This is the second of three in a series on Cocktail Science. Read part one, The Theory of Natural Cocktail Selection.
On my first trip to Japan over a decade ago, I had just come off my final, glorious night out in Tokyo. With an early flight out the next morning, I was wandering around the Ginza neighborhood, hoping to stumble upon a taxi stand. Instead, I happened across a gorgeous, oak paneled, dimly-lit den of a bar with more bottles of alcohol against the wall than I had ever known to exist. You don’t turn down encounters like that in Japan as a rule.
As I got comfortable, the bar-back informed me that I could only have one drink tonight as they were about to close. Undaunted, I asked to see a menu. No menu would be provided at this time, the bar-back replied. Slightly taken aback, I ordered a simple, eggless whiskey sour, the only thing that popped into my head, which the man wrote down. As yet, the bartender had not spoken a single word, instead inspecting glassware with rare intensity. The bar-back and bartender then conversed momentarily, apparently hashing out a lengthy plan for my simple, three ingredient cocktail. The bar-back then disappeared into a back room and the bartender continued to inspect glassware. It was a tad odd, but as I discovered during my trip, the Japanese were a tad odd.
Minutes later, the bar-back emerged with a bowl of absolutely beautiful lemons in hand, placing them in front of me. He then set up a cutting board, knife, handheld juicer and two bowls. He sliced one fruit down the middle and then carefully juiced each half of fruit into one bowl, discarding the juiced halves into the second. Setting the juice aside, he meticulously cleaned the area. Next, he set out a bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon, notably lower quality than anything I had drank in years, along with a couple other unmarked bottles, then arranging the cocktail wares needed for mixing with all the obsession of a serial killer. By now, 15 minutes had passed since I placed my order. “Which hell was this?,” I thought with ever increasing irritance. As I sat pondering whether I was being punked as a foreigner or this was standard operating procedure, severe regret began to wash over me. Perhaps I should have just gone back to my hotel.
The bar-back finally stepped aside and the bartender inspected the setup, nodding that it was satisfactory. I asked the bartender if I might make a substitution for a better whiskey. He only looked at me and then back to the bar-back. The bar-back alone responded, “Sorry, sir, no substitutions are allowed.” By now, I was ready to get this over with and pay my bill. It wasn’t my first stint into high-end cocktailing, after all. In my native Chicago, we did things right, with quick precision. There was no way this cocktail was going to stack up against my hometown favorites.
As I writhed around in my chair, the irony of just how much Japanese-style care my bartender was putting into the worst possible cocktail I could imagine did not escape me. His shaker, an old cobbler variety, was beautiful and his ice cubes, enormous and crystal clear. He jiggered with incredible skill, pouring into the shaker with finesse, wiping the lip of each bottle before he screwed it shut and set it down. And then, he began to shake. His movement was all at once vigorous, parsimonious, elegant and restrained. But shake he did, and shake and shake and shake, for a length of time that exceeded all reason.
Finally, he revealed a beautiful bit of arctic-cold glassware, in which he poured the surely over-diluted contents of his shaker, finally pushing it across the bar toward me with a slight bow of his head. It was kind of him to make my trashy cocktail feel so special. Half dreading ingesting the drink, I decided not to embarrass myself by pounding it and asking for my bill. Politely, I sipped it.
The texture was velvety smooth, the citrus was bright with a little salinity, countered elegantly by just the right amount of sweetness from sugar and the whiskey. I was entirely stunned. It was among the best cocktails I had ever tried in my life, perfectly balanced and delicious, made with the most simple of ingredients and whiskey so bad I could scarcely believe it found its way to Japan.
With thoughtfully designed and practiced technique, a man turned garbage into gold before my eyes. Everything I thought I knew about cocktailing–perhaps everything generally–was just made useless with a single sip. In that moment, I realized that I had misused my entire life. And it was a strangely wonderful feeling.
As a foreigner in Japan, it seemed to me that the Japanese were extreme perfectionists, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you ask a Japanese master bartender what she regards as perfection, you’ll always get the same answer: “I don’t know.” If pressed, she’ll go on to say that she knows of the general direction of perfection, what to improve and what’s better, but she’ll claim to have no idea what perfection even looks like. This isn’t a false humility, but wisdom. They are, at times, easy to get confused with one another.
