How to Build a Cocktail: Using flavor science and the laws of mixology to make a memorable drink every time

How to Build a Cocktail: Using flavor science and the laws of mixology to make a memorable drink every time

Balancing the Elements of a Cocktail

Whether you make your own cocktails at home or order them at a bar, the ingredients are the same. The most basic definition of a cocktail is an alcoholic beverage that has been doctored. Cocktails consist of the spirit, the balancing agents like sugar or citrus juice, the modifiers, and water, regardless of how they are ‘doctored.’ Combined in the right proportions, these elements make a balanced, flavorful drink.

The concept of balance can be compared to the concept of taste – sweetness, sourness, saltyness, bitterness, and umami – as opposed to flavor. We experience taste primarily through our tongue, whereas we experience flavor primarily through our nose.

A drink’s base spirit can attract us to a cocktail, but since we aren’t necessarily hard-wired to enjoy harsh alcohols in their pure form (their bitterness can actually signal poison to our survival-oriented brains), cocktails use additional ingredients to help us enjoy those spirits. One way to trick your brain into not having that initial jolt when you taste something strong is to mix it with sugar. A successful cocktail balances its base spirit with high-concentrated ingredients like sugar syrups or citrus juices. In the right amounts, sugar and acid will taper the intensity of the base spirit and heighten its flavor while not dominating the drink.

A cocktail’s balance is not always affected by modifiers, but they do contribute a wider variety of flavors and tastes. They can introduce floral, herbaceous, and umami notes. In Bloody Marys, Worcestershire adds a savory kick, while cranberry juice gives cosmopolitans a bitter, fruity taste. Bitters, liqueurs, citrus juices, and fortified wines (such as vermouth) are some of the most common modifiers.

The opposite of modifiers is water, which dilutes flavors and makes high-proof alcohol taste milder. A drink is most likely to contain water when it is shaken or stirred with ice.

The Cocktail Family Blueprint

To create recipes, bartenders use templates called cocktail families. As per the Cocktail Codex, one of the bibles of cocktail making, the six families are the old fashioned, martini, daiquiri, sidecar, whiskey highball, and flip. They work because they strike a balance between our basic tastes. Balance varies from family to family and from drink to drink. Cocktails made in a shaker, such as a Tom Collins, have higher acidity than drinks made in glasses, such as a mint julep.

When developing your own drink, you’ll save time and money if you use the tried-and-true cocktail families. It’s helpful to understand the underlying cocktail structure so you don’t waste booze before finding a drink you like. Making bad drinks is a valuable part of the process, because you learn what doesn’t work.

A cocktail with an unbalanced acidity or sweetness is a sure sign that it needs to be adjusted. There are times when the sum of your ingredients will be less than the sum of their parts. If your mango margarita tastes like the traditional recipe, lime juice probably drowns out the mango flavor. There might be a need to introduce a new ingredient to tie the disjointed ingredients together, such as elderflower liqueur, chartreuse, or Aperol. The addition of a pinch of salt can also enhance flavor and mellow out harsher parts of a drink.

Experiment with the flavors until you find your personal favorites, since what feels disjointed to one person might taste fantastic to another. If you like something, then you’re right.

The Art of Experimentation at Your Bar

Make your own drinks using the Mr. Potato Head method: Swap one ingredient in an existing recipe for the same amount of a different ingredient. This method is used by bartenders to create original cocktails, and you can use it to learn how well-known drinks share the same structure. A margarita contains two parts tequila, one part Cointreau, and one part lime juice, but is transformed into a sidecar by substituting cognac for the tequila and lemon for the lime.

There is nothing like tasting to develop your palate – and your ability to determine what ingredients complement each other. Most people can distinguish flavors like fruit, spices, and herbs more easily than spirits and liqueurs, so take your time tasting your alcohols and comparing them (this is the tricky part).

Take inspiration from what you eat when it comes to flavor pairings. A popular culinary adage says “what grows together, goes together,” generally meaning that ingredients from the same region will work well together. A tiki-style drink might combine rum (distilled from fermented sugar cane) and pineapple, both of which have tropical origins. Sweeteners should be derived from plants that are similar to your base spirit. The best way to make a margarita is with agave syrup, and the proper way to make a rum old fashioned is with demerara simple syrup.

Two tests should be conducted before you make a new cocktail a staple: 1) Get someone else to make the recipe, and 2) let the cocktail sit for 15 minutes before tasting.

The balance of some drinks changes as they warm up. You should serve them as soon as you can, but they must be balanced for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Otherwise, people talking instead of drinking may think there is something wrong with their drink.

Don’t be afraid to add more of an ingredient than you think is necessary when in doubt. It’s only when you reach a point where a drink feels too much that you know it can’t be improved. Always push a tiny bit farther than you think you can. Once you’ve gone too far, you can always dial it back.

Bill Rice is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Great Family Cookbook Project, a website that helps families and individuals collect, preserve and share food memories by creating their own printed personal cookbooks. He is the author of  The Art of Craft Cocktails: Make Cocktails at Home Like a Pro  and the Cape Cod Cocktail Cookbook (both available on Amazon), created using He is also editor of the Donovan Family Cookbook, now in its third printing and is an avid genealogist tracing his family back to the 1600’s.

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