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How do you design your own cocktails?


Tri2Cook
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This is probably going to earn me a few laughs but that's ok, I laugh at myself all of the time so I can take it. I want to know how to go about learning to create my own drinks while minimizing the "you really should have known" failures. I realize there will be failures, that's part of creating, but there are general baselines with food where things will come together reliably and lead to something edible unless you really start pushing the boundaries. I'm assuming this sort of thing exists in the drinks world as well. I feel dumb asking this question because creating dishes with food comes pretty easily to me so it feels wrong that I have no idea how to begin connecting the dots with cocktail ingredients. Anyway, any advice?

Edited by Tri2Cook (log)

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Not laughing at you at all, though it's funny you should bring this up. I was working at the bar last Sunday and some customers asked me and another bartender this question. We both answered the same way.

There are a few cocktail families or "base cocktails" that tell you a lot about ingredients, ratios, spirits, and so on. (Gary Regan's Joy of Mixology is a great place to learn those.) If you learn those basics, you learn a lot about "what works" and "what doesn't work" for the majority of bartenders and guests.

Once you know the basics -- Martinis & Manhattans, sours, Old Fashioneds (cocktails proper), punches, champagne cocktails... -- and have a sense of the characteristics of the spirits, you just start screwing around.

You know how to do this with food, clearly: you know the basic paradigms and you know the ingredients, so you might sub in parsnips in a beef stew but would also know that broccoli wouldn't be an appropriate substitution. Same is true with drinks: maybe Fernet Branca would be a good substitute for bitters, but creme de cacao isn't going to do the same thing.

Of course, that's where it gets interesting: maybe broccoli transforms beef stew -- who'da thunk it? Lots of fascinating drinks depart from those basic paradigms and make us think about ingredients differently.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Excellent advice from Chris. Two other tips:

1) Read the guide that is pinned to the top of this very forum. There are some interesting comments about general paradigms. For example, the sour-sweet-bitter is a favorite of mine.

2) I often think about a starting flavor, then what flavor(s) might compliment it, then try to fit it into a model that is familiar or promising. So for example, a Manhattan is a dry, spicy spirit + pie-spice sweet complex wine + some bitter undertones. Maybe you want to play with a peppery tequila. How about using some Luxardo Amaro Abano (strong black pepper + sweet + bitter)? Or some Amaro Meletti (chocolate + sweet + bitter + spice)? Maybe both (since black pepper and chocolate sounds interesting to me)?

This is how I cook too. I have kale and am making soup. What other flavors seem like they would compliment this, either reproducing something that I know is a winner (aromatics + earthy spices + sausage + stock) or something novel based on a promising idea (cream of spinach, but with kale).

This is an excellent topic. I look forward to hearing from and learning from others.

Kindred Cocktails | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

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I find this an interesting topic... I'm coming from the same direction as Tri and expect there is a certain amount of "legwork" which simply has to be done in order to get to a good starting level. Much like with cooking ingredients, it seems that the more you use them, the better you start to understand their characteristics and where they fit into flavour/texture etc. I guess this is the "basics" that Chris talked about.

With alcohol, I personally find this a bit tricky since most spirits are expensive, and I imagine that if I bought a whole bunch it would take me a long time to really get my head around what is doing what in a particular cocktail. And that's before I even start to think about differences between brands or types of the same spirit. I don't drink every day, and often prefer a beer when I do.

The most success I have had in creating a cocktail (and it was very modest, let me assure you) was when I chose only one alcohol (a white rum which we already had, in this case) and built the cocktail using flavours that I would cook with together. So the alcohol wasn't really the central point in the end. Which I suppose is the case in some cocktails, but it felt a bit like cheating :)

One major difference I perceive when it comes to drinks is that I think there is a strength and intensity that alcohol brings that really needs to be balanced and sometimes tamed to make a pleasing drink. Many cooking ingredients aren't so dramatic in this way, so the common sweet/salty/sour/bitter considerations are probably still in play, but there are new sensations at our disposal which can be taken advantage of (or left unconsidered and ruin our drinks!)

