So, you want to create your own cocktail? Maybe, it is just the thing you have always wanted to do, or you got that new bottle of booze standing around, but no useful recipe at hand. Do not despair, creating your own cocktail is not as hard as you might think! You also do not have to go through a lot of trail and error if you follow this ten basic rules!
This may be pretty obvious, but still I cannot stress this enough: The first thing you have to do is to try your ingredients! Whether it is a new glorious bottle of craft bourbon or an exotic French herbal liqueur, crack it open and see what is what! To make the ten guidelines easier to understand, I will introduce a little thought experiment here. So, let’s say we have a new spirit at hand, let’s call it a Bourbon-Barrel Chocolate Chip Vodka. – Yes, I know this is absurd, but ever since I literally dreamt of this crazy booze, I want it! – The thing we need to do now is to open the bottle and smell and taste the Valrhona cacao nibs and just the right amount of vanilla notes from the barrel ageing. Of course, it also helps not only to try your base spirit, but the other ingredients, too. If you want to use a liqueur or fortified wine go ahead and try those as well! Now that we are all set on the taste of our ingredients, we can move on to the proportions of our drink
(While I am writing this I feel a bit like a hypocrite, because sometimes I neglect that rule myself, but to my defence I sometimes can imagine what things taste like, on their own or when being mixed. However, if I do not have the time to try a new bottle of liquor before writing down a first cocktail recipe draft, I at least sample or smell something similar.)
2. Start of with a blueprint
Even if a lot of people think that bartenders are just throwing random stuff together and see what the outcome is, it does not work like that! Let me put it this way, do you think a chemist would just blend random chemicals together and watch what happens? A bad one might, but probably only once… It might seem like I am exaggerating here, but if you think of it what bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike are doing is basically to mix different, hopefully very aromatic chemicals. This is why you at least need to write down a rough blueprint for what your ingredients should be and how much of them to use. Don’t worry however, you do not have to reinvent the wheel!
3. No need to start from scratch!
Imagine all the different cocktail recipes in the world. There must be million upon million different ones, so many in fact that I dare to say it is almost impossible to create something entirely new, but do we really have to? I for once, prefer a very good mixed and balanced variation of a sour over a radically new recipe with three times distilled clarified tomato juice in it! This sounds pedantic to you? Well, it is and I am not saying that you should never try to create something revolutionary new. I am only trying to show you that it is much harder and for starters we should stick to the basics. There are just so many great cocktail recipes out there, with ratios that will also work with other ingredients. So, why not use one of them and just switch out a few things to end up with a new drink that is essentially your own? If I am honest, this is the way how 99 % of my cocktails are created. – With additional elements according to point 4 – In our little experiment we now have decided on mixing a sour style drink with our Bourbon-Barrel Chocolate Chip VodkaTM. Yet, a plain and simple sour is a bit too boring for us, so we continue and add a little bit sophistication.
4. Steal like an artist bartender
What I mean by this lurid headline is if you see an element of a cocktail you like, just grab it and run! Well, figuratively speaking of course, you should not actually steal your favourite bar’s Tiki mugs! Let me give you a little example: You probably know the Ramos Gin Fizz. Bartenders hate it, because it is a pain in the a** to make, but I guess we can all agree on that it is a fairly decent cocktail. The thing I took away from the Ramos is its combination of lime and lemon juice. It is traditionally made by a half and half combination of those two citrus juices. If you just read the recipe, you might think that it is kind of obsolete to use both, because on plain paper it seems not to make a great difference. If you taste a Ramos Gin Fizz however, you might get it. The combination adds to the complexity of the drink, because in real life there is a grave difference between limes and lemons, obviously… I used this exact example to my advantage in one of the first drinks I ever created, the Chocolate Hämmer. Yeah, I know chocolate again… For the sake of the argument let’s just do the same and use this combination of citrus juices in our Bourbon-Barrel Chocolate Chip Vodka (BBCCV) sour. Our ingredients list now reads BBCCV, lime juice, citrus juice, sweetener.
5. Matching ingredients
No, I am not talking about Tinder for cocktail ingredients… Yet, you should spend a few thoughts on things that go well with one or two of the things you use in your cocktail. This might sound hard at first, but you are actually not alone on this one. There are plenty ways of getting inspiration. Sure, there is Foodpairing, a Flavour Bible or just a quick search on the internet, “goes well with…”. Sometimes you do not even have to look that far! Just think of dishes or cocktails you already like. In our case, you probably had a chocolate cookie with your favourite Starbucks brew. So, why not take this as an inspiration and get a cold-drip Yirgacheffe espresso liqueur as a sweetener for our BBCCV sour?
