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Deconstructing the Cocktail

Cocktails Deconstructed

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


Bombay Sapphire

Base Spirit

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).


Aromatic Bitters


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 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.

Mozart Chocolate Liqueur


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).


Pepsi Max


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).


Worth Remembering

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.


Example:  Margarita


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.


Example: Sidecar

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:

Margarita                   SideCar

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.

From Here


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.

// Dave

Sweet Manhattan

Weekend ready cocktails – the Sweet Manhattan


Sweet Manhattan


Sweet Manhattan

There has been a real resurgence in the bars for true classic cocktails in the past few years, helped in part to the general increase in bartenders knowledge, the rise of  speak easy style bars, and the popularity of cult shows and characters like Don Draper of the hit Mad Men. One of the true classics, and a favourite of many a bartender and customer the world over, is the Sweet Manhattan.

The cocktail (a mix of whiskey and vermouth) was invented sometime around the 1870s, as vermouth was seeing a rise in popularity as a bar ingredient, and is commonly credited to being first made at the Manhattan Club in New York (hence the name).  Very early recipes used an almost equal amount of whiskey to vermouth but over the years this has evolved and the modern cocktail tends to be a much more whiskey heavy drink.



You will need

  • Cocktail glass or rocks/old fashioned glass
  • Rye whiskey (an American style of whiskey, you can sub with Bourbon if that’s what you have)
  • Sweet Vermouth
  • Angostura Bitters



Chilling the glass


The particular taste of the Manhattan comes from the whiskey:vermouth ratio used when making the drink, so the proportions of each ingredient you use becomes very important. For this example we are going to go for a 5:2 ratio, meaning five parts whiskey to 2 parts vermouth (this is a reasonably classic ratio for a Manhattan).


If you are going to serve your Manhattan ‘up’ ( in a cocktail glass), then the first step is to get your glass chilling. You can do this by putting your glass in the freezer (if you have space), or taking your glass and adding a couple of ice cubes and some water. This will let the glass cool down while we make our cocktail. This step is not as necessary if we are using a rocks glass as we will have ice in the rocks glass when we serve the cocktail.


Mixing the cocktail


Take your mixing glass (the glass that comes with your Boston shaker) and fill it with cubed ice. Measure in 50ml Rye whiskey, 20ml sweet (red) vermouth, and add two dashes of Angostura bitters.


Stir the liquid in your mixing glass with your bar spoon; the aim is for us to cool the drink down and mix the ingredients, two jobs we should be able to do with around 30 seconds of nice even stirring. Try and stir smoothly around the side of your glass; you want the ice to move around quickly but gently.


Once the ingredients are nicely mixed and the drink is cold, empty the ice and water from your cocktail glass (it should be getting cold now), and using your Hawthorne strainer, pour the Manhattan into the cocktail glass, making sure you don’t let any ice fall in.




Last but not least, we can garnish the drink. A traditional garnish for a Sweet Manhattan is a maraschino cocktail cherry (the bright red cherries you can by in a syrup filled jar), or for a slightly different flavour, try an orange twist. To prepare an orange twist you’ll need to cut off a small strip of orange peel, about 1cm x 8cm long, avoiding as much of the bitter white pith on the back as possible.


Once you have your twist, hold it over the top of your glass and squeeze the skin together – if you have done this correctly you’ll see a spray of orange oil fall on the top of your Manhattan, giving a nice subtle orange flavour to the drink. Now ‘twist’ the orange slice and drop it into your cocktail.


(If this all seems a little complicated don’t worry – a lesson on garnishes will be up soon explain it all in much more detail!)




Now it’s time to enjoy your Manhattan!



Variations to Try


The Sweet Manhattan has a few other direct family members: the Dry Manhattan, which you can make by substituting the sweet vermouth in the original recipe with dry vermouth, and the Perfect Manhattan, a cocktail made using both sweet and and dry vermouths.

An easy way to play with a Manhattan is to change the brand or amount of vermouth you use; instead of  5:2 ratio you could try 4:2 or 3:2, or you could try using a less common brand, perhaps something like Punt e Mas or Antica.


You can also play around with the bitters; try increasing or decreasing the number of dashes of Angostura, or lose the Angostura altogether and try another style of bitters completely. There are now a huge range of bitters that could be used in its place, Orange Bitters (such as Reagans or Fee Brothers) or Peychard will give a different flavour to your cocktail


Finally, you could try skipping the American Rye or Bourbon all together and use Scotch instead; doing this will give you a cocktail known as a Rob Roy.


As always, if you have any questions or feedback either leave a comment or contact me, otherwise


Happy mixing!


/ David


Recommended Products from Amazon for Manhattan Cocktail

Pikesville Rye

Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey 700ml

Regans' Orange Bitters

Regans’ Orange Bitters, 148 ml

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