Upon a closer inspection of each element of the cocktail making process, I realized that there were no wasted elements. Everything had a purpose, from juicing beautiful lemons a la minute (that is, at the time of use) to the clear ice to the prechilled glass. After literally years of thought, reading and experimentation, I understand what was explained to me in 15 minutes through action a decade ago in Japan. And this knowledge will allow you to produce cocktails that will ruin cocktail bars for you for the rest of your life.
Back to the Bottleneck
As I’ve previously discussed in past articles, a “bottleneck” offers a metaphor to describe how a process may slow down within a system. Although the term is usually used in a negative connotation, sometimes slowing a thing down, creating our own bottleneck, is important to understanding it more fully. The thing we wish to understand must first be dismantled into its constituent parts, passed through the bottleneck, and examined individually. Only then, after we understand each part, can we hope to reassemble the thing and understand it as a whole.
With this in mind, we are going to examine each element of a shaken cocktail separately. As it turns out there are generally only six elements to consider: Three ingredients (ethanol, acid and sugar), ice, equipment and technique. This is literally all you’ll need to know to start making cocktails every bit as good as your favorite bars, if not better.
Commonly referred to as a base spirit, ethanol is actually among the least important parts of your cocktail, believe it or not. By my view, base spirits rank second to the bottom, above sweeteners and below equipment in terms of importance and sensitivity to the end product. By changing your base spirit from one brand or price point to another, you actually don’t get a dramatically different cocktail at the end of the day. Anyone who tells you otherwise is utterly mistaken. This is one of the key lessons that the Japanese bartender taught me that night. If he used Jim Beam to make a delicious whiskey sour, so can you. The whole point of cocktails, in fact, is to turn spirits you would not otherwise want to consume into something delicious. Personally, I never use spirits that retail for more than $30 as a base spirit in a cocktail.
I recommend that you do the same, so long as you don’t buy either complete trash, strange flavored versions of spirits or esoteric hipster stuff. If a recipe calls for bourbon, get the most classic bourbon you can find, such as Buffalo Trace. A classic bourbon is going to be more versatile because its flavor is more universal. Weird flavored bourbon like honey, for example, is going to introduce a distinctive taste to your cocktail that you don’t want there. Also, if you wanted honey, you could just add fresh, delicious honey yourself. Hipster bourbons like High West are good enough, but are more expensive and frankly don’t offer the value of Buffalo Trace. You’re just wasting your money and will not see a much different cocktail in the end. So again, best to stick with the classics.
I also recommend finding base spirits you like and work with those consistently. I’m going to use the word “consistent” a lot from this point forward. When improving your cocktail mixing skill set, you want to minimize the number of variables floating about. This makes it easier to determine what you can improve. If you can use a consistent base spirit for your whiskey sours, say, that’s one less variable you need to worry about.
To get you started, these are my preferences of base spirits for some key classic cocktails (all of the spirits are reasonably priced, widely available, delicious and correspond to the recipes that follow later in the article, to be sure):
Acid in shaken cocktails usually comes from fruit juice, especially citrus. In cocktails which contain it, citrus is the most important ingredient. You should treat it as such. Never buy pre-juiced citrus, juice from concentrate, sweet and sour mix or anything else but fresh, beautiful, whole fruit. The reason for this is that citrus fruit have delicate aromatics that are lost to mechanical processing, pasteurization and chemical preservatives. Even freshly juiced citrus see their aromatics degrade, and in some cases turn bitter, within hours or even minutes, depending on the varietal and season. This is why many of the best cocktail bars in Japan juice citrus a la minute on a per cocktail basis. When juicing, I recommend using a hand press juicer held over a fine mesh conical strainer for quick, high quality, pulpless juice every time.
The most common varieties of citrus you’ll deal with in cocktail making are lemons and limes, which have a high enough acid content to give just the right kick to your drink. Lemon and lime juice should never be used interchangeably in cocktails since lemons have a milder flavor and clean finish while limes, with their higher concentration of aromatic oils, have a bolder, fresh flavor and extended finish. The author of the cocktail you’re attempting to make has probably already taken into account the unique characteristics of the citrus it calls for, so just stick to the recipe as a beginner.
