Deconstructing the Cocktail
Making great cocktails is a balancing act; using the right levels of sweetness, sourness or bitterness, or adding flavour while still allowing the character of the base spirit to show through is not always easy and requires an intimate understanding of the ingredients involved.
Deconstructing a cocktail, where we take a drink and break it down into its separate components, can help us look at how each ingredient is being used and how it influences the cocktail, and also makes it easy for us to see the trends and patterns in different drink recipes.
Breaking it down
Many well constructed cocktails can be broken down into their core components which fit somewhere within the following five categories:
Base Spirit –> Sour/Bitter –> Sweetener –> Flavour -> Lengthener
Vodka, gin, whisky or similar
As the name suggests, the Base spirit provides the bulk of the alcohol (usually) and, depending on the type of spirit used, can also provide the base flavour. Dark spirits (such as whiskeys or rums aged in oak barrels) can provide a lot more flavour compared to the cleaner, more neutral spirits (vodka, white rum or similar).
Lemon or lime juice, aromatic bitters or similar
Sourness and bitterness, while very different tastes, are both used to further flavour and balance cocktails. Sour flavours tend to come from acidic citrus juices while bitter flavours may come from bitter aperitifs, such as Campari, or through the use of aromatic bitters such as Angustora or Reagans Orange bitters.
Sugar syrup, sugar cube, liqueurs or similar
A sweetener is usually added to balance the sour/bitter component of the drink (we’ll cover balance in full in a later post as it’s an important concept). The most common sweetener is sugar which we find in crystal form, dissolved in a syrup, or in a liqueur but other sweeteners like honey can also be used.
Orange flavour in Triple Sec liqueur, the raspberries in a raspberry Daiquiri
In this case we are referring to the ingredient that is providing the most prominent added flavour to the cocktail, whether that is from a fruit or vegetable, syrup, mixer (such as Coca Cola) or from a liqueur. The flavour may be used complimentary to the base spirit (such as dark rum + chocolate flavour) or more heavily (when used with relatively plain base spirits like vodka).
Soda water, orange juice, tonic etc
Often used to soften a cocktail and make it easier to drink the lengthener can also (depending on the ingredient) contribute to the overall flavour. While we usually think of lengtheners as mixers such as juice or soda, the water dilution from ice in a stirred or shaken cocktail also provide a lengthening effect. Used carelessly this component can often overpower or drown the other flavours in the cocktail (so be extra careful).
Not every cocktail uses every component, and like any general rule that covers a large topic you can find examples that don’t seem to fit at all. However you should generally be able to use this formula to break down a cocktail into its individual parts which can help us see where the particular flavours and tastes are coming from, and most importantly, how we can play with them. Breaking down the cocktail should also give us a pretty good indication of what the final drink will taste like.
Let’s deconstruct a classic cocktail to give you a real example of how we can do this.
The Margarita is a classic cocktail consisting of Tequila, Lime Juice and Triple Sec.
If we deconstruct the Margarita we get:
Base Spirit: Blanco Tequila (a light Mexican spirit distilled from fermented Agave)
Sour: Lime juice – contains citric acid which will provide a sour taste.
Sweetener: Triple Sec – Triple sec is an orange liqueur and liqueurs contain added sugar; it is this sugar that will give us the sweetener to balance the sour lime juice in this cocktail.
Flavour: Triple Sec again, this time providing a flavour of orange to the cocktail.
Lengthener: This drink is often served in a cocktail glass so it doesn’t have a legenther such as soda or orange juice, however if properly prepared it will be shaken hard which will add a small amount of ice shards and water which will add dilution (which we want) and also add some length to the cocktail.
From this deconstruction we would expect a cocktail that is relatively light and acidic in flavour (from the white Tequila and lime juice), but balanced with a hint of sweetness and orange flavour coming through from the Triple Sec.
Let’s try another.
The Sidecar is another classic, made from Brandy, lemon juice and Triple Sec.
Base Spirit: Brandy (a distilled spirit usually made from grapes and often barrel aged, Cognac is a well known variety from France. Tends to be a darker spirit with rich flavours)
Sour: Lemon juice
Sweetener: Triple Sec (a liqueur, contains sugar)
Flavour: Triple Sec (a liqueur with an orange flavour)
Lengthener: Small amount of water through dilution of ice
By breaking down the cocktail we can see that the Sidecar shares ingredients with the previous Margarita – in fact both cocktails are members of the sour family and are a a mix of base spirit, sour and Orange liqueur.
Side by Side:
Blanco Tequila Brandy (Cognac)
Lime Juice Lemon Juice
Triple Sec Triple Sec
We can see that the flavour of the Sidecar should be relatively similar to that of the Margarita; they both contain a sour citrus and Triple Sec, and the biggest difference in this case is going to come from the change of base spirit from the light Tequila to the heavier Brandy.
Deconstructing makes it easier for us to both make new cocktails and play around with existing ones. Try deconstructing some cocktail recipes you find on this site or around the web and see if you can figure out the flavour profile before you make the drink.
If you feel more experimental, why not try and follow the formula to create your own cocktails. Think of different combinations of flavours that could fit within the Base spirit -> Sour/Bitter -> Sweetener -> Flavour -> Lengthener formula and create something of your own.
Give deconstructing a try and let me know how it goes.