered dozens of really poor cocktails over the years and, now, we want to correct that atrocity.
We know what bad cocktails taste like, but what brings a cocktail from bad to good? Primarily balance, flavor pairings and understanding a bit about the artistic “medium” (your figurative pencils and paper). A great cocktail has the right types of sugar balanced against sour that allows you to gain an appreciation for both the acids and sweets without either blowing up your palate.
A great cocktail recipe needs to understand ingredient ratios and appreciate their contribution to the overall flavor. A bad cocktail is usually described as “flat”, “boring”, “watery”, “light”, “no body”, “too sweet”, “too sour”, “too bitter” or just “…off.” There are many great recipe ratios out there, we appreciate the 2:1:1 ratio the best because it’s the easiest to describe and reproduce in almost any recipe (the Mai Tai, the Daiquiri, the Margarita, etc.)
But, a great cocktail formula just doesn’t use “sweet”, it uses the right sweet for the job. That might be a passion fruit syrup, white granulated sugar (like the Lemon Drop, Caipirinha and Mojito) or a sugar syrup instead. It may use an oleo saccharum instead of a fresh squeezed juice and those specific oils interact with the other ingredients in a delicate dance.
Also, a great cocktail recipe finds the right sour or combination of sours to get the job done right. A simple drink might just utilize a fresh lime juice, like the Daiquiri. A more complicated flavor experience, like a Dorchester, calls for both grapefruit juice and lime juice in unison. Why? Because the two acids work well together to create a balanced sour and tart against the sweetness. Plus, freshly squeezed grapefruit isn’t nearly as sour as bottled stuff.
Which also leads us to a key talking point: use fresh squeezed juice. Get rid of that bottled orange juice, lemon concentrate or fake mixers. Get into some real juices with a lemon juicer and some effort. Your effort will be rewarded and you’ll find few reasons to ever buy that concentrated fruit juice again. However, we do enjoy 100% pineapple juice in a can as it brings a nice foamy consistency to a cocktail recipe.
Knowledge is power. Don’t be lazy, take some time to read, watch and learn. Understand where your base recipes came from and who invented them. Read about some of the founders of the cocktail industry to understand their intentions and, most importantly, how they too re-designed their own recipes over the years to meet the changing tastes of both their guests and themselves. Tiki cocktails are great examples of recipe designs that have changed over the course of their seventy years of existence. Don Beach and Trader Vic re-imagined many of their drinks to make them better or, simply, different.
Learn the tools, learn the drinks and experiment with flavor pairings. Get it done. You’ll be a better home bartender and have a stronger perception of tastes in both food and drink.