Eureka/Lisbon lemons and Persian limes are the classic grocery store variety fruit you’ll most commonly find, both of which contain the same about of acid on average–about 6.0 percent by volume according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The acid in lemons and limes is composed of about two-thirds citric acid, which provides a light and sweet tartness, and about a third corresponds to malic acid, the source of the extreme sourness in sour candies, which contributes a richer, sharper tartness. The two acids work together to help provide flavor intensity to cocktails.
Other varieties of lemons, limes and still other citrus exist at many grocery stores depending on the season and the local demand. I suggest starting with the more common lemons and limes (which have the critical balance of acid needed for cocktails) and, as you find the desire to experiment with other single citrus or even blending citrus, try your luck at new varietals.
Always pick firm fruit with vibrant skin that seem heavy for the size as these have a large volume of flavorful juice. More juice almost always means more flavorful juice as it suggests a healthier tree in better growing conditions. As a general rule, expect to get about 60 mL (2 fl oz) of juice out of a good lemon and 30 mL out of a good lime. For you convenience, the following is a list of common juices and their characteristics, sourced from averages gathered by the United States Department of Agriculture:
Sweeteners come basically in two forms: Syrups and liquors. The most common syrup is simple syrup, which is generally defined in cocktail circles as equal parts by weight of refined sugar (white, granulated sucrose from whatever source) and water. The most important part about syrups is that they dissolve quickly and evenly in our cocktails and deliver a very predictable amount of sweetness by volume.
Dissolving quickly and evenly is the reason we don’t use dry sugar. Dry sugar would never dissolve fully in a cocktail during shaking making for awkward, crunchy outcomes. Delivering consistent sweetness to our cocktails is why we weigh equal parts of sugar and water when making the syrup. Like in baking, equal parts by volume is a less consistent method of measuring and can result in dramatically differing levels of sweetness in syrup from batch to batch. This is because sugar crystals are not of a standard size between sugar brands. If crystal size differs, the weight of a given volume also differs. Once we make our standardized syrup, however, we can quickly and consistently jigger out a given volume without second thought.
Syrups from other sugars exist, as well, from demerara/raw sugar to honey to agave nectar, but the key with all of them is to have the same sweetness by volume. This can get complicated because different sugars, such as fructose, have a different level of sweetness than common refined sugar, sucrose. You can also add spice and fruit flavors to your syrups in the kitchen, but the technique can be challenging. So, as a beginner’s rule, I recommend sticking to good old fashion simple syrup.
Liquors also contain sweetness and often turn up in more complex shaken cocktails. In addition to being a source of additional flavors, liquors are a source of additional ethanol. It’s for this reason that liquors can be a double edged sword. They add additional complexity of flavor, although you have to be careful that your cocktail doesn’t end up with an unpleasant concentration of ethanol. For your reference, the following is a table of the sugar levels of some common sweeteners (percentages are by volume and are sourced from Dave Arnold’s 2014 cocktailing book, Liquid Intelligence):
On the heirarchy of important things, people who know about cocktails tend to say that ice is extremely important. That’s sort of true, but not as true as they would have you believe. I dare say that a skilled hand can make a really good cocktail with even the worst, watery variety of mass produced ice. That said, to go from really good, to consistently excellent, you need consistent, durable ice. To understand why, you have to think though how ice works and what ice is. The answers to these questions may seem easy, but they are stubbornly fraught with complications.
In cocktails, ice serves two functions: To cool and to dilute. We obviously want the cocktail to be cool when we drink it and this is for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article. Dilution, however, is within the scope of this article. We actually want some dilution to make our cocktails taste better. Too little dilution and the cocktails will taste too intense, too much dilution and they will taste watered down. What we need is the right level of dilution, which is what makes things complicated.
Now, cooling and dilution through ice always happen together no matter what. The reason being the strange thermal properties of water, both frozen and liquid. It’s really strange, but the amount of heat energy that it takes to raise the temperature of a certain quantity of ice by one degree is really low and the amount of heat energy it takes to raise the temperature of the same amount of liquid water by one degree is quite high. As a result, ice doesn’t really cool our cocktail, liquid water does, as it melts.
You can basically think of this process as a transfer of heat energy from the relatively warm cocktail into the ice. The ice itself doesn’t have the capacity to absorb that much heat energy from the cocktail by itself, but as soon as it melts, the liquid water has a dramatically increased capacity to absorb heat. So basically, there is no cooling without dilution and no dilution without cooling. This is generally known as the bartender’s golden rule.
