How To Fix a Bad Cocktail

It happens… sometimes you find a cocktail recipe you think is going to work out well and, after creating it, you think “did I do something wrong?” You build it a second time and it comes out exactly the same: bad.

The first steps to fixing a bad cocktail is to understand why it’s bad.

  • Does it taste ‘hollow’ and uninteresting?
  • Is it overly sour and hard to drink?
  • Does it feel watered down or thin?
  • Is it way too sweet?
  • Does it make you gag or have that acidic “bile” grossness?
  • Maybe you just don’t like it?

The Hollow Taste

When you taste a cocktail and it starts with some initial flavor but dulls out quick and never returns you feel the drink “had potential.” But then, it just leaves you wanting more…what’s that all about?

A great cocktail usually has three phases of experience: A good flavor on the initial sip (combined with aroma), a long mid-palate flavor profile followed by a tasty finish. When the mid-palate flavor is missing it tends to draw out a sense of displeasure. Usually the culprit is the core ingredient losing its will to survive, perhaps it’s just not “bold” enough. For instance, a cocktail with a sweet start and a bitter end may be casting a shadow over those mid-palate delicate flavors.

A fresh grapefruit based cocktail, for instance, may get lost amongst a large group of aggressive flavors. In these cases, a lighter start, perhaps a bit of herbal gin flavors and aromas and an earthy finish from something like a Luxardo Maraschino liqueur might pair better against those lighter tart grapefruit notes in the middle. Yet, fresh grapefruit notes also bring with it a light acidity which may not be bold enough to hold the cocktail together — adding a lemon or citrus to the grapefruit might help keep the cocktail interesting and structured.

Acid often brings good mid-palate structure.

The Fix: Add a bold core flavor such as an herbal-forward gin, an overproof bourbon, a general use juice (pineapple/orange) or cocktail bitters.

Too Sour?

How do you know if a drink is too sour? One way is to see how much sweet balances against the sour in the recipe. A cocktail calling for one ounce of lemon and a half ounce of sugar syrup may be a bit too sour for many people. A cocktail calling for one ounce of lemon and only a dash of sugar is probably going to be aggressively sour.

Some cocktails will appear, on the recipe, as being too sour but the designer may be balancing that sour against a very sweet liqueur like Licor 43 or Barenjager. In some cases the liqueur is “enough” sweet to balance the sour.

But, if you find yourself puckering in hard to the point of barely tolerating a drink, it may be just balanced too far sour. Add sugar syrup in a quarter-ounce increments until it reaches a good balance (or just never make the drink again).

The Fix: Add an additional sweet liqueur that pairs with the base flavors, a sugar syrup or perhaps a cocktail bitter with allspice, rhubarb, cherry or oak.

Too Watered Down?

Your cocktail need not have a lot of water to taste watered down. Sure, if you over-dilute a cocktail or it contains dashes of water, it will become watered down. But, some ingredients are delicate and can be damaged by too much volume of base ingredients.

A great example: gin martini. If the gin is fairly neutral (e.g. New Amsterdam) and the rest of the ingredients not very interesting the cocktail could end up being uninteresting and “thin.” A shaken martini (or one that’s just too cold) will also have that thin watered down feeling because a gin martini is made best stirred. A shaken martini destroys a lot of the aromatic qualities of the gin and ‘mutes’ the flavor. Leaving you with a relatively boring final product.

If you find your drink too thin, try adding a cocktail bitter or a stronger acid like lime or lemon. Of course the easiest solution is to take the “sweet” and use a gomme syrup instead (sugar syrup with gum arabic). Or, try an egg white in the mix.

The Fix: A fuller sweetener such as gomme syrup, an aromatic cocktail bitter or a dash of citrus/acidity. If you keep your alcohol in the freezer, don’t. It’s ruining your drinks by chilling them too much and tightening up the aroma/flavor.

Too Sweet?

Mezcal Cocktails - The Division Bell

In most cases cocktails that are too sweet are usually just “too sweet for me.” They were intended to be that way: sweeter and easy drinking. Many introductory cocktails are sweet because new cocktail drinkers prefer them. Cocktails with excessive amounts of orange juice, pineapple juice or a coconut cream will almost always be too sweet.

But, sometimes “too sweet” works. For instance: The Painkiller. And, of course, the Piña Colada which is way sweet and way weak but way good. There will always be cocktails that survive the test of time on the sweet side, almost accidentally being discovered. But, in general, too sweet is too much.

For those drinks that are too sweet, cut the sweet or bring in the acids with lemons and limes. Or, just make a different drink. You can usually spot those drinks by eye when they call for multiple sweet liqueurs, plus sugar and some juice. If you don’t like overly sweet drinks, avoid those with excessive liqueurs and juices.

The Fix: Sour lemon/lime to balance it away from sweet (unless it’s cream-based) or back-off on sugars when liqueurs are involved.

Too Acidic? Makes You Gag?

Everyone’s got a flavor they don’t like, for me it’s a ratio of orange juice and lemon juice that makes me feel like I’m going to throw up. Just the right combination of “ugh, tastes like bile.”

It seems that acidity is the usual suspect. Adding more acidity or different acidity does not help–it just gets more sour. This is most often the case with lemon juice as it has that right level of acidity to make you question your senses.

There isn’t much saving a drink that makes you want to toss your lunch. Just push it aside. If you’re at a restaurant or bar ask if you can return it. Don’t suffer through. But, apparently there is something for everyone.

We often find drinks that are themed for a specific event, party or color that causes the worse in drinks. A Super Bowl cocktail, a vampire cocktail, video game cocktails, pop culture drinks and so many others just come out bad. The designers intention is to make it fit “the story” or “the theme” or “the color” with very little regard for balance and flavor.

The Fix: Toss drink and never drink it again.

Maybe it’s You?

There is a chance that a bad cocktail is just you. If there is a popular classic drink and you think it tastes bad it may just not be something you’re ready (or willing) to drink. Many classic cocktail designs are alcohol-forward and can be harder for new drinkers to find palatable. New cocktail enthusiasts almost always start with a cocktail on the sweeter side. But, often move towards sour (and eventually potent/bitter) as they mature their palate.

But, maybe the cocktail is just bad.

The Bitters?

Believe it or not, cocktail bitters solve a lot of the base problems with a cocktail. If the recipe isn’t too far off the mark almost any cocktail bitter can save it. Of course, if you put more work into pairing the right bitter with the right flavor of your cocktail it will make it even better.

Why does this work? Bitters bring a bit more alcohol, a bit more aggressive punch and a lot more aromatic qualities to your drink. Too long didn’t read? They make cocktails more interesting. Just like we use salt & pepper on our foods to bring out the foods character, we do the same with bitters in a cocktail.

Need a good place to buy bitters? No worries, I specialize in it!

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