6. Paying respect to balancing
The best ingredients, and recipes for that matter, are not worth anything, if you mess it up with limes that have too much acidity! And this is just one example of how you can screw things up when you can already see the finish line. Again, there is a pretty simple solution to it, just try your blend of ingredients when it is already in the shaker. Obviously, before actually shaking it… If you think there is something missing, take a step back and figure out what it is. Most of the times, just the balance between acidity and sweetness will be off and you can easily adjust it with the addition of a little bit of one or the other. With more spirit forward drinks a similar thing can happen, when the balance between the base spirit and the less-alcoholic ingredients is off. The solution here is the same as above. However, in those cases evidently less is more! Let me show you: When trying our hypothetical BBCCV sour, you might feel that the mix is a little bit too sour. Your first instinct might be to add more cold-drip Yirgacheffe espresso liqueur, but this would overpower the delicate vanilla notes of our BBCCV. The plain and simple solution to this dilemma is to add a neutral sweetener to balance the acidity, like for instance simple syrup.
7. The right glassware to use
Actually, a lot of things are already predetermined by our choice of cocktail style when it comes to the right drinking vessel. You would not serve a small and concentrated Old-Fashioned in a Tiki bowl, would you? Nevertheless, you should think about the quantity of your drink and make sure that it fits the glass. Moreover, you sometimes have a few options on how to exactly serve your drink. In the case of a sour, you could serve it neat in a Cocktail glass, or on the rocks in a Double Old-Fashioned or the traditional way in a Sour glass, which basically looks like a small wine or sherry glass. Think about it, but do not spent too much time worrying or try a few ways to find out which one you prefer. The BBCCV sour for that matter is best served over ice cubes in a Double Old-Fashioned glass.
8. Don’t forget the garnish!
Now that we have come so far, you should not forget to think a few seconds on how to garnish your drink. As a beginner you might disregard the garnish as an unnecessary gimmick that distracts from the cocktail itself. Yet, let me tell you from my experience as a bartender, even the slightest extra effort to decorate your concoction goes a very long way! For example dusting the mint on the Mojito with powdered sugar. You do not have to overdo it in the garnishing department, but just a little lemon twist will keep the rim of the glass from looking empty and sad. In the case of our sour we could, for instance just grate some chocolate on top of the drink and add one or two splashes of chocolate bitters. Yes, chocolate… again!
10. Give your baby a name
This might sound obvious, but still: If you create a great cocktail people will want to know what it is called. So you better think of it in advance and make sure it fits the drink and sounds pretty. Bad examples would be “Stupid F***-up” or “Your Mum”. Sometimes, coming up with a name is fairly easy and sometimes it is pretty hard. So, what I did to help me finding a name is to install a regime to give all my cocktails names from song titles I like and which hopefully have something in common with the drinks. If I would follow my rule with our hypothetical cocktail I would probably name it “Chocolate Chip”. I know, pretty obvious, but in my defence, it is also a song by Miles Davis.
11. Invent a colourful background story!
…Or don’t! I know that a lot of cocktail competitions are nowadays asking to create a story that fits the cocktail and gives it a proper background. First, you probably already know what I am thinking about cocktail competitions… Second, telling all the thoughts and efforts you went through in the last ten steps should be more than enough! I don’t know if people behind competitions are just in search of something to set them apart from others, or if they want to save money and get the bartenders to do the marketing team’s work instead. But no, I did not have a favourite Manhattan moment… It’s just a da** good drink, that’s what it is!
All in all, our little cocktail experiment would look something like this:
0,75 cl Cold-drip Yirgacheffe Espresso Liqueur
1,5 cl Lemon Juice
1,5 cl Lime Juice
0,75 cl Simple Syrup
¼ oz Cold-drip Yirgacheffe Espresso Liqueur
½ oz Lemon Juice
½ oz Lime Juice
¼ oz Simple Syrup
Garnish: Grated Chocolate – 2 Dashes Bittermen’s Xocolatle Mole Bitters;
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See! It wasn’t that hard to create our own cocktail! Hopefully, you are able to take a few things away from this short guide to creating cocktails. However if something does not turn out the way you imagined and this probably will happen: Do not forfeit, just take a step back, regroup and start over again! And if after a while it still did not turn out the way it should, take a look at cheater ingredients from Kaiser Penguin!