It’s also worth noting that ethanol has a freezing point of -114 °C (-173 °F). Given that (1) ethanol mixes perfectly with liquid water, (2) the freezing point of ethanol is lower than water (which is obviously, 0 °C) and (3) the melting of ice is basically a transfer of heat energy, you can actually use ice to drop the temperature of a cocktail well below 0 °C, which is what happens when you shake a cocktail for long enough. What’s happening is the ice is melting into the cocktail and as it does, it absorbs more heat energy. Since the cocktail contains ethanol, it has a freezing point well below 0 °C, so remains in liquid form even though its temperature continues to drop. It’s kind of weird.
How much cooling and dilution you get per unit of time is purely a function of the surface area of the ice exposed to your cocktail. With larger cubes of ice, you have less surface area per unit of volume than with smaller cubes of ice. For example, one five centimeter cubed piece of ice has a surface area of 150 square centimeters and a volume of 125 cubic centimeters. Eight 2.5 centimeter cubed pieces of ice have the same volume of 125 cubic centimeters, however, they have double the surface area and, therefore, double the cooling capacity of the larger cube during a given time. More rapid cooling and dilution is actually a bad thing. What we want is slower cooling and dilution so that we have more control over our cocktail. The slower the cooling and dilution, the more time we have to dial in our precise preferences.
But the weirdness doesn’t stop there. Ice is said to be nothing but frozen water, but that’s not always true. Ice can have impurities in it. For our purposes, there are actually three kinds of ice: Clear ice, semi-clear ice and cloudy ice. Clear ice is perfectly formed, perfectly clear, perfectly consistent ice. This is the only ice that is just frozen water. The problem is that it’s difficult to make clear ice at home and, for us, clear doesn’t offer any benefits for the extra effort. Clear ice is presentation ice and really should be used only when drinks are to be presented with the ice (that is, on the rocks). Shaken cocktails should never be served on the rocks, so clear ice is not relevant to us.
On the other side of the spectrum is cloudy ice, which is ice that you can’t see through. This sort of ice is not just frozen water, but frozen water plus impurities such as gas and minerals. When ice crystals form slowly like in clear ice, the lattice formed pushes impurities away into the air above or the liquid water below. However, if ice crystals form too quickly, they can trap impurities, which in turn upset the evenness of the crystal lattice, creating cloudiness. Cloudy ice is a problem for us because the unevenness of the ice crystal lattice is prone to unpredictable shattering, especially while shaking our cocktail. From one cocktail to the next, cooling and dilution become inconsistent over a given time because the different, unpredictable sizes of shattered ice will never have a consistent surface area. As a result, some of our cocktails may be under diluted, some may be over diluted and some may be perfectly diluted.
Lucky for us, there is compromise ice, what I call semi-clear ice. Semi-clear ice is relatively easy to make and isn’t prone to shattering while shaking. You can make it with your regular ice cube trays (although I recommend these larger ice cube molds for additional control of your cooling and dilution) using hot filtered water, and placing them in a freezer at a low setting (that is, a less cold freezer).
I’ve already suggest three pieces of equipment above: A hand press juicer, a fine mesh conical strainer and a large ice cube mold. I’m also going to suggest two last pieces of equipment: A cobbler shaker and a jigger. Other shakers exist and are preferred by Western bartenders, but I prefer a cobbler shaker (favored by the Japanese) for three reasons: It’s made entirely out of steel which has a lower thermal capacity than glass (a preferred material of some, but not all, Western bartenders) and therefore does not significantly effect cooling, it has a built-in primary strainer to get rid of large pieces of muddled items without trouble and you can only shake one cocktail at a time. Shaking two cocktails at a time is fine for busy bartenders, but I prefer to put all my attention into one drink, for best results. A jigger is also useful because it’s a fast, volume-measuring tool specifically designed for cocktails.
