The Hows and Whys of Mixing Cocktails
This week we’re inaugurating our Summer Sippin’ Series here on Kitchen Riffs. Each week we’ll do a post about a different drink (don’t worry, we’ll also have lots of food posts throughout the summer).
We’ll highlight an assortment of cocktails, including several of the tall cool ones we typically associate with warm weather. And we’ll do some Tiki drinks — complete with little umbrellas. Our first drink will be the Mojito, and that post will go up later this week.
But first, we need to cover some basics about cocktail mixing. Think of it as Cocktails 101. You won’t be ready to apply for a bartending job by the end of this post, but you will understand how to make just about any drink.
There are only a few things you need to learn. And they’re easy!
First Things First: Ingredients
OK, you already know that most “drinks” include alcohol of some description, usually spirits. Gin, vodka, whiskey (particularly bourbon and rye), rum, brandy, and tequila are the most popular spirits in the US. Pour one of these into a glass, and you have a drink of straight booze. Add a bit of water to, say, bourbon, and you have a bourbon and water. Substitute club soda or seltzer, and you have bourbon and soda. Ditch the water in favor of ice cubes, and you have bourbon on the rocks. Simple.
A “cocktail” is a particular type of drink that contains at least two ingredients. Most contain no more than four. If you’re new to the cocktail game, you don’t need to buy a boatload of booze and mixers. Instead, select a particular drink you’d like to make, and buy the ingredients for that.
Whatever base spirit you choose for that first cocktail — gin, rum, whatever — can serve as the basis for oodles of other drinks too. (Later on I’ll give you some sources for finding additional drink recipes.)
Many cocktails call for freshly squeezed fruit juice, usually citrus (occasionally tomato — think Bloody Marys). Every supermarket carries lemons and limes, so obtaining citrus is no problem.
Bitters are another ingredient you’ll often see specified. Bitters are used in small quantities, but they add an intriguing dimension to many drinks. They also liven up a cocktail the same way that adding a bit of salt can make a soup sing. You can use Angostura for 95+ percent of the drinks that call for bitters. Most supermarkets (and every liquor store) will carry this brand.
Sugar is another common cocktail ingredient (it’s used to sweeten sour citrus juice). When you see sugar on the ingredient list, you might assume you can just reach for the granulated stuff you have in the pantry. And you can. But dry sugar may fail to dissolve completely in a cocktail. This makes for a gritty drink . . . which can be a gritty experience. So I recommend using “pre-dissolved” sweetener in the form of simple syrup, a liquid solution that’s equal parts sugar and water. It’s easy to make, and you can find instructions for it in my Simple Syrup post Spending a few minutes stirring up a batch of simple syrup will make the quality of your drinks better — and the process of mixing them easier.
Many drinks also call for a second alcoholic ingredient, in addition to the base spirit. These “secondary” ingredients typically are used in smaller quantities than the main spirit and often are lower proof (meaning they contain a smaller percentage of alcohol).
Vermouth is a good example of a secondary ingredient. It’s used in a lot of drinks, and it’s widely available. Martini and Rossi is a well-known brand, and both their red (sweet) and white (dry) varieties are good. Dry vermouth also makes a pretty good aperitif, whether served chilled and straight up or on the rocks with a twist. Some people like red (sweet) vermouth served the same way. Not me, though. I prefer to use it as an ingredient in a Manhattan or a Negroni.
Many other liqueurs, cordials, and fortified wines also show up on cocktail ingredient lists. But the class of ingredient you’ll see most frequently specified is orange liqueur, in the form of either triple sec or curacao. This ingredient category is important enough that it deserves a section of its own.
|Mai Tai Cocktail|
Triple Sec and Curacao
Both triple sec and curacao are orange-flavored liqueurs. That’s about the only fact that can clearly be established — at least by me, and I’ve done a bit of research. Much about the history of cocktails is hazy, and the origin of these two great liqueurs is particularly mysterious. (Beg: If anyone can guide me to an authoritative source on this topic, I’ll be grateful.) Anyway, in a nutshell:
- Curacao was first made on the Caribbean island of the same name, using the dried peels of sour (bitter) oranges mixed in what was probably a brandy base. Curacao tastes pretty sweet, so obviously sugar was mixed in somewhere.
- Triple Sec is a drier (less sweet) version of curacao. Generally its base is a neutral grain spirit.
- When used in a cocktail, curacao and triple sec taste really similar. So similar (at least in a mixed drink) that it’s difficult for most of us to tell them apart. Usually.
