Composing Cocktails Part 1
What cocktails and music have in common
The idea of mixing spirits, wines and liqueurs into new potations is exciting.
When I started at The Bowery in Brisbane, the first thing I learnt was that each Manhattan cocktail would be made differently depending on the choice of whisky. I discovered that in order to make the best Manhattan with any whiskey, I needed to first understand the choices of ratios, vermouths, bitters and cocktail garnishes.
I began to realise that a Martini garnished with onions is a Gibson and not a Martini at all. That with a simple twist, towards my own or a guest's preference; I could create a cocktail and name it.
Here, I'll share the concepts I've learnt through colleagues and experience to help you begin to confidently compose your own original cocktails.
What makes a good cocktail?
First, have a look at the drink 'families' (sours, tall, etc.) and familiarise yourself with the styles of cocktails they comprise. Gary Regan's ‘The Joy of Mixology’ is without doubt the most important Drinks101 book that bartenders should read.
A good cocktail has tension. Tension exists in the balance between the elements: alcoholic strength, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, temperature and texture. Flavour alone is not enough to make a good drink great. To quote Melbourne's Jose Cuervo ambassador Fred Siggins, the best cocktails are 'eventful' drinks that speak in more than one dimension.
For example: when PSY sings "Oh Oh Oh Oh, Oppan Gangnam Style" his tone of voice says "Ready! And here it is!" However, the accompanying music builds and falls in contrast. This creates tonal tension and it repeats throughout the song, compelling you to keep listening. Tension and rhythm create the 'hook' that sells the song and cocktails are no different.
Balancing the elements is key; there must be a strong and specific message at the centre of what you're expressing that stands out above all else. Whether your message is 'apple brandy' or the Gangnam dance, we need to be drawn away and then hooked right back to the source with every sip or verse.
To elaborate, musicians and bands sometimes recreate songs with the addition of an orchestra to augment the sound. Although novel, the songs are not always improved with more layers. Sometimes the song is perfectly balanced without additional strings. You have to ask: was the tension in the song subdued or heightened, the hooks weakened or strengthened?
Step-by-step cocktail composition
When composing cocktails I usually follow these steps, though sometimes not in this order. That's the fun part.
1.What's the base spirit? What am I trying to emphasise and accentuate?
2.What's the cocktail family? Straight-up? Tiki? Sour? Fizz? Often on a drinks list, you will need to fill one of these categories in order to balance the list.
3.What flavours exist in the base spirit that I can accentuate? For example, bourbon can generally be said to possess vanilla and toffee flavours, so vanilla and toffee liqueurs, syrups or foams will work well.
4.What cocktails have I seen that are similar and delicious? What is it about these drinks that I can borrow for my new one? Think about ratios, flavours and strength.
5.What do the first two cocktail ingredients taste like together, and what is missing? This is where experience becomes vital. Have you created two flavours in a ratio that harmonises, but is extremely sweet?
6.What's the next flavour/flavours that will complement the cocktail so far?
7.When you've come up with two to six cocktail ingredients, can you still taste the base spirit? Have you created a new flavour experience? Do the ratios need tweaking to make the drink stronger/weaker, sweeter/less sweet, more/less bitter?
8.Is something missing? Would a pinch of salt help?
9.What's the obvious cocktail garnish? Citrus zests are common because they add a real freshness to every drink; they work, and won't go out of fashion.
10.Make the drink and try it. How does it taste when it's cold/hot? How does it taste after 10 minutes - do you need to reduce the size and cost so that it's as tasty when freshly made as when it's been sitting warming/cooling in a customer's hand?
11.Make the drink again and experiment with different dilutions, temperatures, cocktail garnishes, ratios, maybe even a different category, and choose how this cocktail is best expressed.
12.Seek advice from your colleagues. A fresh perspective can be a huge assistance and is not shameful even for a competition entry. However, make sure you know how YOU best like it and think about why.
13.Name the cocktail, take ownership of the drink and serve it with pride. You will create many cocktails in your career and deserve to have a portfolio of drinks to your name.
14.This is when the bartender becomes both a scientist and artist.
In Composing Cocktails Part 2, I’ll share my experiences creating The MacNicol, which was singled out as the standout signature cocktail at the Diageo World Class Australia finals in 2011.
A portion of this article will also appear in "Craft Cocktails at Home" by Kevin Liu. The book is due to be published soon and will be available online or in paperback.
Good luck experimenting!
Angus Burton is the Australian runner-up in Diageo World Class 2012 and has won numerous bartending competitions. His passion started with his first bartending gig: blending Ramos Gin Fizzes for friends and family 10 years ago. To Angus, cocktails are the ultimate enjoyment of purity through the realisation of experiential theatre. Angus writes from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.