But you actually don’t need any of this stuff. Once on vacation in Mexico, I used only my hands to juice limes, a shitty bag of grocery store ice, a shot glass for measuring and a mason jar for shaking. I managed to make very good margaritas for my friends and me that way, better than we could get at any bar near us. So why buy any equipment? Part of it is making cocktails feel special, like the Japanese bartender did for me. There is ritual and circumstance to cocktailing and I enjoy respecting that. You can also make more cocktails faster with purpose-built equipment than with blunt instruments. But lastly, and most importantly, as you get better at making cocktails, the small things are going to start making a difference. To make consistently excellent cocktails, this is the minimum equipment you’re going to need.
Although I’ve already sprinkled in most of the relevant technique above to make a shaken cocktail, I’ll reiterate it here to put a finer point on it, as well as making some small additions. The following are my 10 most important tips on cocktail technique:
- Consistency is king. Start with finding base spirits you like and sticking to them. The fewer the variables at play, the easier it will be to improve your cocktails by honing in on what’s not working.
- Use a fine mesh strainer for your citrus juice for best results. Always juice a la minute.
- Weigh your ingredients when making syrups. Never make syrups on the basis of volume.
- Make semi-clear ice with large ice cube trays filled with hot filtered water and put into a freezer set on a low setting (that is, not too cold).
- Build your drink in the shaker first, precisely measuring all the ingredients with your jigger.
- Once your drink is fully built, add your ice. Two large ice cubes in a shaker is enough ice to shake with. Or just fill the shaker with whatever ice you have.
- If your ice is watery and melting, be sure to thoroughly drain off the water before you add to the shaker. Only ice goes into the shaker, not water.
- Shake your cocktail for between 12 and 15 seconds with large cubed ice (for smaller pieces 10 seconds should do). Shaking technique is irrelevant so long as you shake reasonably vigorously although you should never feel strained when shaking. Also, always shake horizontally, moving the contents of your shaker from front to back. The goal of shaking is to add tiny bubbles to the cocktail. These help add texture to the cocktail and mellow its flavor.
- Use a cobbler shaker with its primary strainer along with your fine mesh conical strainer (the latter to catch fine shards of ice that may have broken off your large cubes).
- Always pour cocktails into chilled glasses. Glass has a very high thermal capacity and will warm your drink considerably if its not chilled.
With that, I’d like to introduce you to two sets of recipes. The first are simple but very delicious cocktails that essentially use the same basic recipe with different spirits. Although these recipes are based on classics, I’ve modified them to my taste. I think they’re a substantial improvement, but I’ll let you decide. You can make each of these with only the base spirit, simple syrup, citrus and, in a couple cases, salt. So, you don’t need a huge home bar to make these.
The second set of cocktails are a little more complicated, using liquors among other ingredients to achieve more complex flavors. To make those cocktails, you’ll need to make an investment in a more substantial home bar, but it’s worth it.
On some of the recipes, you’ll notice I use the word “fat.” In the case of a “fat 0.5 oz” pour, it equates to slightly more than 0.5 ounces, a pour that rounds off the top of the 0.5 oz jigger mark.
Simple Shaken Cocktails
Complex Shaken Cocktails
For Simple Syrup – Make at least two hours before cocktails to allow for cooling
100 g (about 3.5 oz) filtered water
100 g (about 3.5 oz) granulated sugar
- Combine water and sugar in a medium sauce pan and place over medium heat, stirring continuously. Do not allow liquid to even mildly simmer at the edge of the pan. If any simmering starts, remove from heat and continue stirring.
- When sugar is fully dissolved and syrup is entirely clear, about three minutes, pour into bottle and refrigerate for at least two hours before use.
- Use within two weeks.
- Choose a cocktail. Juice citrus as appropriate, be sure to have chilled simple syrup on hand and chill your glass in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before serving.
- Place all of the ingredients in front of you along with your shaker and jigger. With the jigger, precisely measure off all ingredients and build the cocktail within the shaker.
- If using large cubes of ice, place two cubes in the shaker. If using other ice, fill the shaker with ice. Seal the shaker.
- Holding the shaker horizontally, shake the cocktail with reasonable vigor and speed but without straining yourself, moving the contents of the shaker from front to back. Continuously shake for 12 to 15 seconds with large cubes and about 10 seconds with smaller cubes.
- Retrieve your glass. Holding back the ice with a primary strainer if using a cobbler shaker (or other method if using another shaker), strain through the fine mesh conical strainer into the chilled glass.
- Garnish as appropriate and serve immediately.
Have a question? Ask me anything!