- You can buy generic triple sec and curacao at most liquor stores. If the price is under $20 for 750 ml, you’re wasting your money. You’ll even see some offered for under $10. Might be good paint remover. Cheap triple secs and curacaos taste chemical and medicinal. (My opinion, of course. If you think they taste marvelous, use them.)
- Marie Brizard produces “generic” triple secs and curacaos that aren’t bad. They also aren’t cheap. (Bols sometimes has good quality generics too.)
- My recommendations? Well, it pains me to say it (because they cost twice as much as a good bottle of gin), but I’ve settled on Grand Marnier for curacao and Cointreau for triple sec. Both are delicious in drinks. They’re also great when sipped straight as after-dinner liqueurs – if you like that sort of thing. And they’re perfect for use in desserts.
- Grand Marnier has an amber color, Cointreau is clear.
- When you taste these two straight, head-to-head, you’ll notice a definite difference in flavor between them. But when mixed in cocktails, their flavor is generally very much alike (as established several bullet points ago).
- So, being
cheapeconomical, I started stocking only one of them — Cointreau — and using it whenever a cocktail recipe called for orange liqueur (whether triple sec or curacao).
- At least that’s what I wrote in my Mai Tai post. But right after that post, my supermarket had a grand sale on Grand Marnier. So being
cheapfrugal, I bought several bottles. And tried it (again) in a Mai Tai.
- And you know, when it comes to a Mai Tai, using Grand Marnier for your orange liqueur is a noticeably better choice, IMHO. The same is true for a couple of other drinks as well.
- So where am I going with this? Well, I still say that $ for $, Cointreau is your best all-around orange liqueur for cocktails. It’s my go-to, and if I had to choose only one, that’s the one I’d choose.
- But now I stock both. Go figure.
- My point: Only you know your taste buds. Even though a recipe calls for x, you might like y better. This is true for ingredients, and it’s true for the ratio in which you mix them.
Which leads us (finally!) to:
The First Rule of Cocktails & Their Making
They have to taste good. To you.
And for most of us, “good” taste means the entire drink is in balance. You taste the base spirit, but it doesn’t dominate. You also taste the other ingredients, but they’re in the background, and make the whole drink somehow better. And the drink isn’t too sweet or too sour — it’s just the way you like it.
So how do you make drinks that meet this standard? Through trial and tasting.
The first time you make a particular cocktail, you probably won’t hit exactly the right note. That’s because you’re following a recipe, which reflects someone else’s ideal for how the drink should taste.
For example, consider the Sidecar — one of the best-tasting cocktails I know. In my Sidecar Post I spent some time talking about the various ratios of ingredients for this drink — because some people may love the drink made one way, and hate it when made another way. And I mix Sidecars differently all the time, often just because I’m in the mood for a slightly different flavor experience.
Speaking of ratios, you’ll often see drink recipes that that say things like “2:1:1” or “3:2:2.” This is shorthand for the relative amount of each ingredient used in the drink. (It’s useful because it allows you to scale the quantities to make any number of drinks.) The first (and usually largest) number in the ratio always represents the base spirit. For example, my preferred Sidecar recipe is 1½ ounces of cognac, and an ounce each of Cointreau and lemon juice — a ratio of 3:2:2 (as in, 3 half-ounces of cognac and 2 half-ounces each of Cointreau and lemon juice). What if I want to make this drink for 8? Easy. Using the 3:2:2 ratio, I simply scale it up to 12 ounces of cognac and 8 ounces each of Cointreau and lemon juice.
Anyway, the important thing here is to find the ratio you like best. So test — and taste! — various ratios to learn what you prefer. If there are two of you, make one drink and share. Then discuss. Talk about what you like and don’t like. Then make another, changing the ratio of ingredients based on your conclusions about the first version. By making drinks one at a time and sharing, you can try several iterations without getting blotto (though you may have trouble pronouncing “iteration”).
The Basics of Mixing
Finally, the main event — assembling your drink. There are two basic ways.
You can add the ingredients directly to the glass, which is called building a cocktail.
Or you can first add the ingredients to a container (like a cocktail shaker, a Martini pitcher, or a blender), and stir, shake, or blend them together, and then strain into a glass. This is how the majority of cocktails are made.