I guess I just need to get into a much more disciplined drinking regime :P

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What they said, but don't be afraid to play. One other approach once you have a passing acquaintance with the basics is to buy something new and then try to figure out the best thing to do with it (hopefully the best thing isn't to pour it down the sink and make yourself an old fashioned :unsure: ). For example, you could buy some Campari to make an Americano and then think "hmm wonder how it would be if I replaced the soda water with gin?". Ok, that's been done, but you get the idea. I have some plum wine just waiting for an idea on what to mix with it.

Another approach is to take a recipe that falls short in your opinion and try to figure out what to do to improve it. Maybe that's just adjusting the ratios but maybe it's adding something new. And don't forget that something could be a non-alcohol component. Sometimes we tend to focus too much on the booze IMO.

Don't worry, probably nothing you do could be worse than the stuff college students throw down their throats.

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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  • 4 weeks later...

. . . buy something new and then try to figure out the best thing to do with it.

This is exactly what I was going to touch on. I have a friend who often asks me to concoct a drink based on a name or a theme or an idea, and this just doesn't work. I have better luck if I make a drink around one key ingredient. For example, I think my most successful creation (for me, success is based on the fact that I like it enough to make it on subsequent occasions because I actually want to drink it) came about when I had a little bit of Boomsma Oude Genever left and wanted to come up with something to use it in. The result was the CROCUS:

1-1/4 oz Boomsma Oude Genever

1/2 oz dry vermouth

1/4 oz london dry gin

1/4 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur

2 dashes grapefruit bitters

small dash simple syrup (optional--omit if you prefer a very dry drink)

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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I was thinking about this topic today when I was making a Scofflaw. I don't think of rye and dry vermouth as effective dance partners, but, by golly, they are in this drink. It's a testament to trying out combinations that are wacky to you -- but might not be after you've tried 'em out.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I think that the hardest thing, probably, is to go from something promising to something divine. Anyone have ideas on that? Or is it just a matter of palate and experience?

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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I think that if you have something promising if you let it sit until it is room temp. and try it again you can see the defects in a drink easier. The other trick is to try a couple of different bitters and see if that ramps the drink up in the right way.

Cheers,

Toby

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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Figuring out how to ramp up something promising would definitely be a great skill to have but I'm still at the level of trying to figure out how to come up with something with potential to work from. If an uneducated (in the cocktail world) palate (me, in this case) creates something and thinks it's pretty good but five people well versed in the subject try it and toss it in the sink then I'm inclined to trust them more than myself at this point. I trust my instincts and palate with food, I'm not sure I do with cocktails. I'm thinking I probably need to continue doing what I've been doing for the past few months (exploring what's already out there) for a while before I worry too much about trying to create but I'm absorbing the information being shared here and hope it continues.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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There is something to be said for following your own path. Drink it if it's delicious to you.

I had invited some very good friends over for dinner. I asked if there was anything they didn't like. He replied, "We like everything that tastes good ... and the other stuff too." I think there is much wisdom in this.

Amusingly, he has an incredible alcohol collection -- mostly things from Europe and abroad that aren't available here. I brought a bottle of Fernet Branca to his house, thinking I would stump him. He pulled out a small black bottle of some German digestif that made the Fernet taste like soda pop. It was fun.

Kindred Cocktails | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

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The more I talk to people about designing cocktails, the more I realize that very few people take the time -- and I mean a few minutes, not seconds -- to smell, feel, and taste spirits. Those that do often make the mistake of treating spirits like wine, sipping and sucking in half a lungful of air before choking on the fumes. A small mouthful of spirit, swirled around your mouth, tongue, soft palate without air; breathing in through the nose and tasting what you pick up; breathing out through the mouth and tasting some more.... These steps will tell you a whole lot about what that spirit will and won't do in a drink.

Yes, there's alchemy when two things added become more than the sum or their parts. But if you can't pick up the chewy smoke wafting off Ardbeg, or haven't taken the time to notice the Rittenhouse spice scraping your tongue, you're not likely to find that alchemy in your mixing glass.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Good tasting tips, Chris.

I start with a tiny portion -- maybe 1 oz total, so that I can add and still have a reasonable drink, or toss it and start over if I go in the wrong direction.

I like the room-temp idea. I also taste before ice, although you have to mentally allow for dilution.

Good thread.

Kindred Cocktails | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

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