Rational Mixology

This post is adapted from a presentation I gave on July 19th, 2012 at NightLife @ The California Academy of Sciences, a 21+ event held every Thursday evening at CalAcademy with a different theme every week and lots of delicious adult beverages available. 

UPDATE: I gave this presentation a second time, on July 17th, 2014. If you came by last night, welcome! If you invent any cocktails, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

It’s really fun to be able to make cocktails at home for friends and loved ones, and it’s great to be able to follow recipes for classic drinks like a Manhattan, Martini, or Whiskey Sour. However, it can be even more fun to come up with an original cocktail for yourself and your guests–maybe you’re trying to meet a particular taste, or maybe you want to make something using the ingredients you have at home that isn’t the same drink you make every time. But it can be hard to know where to begin when creating an original cocktail, and without some sort of guide you’re likely to have a lot of failed experiments.

Well, the LAST thing I want to you do is pour good spirits down the sink or grin and bear it through an unbalanced cocktail. To prevent such tragedies from occurring, I’m going to give you some tools to help you start the cocktail creation process: namely, a couple ingredient ratios that you can use as templates to create two different styles of cocktail with the ingredients you want to use.

A well-balanced cocktail consists of several different main elements:

Spirit: This is the main ingredient in your cocktail and where most of the alcohol is going to come from. You want to build the rest of the cocktail around the flavor of whichever base spirit you choose, whether that’s gin, bourbon, tequila, rum, etc. (You won’t find vodka in many craft cocktails simply because it doesn’t bring anything to table flavor-wise.)

Modifying agent: These are ingredients that add flavor as well as a little more alcohol to the drink. Liqueurs like Cointreau, Creme de Cassis, or Maraschino, and amari like Campari, Averna, and Cynar fall into this cateory, as do fortified wines like vermouth and Lillet. Personally, I tend to count absinthe in this category, too–a dash or a rinse of absinthe can bring great balance to a cocktail without overwhelming with its anise-y character. Speaking of bringing balance, bitters are another important modifier that help to round everything out. Think of bitters like the salt-and-pepper of the cocktail world: used in dashes and drops make to it all just-so. You’re probably familiar with Angsotura bitters (the brown bottle with a yellow cap and white label that sticks up over the neck), but there are also orange bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, and innumerable other varieties.

Sweet: Most cocktails have a sweet component. Sometimes a sweet liqueur can play this role, but often the part is played by a simple syrup, which is just a solution of water and sugar. Depending on the ratio of sugar to water (1:1 , 1.5:1, or 2:1) and what kind of sugar you use (white, cane, honey, maple, etc), you’ll get different amounts and characters of sweetness. You can also add fresh herbs or fruit to make complex syrups. The options are nearly endless!

Sour: A sour component is often needed to balance out the sweet. Generally, when talking about cocktails this means citrus. Lemon and lime are your best options, though orange, grapefruit, kumquat etc are also great options, provided that you use a little lemon or lime in addition, since other citrus fruits tend to be less acidic than lemons and limes. The one rule here is this: ALWAYS use fresh citrus. It tastes better and it really doesn’t take much longer to juice a lemon or lime.

Dilution: Finally, you’ll add water, usually in the form of ice which also chills the drink. Depending on the type of drink (we’ll discuss this in more depth later on), you’ll either shake the cocktail with ice, which incorporates air and more water, or stir it with ice, which adds very little air and more water.

Okay, now that we’ve covered the main elements of a cocktail, let’s get to the ratios! Vermouth-Style Cocktail (2:1:2/3)

  • 1.5 oz spirit
  • .75 oz fortified wine or amaro
  • .5 oz Modifying agent (optional)
  • Dash of bitters

Classic cocktails like the Manhattan (2 oz bourbon or rye, 1 oz sweet vermouth, dash Angostura bitters) and the Martinez (1.5 oz old tom gin, .75 oz sweet vermouth, barspoon Maraschino liqueur, 2 dashes Angostura bitters) fall into this category. This style of drink is known as “spirit forward:” all of the ingredients contain alcohol and the flavor of the base spirit is prominent. Because these cocktails contain all spiritous ingredients and, more importantly, do not contain juice, dairy, or egg whites, they do not need to be shaken. All you need to do to blend these elements is stir with ice. This dilutes the drink a little less and, because you’re not incorporating much air, leaves the drink with a silky texture.