What’s an example of a built drink? Think Gin and Tonic. Or maybe Pimm’s Cup. Or the Classic Champagne Cocktail. In all those cases, the ingredients are added directly to the glass. Sometimes you give the ingredients a quick twirl with a stirrer or straw to mix them together before serving. Later this week, we’ll make a Mojito, a type of drink that typically is built in the glass (though there’s also a version where you mix the ingredients together first, and we’ll cover that too). By the way, a bourbon on the rocks is also a built drink. But it’s technically not a “cocktail” because it contains only one ingredient.
How about drinks that are mixed with ice in a separate container and then strained into glasses? The Martini and the Manhattan are two well known examples. In both cases, you first stir the ingredients with ice, then strain the drink into a glass. You make a Gimlet (shown in the top 2 pictures, and one of the drinks we'll feature this summer) the same way. But there are other drinks that you shake with ice and then strain, like the Classic Daiquiri or Margarita. (You can also make frozen versions of both these drinks. In which case, you add the ingredients to a blender with plenty of extra ice and whirl it all into slushy goodness before pouring — not straining — into a glass.)
The classic versions of the Martini, Manhattan, Daiquiri, and Margarita are most commonly served “up” — that is, mixed with ice, then strained into a cocktail glass. But many people like these (and other) drinks served on the rocks. If that’s you, just mix the drink with ice as you normally would. Then strain it into a glass filled with ice cubes instead of a glass that’s empty. (I don’t enjoy drinking these cocktails on the rocks myself. But if you do, go for it.)
How do you know whether to shake or stir your ingredients when making a cocktail? The general rule is: If all the ingredients are basically clear, then stir. If any of the ingredients are cloudy (like citrus juices), then shake.
Why? Because if you stir clear ingredients, they retain their clarity in the glass. If you shake them, you introduce some oxygen into the mix, and the ingredients become cloudy (from all those tiny bubbles). A crystal clear Martini or Manhattan is a beautiful thing.
Since citrus juice is cloudy anyway, you might as well shake. It’s quicker and it does a better job of mixing the ingredients. It can be difficult to properly mix citrus juices into a drink simply by stirring.
But that’s the general rule. Make your drink however you like. James Bond, for example, famously orders his Martinis “shaken, not stirred.” And I’ve been known to shake Martinis and Manhattans on occasion myself.
Whether you shake or stir, you should always use enough ice to really chill your drink. So make sure your mixing container is at least half filled with ice. Truly ice-cold drinks taste better than “kinda sorta cold.” And by stirring or shaking, you help some of the ice melt, adding water to the drink. Which is a good thing — it’s part of the flavoring process. Remember, when you drink a cocktail, you’re not just drinking a base spirit (as you would do with, say, bourbon on the rocks). You’re drinking a base spirit combined with other ingredients. And almost always, adding some water (which happens automatically when you shake or stir your ingredients with ice) helps buffer those ingredients and allow their flavors to mellow together.
|OXO 2-ounce measuring cup|
You don’t actually need any special equipment to make cocktails. You already have measuring cups and spoons in the kitchen. For a cocktail shaker, you can use a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. To strain, just hold a spoon (or your fingers) across the opening of the container so the ice doesn’t fall into the glass. It’s not very complicated.
But if you mix cocktails more than occasionally, you’ll probably want to invest in a few specialized utensils that can make the job easier.
The most important utensil is something to measure your ingredients. The hourglass-shaped jigger is traditional, but I find them difficult to use. When I’m making one or two drinks, my favorite measuring instrument is a ¼ cup (2 ounce) OXO-brand Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Cup. You can see the measuring marks from the top of the cup, which makes it easy to use.
When I’m making more two or more drinks, I usually reach for my Perfect Beaker. This 2-cup measure has scales for ounces, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc. It’s perfect for when you need 4 ounces of this, 2 ounces of that, and don’t want to mess around with a smaller measuring device.
You may also want to invest a few bucks in a handy mixing container. I like the standard three-piece cocktail shaker, which is available in many grocery stores and at every kitchenware or liquor store. Test the seal between the top and bottom of the shaker when you’re in the store to make sure it’s tight — you don’t want this to leak when you’re shaking up a batch of cocktails. Most shakers are a standard size — usually big enough for about 4 cocktails. You can also buy oversized shakers to use when you’re mixing for a crowd.
When you lift the cap off a cocktail shaker, you’ll see a built-in strainer. It’s a nifty feature that keeps you from pouring ice into your drinks. But the design on some of these makes for slow pouring. So I usually remove the entire top of the shaker and pour the drinks through a separate cocktail strainer. I particularly like the OXO Cocktail Strainer.
Professional bartenders usually prefer the 2-piece Boston Shaker, which has a stainless steel mixing cup and a 1-pint glass that fits into the mixing cup. The amateur bartender (me and you) might find the Boston Shaker a bit difficult to master. So for us, I think the 3-piece shaker is the way to go.
What else should you buy, in addition to measuring devices and shakers? I would suggest getting some straws and cocktail picks (for cherries and garnishes). Cocktail straws are thinner than normal drinking straws, and usually come in two lengths: about 5 inches (for a rocks glass) and 8 inches (for a tall glass; these are called “Collins Straws” in the trade). Cocktail straws tend to be either black or white, though you sometimes find them in other colors.
Most liquor stores sell cocktail straws — at an exorbitant price. I recommend finding a restaurant supply store in your area that sells to the public (these stores are set up to serve the equipment needs of restaurants, but many have showrooms and sell retail). At a restaurant supply store, you can buy 500 cocktails straws for around $3. At a liquor store? Try $6 or so for perhaps 50 straws. It’s worth a trip to the restaurant supply store just for the straws. But be warned: They stock so many cool pots, pans, and other utensils that it’s difficult to leave one of these stores without making additional purchases.
A few final items: For many drinks, you’ll be cutting lemons or limes and juicing them. You probably already have knives and cutting boards. You may want to get a small juicer if you don’t have one.
And of course you’ll need glasses. When you’re starting out, I recommend just using the glasses you have on hand. Once you learn what sorts of drinks you prefer making, you’ll know what type of glass (if any) you need to buy.
One tip here: If you buy the classic Martini-style cocktail glasses, don’t get ones that are too big. Why? Because cocktails taste best when they are very cold. If your glass is much over 5 ounces (and you make the drink big enough to fill the glass), by the time you’re halfway through, your drink will be getting warm.
I’ve been mentioning a lot of brand names, so I think some clarification is in order: I have no connection with any brand or company mentioned here. And the Amazon links I provide are just for your convenience, so you can get more detailed information about items that I discuss. I’m not an Amazon Affiliate member, so I don’t profit when you click on a link. In fact, this entire site is noncommercial — and is likely to remain that way (I’ll let you know if I ever change my mind about that).
If you want to learn more about cocktails and how to mix them, there’s a wealth of material available. My favorite general-information books on the subject are The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff and The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan.
For brief background and discussion on some more obscure cocktails, I recommend Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh. For a more complete history and discussion, try Imbibe! by David Wondrich.
If you’re interested in Tiki drinks, there’s one source that stands out: Beach Bum Berry Remixed by Jeff Berry. This is a compilation of two of Berry’s earlier books, Beach Bum Berry’s Grog Log and Intoxica!
The internet hosts many cocktail-related websites. The best general site is probably Robert Hess’s DrinkBoy. Hess has great information about all matters cocktail, and offers instructions for a lot of the better known drinks. He also links to videos showing how to prepare many of the cocktails. It’s worth spending some time on his site.
The best comprehensive site for drink recipes is the Cocktail Database, put together by Martin Doudoroff and Ted Haigh. You can search by cocktail or by ingredient. So if you have a bottle of white rum for mixing Mojitos or Daiquiris and want to know what else you can make with it, this is a great tool. This site also allows you to specify your glass size, and then tailor recipes so they’ll fill your glass without overflowing. Cool!
My own favorite cocktail website is Esquire Magazine’s Drink Database, for which David Wondrich provides the drink recipes and explanations. I like this site in part because Wondrich’s palate is similar to mine. Remember when I said it’s important to use the drink ratio that you find most pleasing? Well, Wondrich’s ratios almost always work for me. He tends to make his drinks less sweet, which I like. Robert Hess, on the other hand, tends to make his drinks a little bit sweeter than I prefer. So when I make one of Hess’s drinks, I usually adjust his ratios.
On to Our Summer Sippin’ Series!
There’s lots more one could say about cocktails and how to prepare them, but these essentials are enough to get you started. If there’s additional information that’s important for a specific cocktail, I’ll cover it when we post about that particular drink (like, how to make a frozen drink in a blender).
And post we will! So from now through Labor Day, join us here at Kitchen Riffs for a different cocktail every week. Some of the drinks will be ones you know already. Others may be new to you. But all will be delicious. (For the nondrinking crowd, I’ll offer nonalcoholic versions of some cocktails.)
So load up on ice and get your shakers ready!
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Gin and Tonic
Income Tax Cocktail
Corpse Reviver Cocktail