Sour-Style Cocktail (2:1:1)
  • 1.5 spirit
  • .75 citrus
  • .75 sweetener and/or modifying agent

Classic cocktails like the Whiskey Sour (2 oz bourbon or rye, .75 oz lemon juice, .25 oz simple syrup), Margarita (1.5 oz tequila, .75 oz lime juice .75 oz triple sec) and the Daiquiri (1.5 oz rum, .75 oz lime juice, .75 oz simple syrup) are all examples of sours. Because of the citrus, they tend to be refreshing, with just enough sweetness to balance the acid. Note that in the final category, you could use a simple syrup or a sweet liqueur, or even a vermouth or bitter liqueur in combination with a sweet liqueur as long as the ratio still balances out. Because these cocktails contain juice, they need to be shaken in order to be fully emulsified. Add all of your ingredients along with a generous amount of ice and shake vigorously to chill, emulsify, and add water. Depending on your tastes, you might want to double-strain the cocktail in order to keep small chips of ice out of the drink (they’ll further dilute it as they melt). Now that you’ve got access to these templates, how do you go about creating an original* cocktail?

  1. Decided which style of cocktail you want to make. If you want something boozier and sippable, go with the Vermouth-Style; if you want something more refreshing, go with the Sour-Style.
  2. Select your ingredients. Maybe you’re in the mood for gin. Maybe you have a little bit of Cointreau you want to use up, or lemons that are going to go bad soon. Maybe you’ve come up with a killer combination you want to try out. The more you play around, the more developed your palate will become and the better you’ll get and picking ingredients that go together.
  3. Test and taste! Start with the basic ratios and see how you did. Did the combination work? Taste all of your ingredients separately first then taste as you go, between each addition and before shaking or stirring.
  4. Adjust for balance. Is it a little too sweet, too sour, too bitter? Add a little more of something to counteract it or try again and back off one of the ingredients. Maybe the combo works but something is still missing–in this case, a dash of bitters can often round everything out. Remember: the ratios are just a starting point. If you have deviate in order to get it to taste right that doesn’t mean you did anything wrong–it means you were paying attention!
  5. Keep experimenting! There area lot of different directions can go from the basic ratios. One of the simplest ways the branch out is to use other kinds of fresh fruit or herbs, either by muddling (vigorously for fruit and gently for herbs) directly into the drink or adding them when you’re making a sugar syrup. You can also add egg whites for a different texture (a traditional ingredient in sours).
Example 1: The San Francisco Sour (from 2012 demo)

In preparation for our presentation, my friend Josh and I decided to follow our own advice and invent a new cocktail for our audience to sample. We decided to make a sour, and then we looked around at the ingredients we had available to us. We had plenty of bourbon and gin, lemons, a couple kinds of vermouth, orange liqueur, maple syrup, white sugar, Angostura bitters, Fernet-Branca, and absinthe. Since we had maple syrup, we decided to use that instead of making some simple syrup. Bourbon sounded like it would go best with maple, and that left us with lemons for the citrus. For our first test, we started with 1.5 ounces of bourbon and half an ounce each of lemon and maple–note that this is less than in the ratio, but we figured we could taste and then add more of either as necessary. Turns out half an ounce of lemon was plenty, but we wanted more maple, so we upped to the full .75 ounces. This was a nice combination, but we wanted to give it something special. So, we tried adding bitters and Fernet. We ended up really liking the way it tasted with just a touch of Fernet-Branca, so we added that to our final recipe. Voila:

The San Francisco Sour
  • 1.5 oz Bourbon
  • .5 oz Lemon Juice
  • .75 oz 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
  • .25 oz Fernet-Branca

Combine all ingredients in a shaker and shake with ice to chill and dilute, then double-strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Example 2: I Think I’m In Love (from 2014 demo)

I Think I'm In Love cocktailAgain, to prove the model to myself, the day of the presentation I looked around my bar and kitchen to see what I had. I ended up with gin, lemon, and rich simple syrup (2:1 turbinado sugar to water), which is fine in the 2:1:1 ratio but not that interesting. Luckily I also had some fresh bing cherries on hand, so I muddled those in. And I know from experience that cherries and absinthe tend to go well together (try it–trust me!), so I added a little bit of that as well. The rich simple syrup ended up being too sweet, and I wanted the other flavors to shine through more, so for the final version I ended up using a 1:1 simple syrup made with white sugar. The name is what a friend said to me after I explained the ingredients of this cocktail.

I Think I’m In Love

Muddle the cherries in a shaker tin. Add the rest of the ingredients and shake with ice to chill and dilute, then double-strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

I hope this post has you given you the tools and motivation to try inventing your own cocktails at home. If you take any of my advice, jump into the comments and let us know what you came up with!

* “Original” is something of a lie, in the sense that someone somewhere has probably combined those ingredients before, maybe even in those proportions. For example, there is a drink called the Maple Leaf that consists of bourbon, lemon and maple syrup…sound familiar? But who cares? What matters is that you’re having fun creating something to your taste.

Featured image: the first shaken cocktail I ever made at home, back in 2010.

Anne S

Anne Sauer is an atheist with an appetite for science, good food, and making connections between the two. She is currently pursuing her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her favorite foods are salted caramel ice cream and chicken tikka masala. You can find her on twitter @aynsavoy.

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  1. Well thank you sir.

    I have indeed wasted a fair amount of alcohol on failed cocktail experiments, and had more or less given up trying to invent anything original. I’ll give your system a shot (pun intended) when I make dinner tonight, and post the results.

  2. As promised, I tried it out, specifically a vermouth style cocktail. Here are the results:

    – .75 oz Single Malt Scotch
    – .75 oz Bacardi 151
    – .75 oz Dry Vermouth
    – .5 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
    – Dash of bitters

    Served with a slice of lime for tasting (like a shot of mezcal).

    It was met with approval from my girlfriend, who’s the scotch-drinker around here.

    Thanks so much Anne!

  3. Mmmmm, yes. Love this. Great foundational research! Selfless science. Just be sure to stay hydrated.

    I do have one caveat. I think your term “modifying agent” is too simple to be as instructive as it could be. I would break that down further into bitter and floral. I’d also point out that aromatics are a key component to a truly stellar cocktail. What your nose senses when you first stick it into your cocktail glass is different than what can be smelled at the bottom of the glass when the drink is nearly gone. But those first few sniffs put you in the right frame of mind when you drink your cocktail.

    Sour is important to balance sweet. Bitter is desirable because it makes you wobble in a pleasurable way that I will describe more as art than science. (This simply because I am unaware of the research, it may well be there. If not, point me in the direction of a grant so that I might explore this hypothesis with some funding!). Bitter is good because if you have too much, it crosses a line and becomes unpleasant. But when the bitter elements just take you to the edge, you can look at that drop off and feel an agreeable thrill. It’s like riding a roller coaster or going to a scary movie or listening to Claude Hay’s “Don’t Forget” where he is pushing that buzzy nastiness yet it feels like somebody put jumper cables on your spine (in a good way). Botanical notes, floral scents, can be dainty and elusive and we open ourselves to experience the fugitive pleasure more deeply. We flare our nostrils, we pause and sniff and contemplate. With bitterness, we steel ourselves a bit. How open can we be to these flavors? It’s like playing a game of chicken in your mouth. It’s really fun. My argument is that working with these elements is what takes you from a good cocktail to a great one. That and top shelf booze.

    Another thing to consider is layering flavors. I made a simple cocktail with Westford Hill Distillery’s Pear William (You can use any poire/ pear eau de vie you like, but I’m going to make a pitch for this one because it’s a local product for me and a fantastic one at that.) and fresh (like pressed that week) pear cider from an organic farm a few towns over and some lemon juice for sour and some St. Germain for those elderflower top notes. After shaking and straining, I dusted it with the tiniest bit of cinnamon & nutmeg. It was crazy good. Pear layered atop pear.

    Ah, now I have made myself thirsty. But it is not even ten in the morning. I am going to have to settle for a cup of coffee.

  4. This is fantastic! I am bookmarking this right now and can’t wait to play around with it. Thanks! 🙂

  5. Hi pipenta–Wow, you are obviously very passionate about this! I agree with much of what you’re saying, especially since I favor bitter cocktails. And yes, aromatics are very important when it comes to flavor, period, not just in cocktails. This post was already a little long, but there is obviously plenty more to say about how the flavors we choose will behave in a dish or drink.

    Your pear cocktail sounds fantastic. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Anne, can you please make this into a poster I can hang in my dream bar in my dream house someday? Thank you.

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