We’ve talked before about how to go about choosing the perfect cocktail for you. But, with most bars still closed, many of you are making cocktails at home. And, while many drink recipes are available freely online, you may not really enjoy what you find. What if you could invent a cocktail that you would love? It’s easier than you might think. I’m going to keep it basic, but if you are looking for more in-depth instruction, check out this great article from Popular Mechanics. (They interview the master mixologists from Death & Co on how they create new drinks from a scientific perspective.) Now, let’s talk about how to invent a cocktail that you’ll love! I can’t wait to hear what you make.
Invent a cocktail: Step 1 – figure out what you like
When I first started making cocktails, I was impatient. I would charge ahead with random ingredients and hope for the best. This approach was not great and I ended up wasting good alcohol. I also got frustrated and assumed bartending was too hard. When I started to follow and learn classic recipes, it got easier. Not only did I know what to order when I went out, but I knew what I would like at home. To start understanding what you like, try making (or ordering) different cocktails. Try different spirits and find flavors that sound good. While some drinks might sound like too many things in one drink, you might be surprised.
For me, the Brown Derby is a great example of finding something simple that I like and can make consistently. I follow the classic recipe, which has three ingredients. Now, I didn’t know I would like this drink, but I do know that I love grapefruit and I like bourbon. When I searched for recipes with both of these ingredients, I found this. And, I also love honey, so it was a great place to start. The honey syrup is easy, just 1:1, water to honey over heat. It’s a great sip. I also found other drinks that were easy to make and memorize like a classic margarita (tequila), a daiquiri (rum), an old fashioned (whiskey), and a gimlet (gin). Once you know a few basic drinks that you like, you can move along to Step 2.
Invent a cocktail: Step 2 – make small tweaks
So, you now have something you like. Now it’s time to make some small changes to the recipe.
- Adjust the level of sweetness. While it’s not exactly inventing a new drink, it’s helpful to know where you like things to be as you make additional changes in following steps. I definitely do not like overly sweet drinks, so discovering what volume of sweetener I like is helpful.
- Adjust the type of sweetener. There are three basic sweeteners: honey, agave, and simple syrup. They all have unique flavor profiles and offer different levels of sweetness. Once you start infusing them and making syrups, you have unlimited options to play around with.
- Change (or add) the fruit. For example, many margaritas are more delicious with fresh lime and orange juices. This is also great for in-season fruit. Berries are fairly good substitutes for one another. Citrus is fairly forgiving. Muddled kiwi instead of lime in a mojito? Yes please!
- Add seasoning. Bitters are referred to as the “spices” of the cocktail world. Using them to punch up or alter the flavor profile is easy and fun. Adding a pinch of salt can also bring out the flavors in a drink in a way that you might love, without actually making the drink salty.
- Add bubbles. Soda is popular because it’s sweet, but also because we like carbonation. Adding bubbles to a cocktail is fun and can feel fancy. From club soda (unsweetened) to tonic water (sweetened and can be flavored) to champagne or prosecco, it’s an easy way (an ounce can be enough) to mix things up.
- Smoke it. Adding wood smoke can elevate even a basic drink. Start with some wood chips under your overturned, empty glass and light your chips on fire. It’s fairly easy to do (I struggled the first time), but a torch or other bar apparatus makes it easier.
Sticking with my Brown Derby example, there are several things I can do to push it into different directions. I can swap out a little of the sweetness from the honey by reducing the volume of the syrup and adding that amount of ginger beer. This brings in some bubbles and a little ginger. I could also add a little fresh lemon juice to make it tart or some smoke bitters to make it smoky. Or I could use agave instead of honey syrup. Over time, the drink will start to shift away from the original, but that’s how new cocktails are born!
Invent a cocktail: Step 3 – make bigger changes
As you start to experiment with things in Step 2, you’re probably getting the hang of it. Now you’re ready to make some bigger changes to the classics. Are you ready?
- Double up. Try making combinations of my Step 2 suggestions to tweak the classic cocktail recipe you already like. For example, I took a margarita and invented The Fire Margarita which is a regular margarita with the addition of a flavored salt and spicy bitters, along with a mezcal split (see more on that below).
- Swap the booze. If you’ve ordered a martini in a bar, you’ve likely been asked whether you want it with gin or vodka. This is because either can work. Same with a gimlet. Or you might find yourself trying a recipe that calls for something you don’t have on hand, so making a close substitution might be your only option. Whatever the reason, you can mix up the alcohol in your drink while keeping the rest of the recipe the same.
- Split or add a booze. Like much of the world, I am obsessed with adding mezcal to drinks. If you’re making a margarita, split the amount with mezcal and you have a smoky, delicious version of your classic fave. Want a little note of floral in your gin and tonic? Add in a half ounce of St. Germain. If your daiquiri needs a little more depth, try adding in a half ounce of dark or pot-stilled rum.
- Change the texture. We already talked about adding bubbles, which is easy, but clarifying a cocktail makes it silky and smooth. For more on this, check out the video tutorial from Truffles on the Rocks in this post.
- Try veggies. A lot of cocktail recipes call for fruits, but veggies can be a great twist on a classic. Juice some beets and using alongside the lime in a twist on a martini. The Tipsy Muse has a fun variation on a Negroni using beets and mezcal. Or use some spinach juice in a gimlet. Whatever you choose to experiment with, you can justify that it’s healthy.
- Include some infusions or syrups. Using a homemade infused liquor or a syrup (homemade or bought) elevates any classic recipe to something special. The best part is that it’s generally easier than it sounds. For an example of each, check out this post.
Step 3 examples
A margarita is great, but a spicy one is even better. Try adding Ancho Reyes (roasted chili liquor) to a basic margarita and see what you think! It’s just different enough to really impress your tastebuds.
Another example is to swap out a liquor and add in something you’ve infused. My Jungle Bird riff (below) does both with my pineapple-infused rum and uses Aperol instead of Campari (which is traditional). The best thing about making up your own drinks is that you can find a substitute for something you might not love. (I’m sorry Campari lovers, but I just can’t make myself like it.) This drink is quickly becoming my favorite summer sipper!
- 1.5 oz pineapple-infused dark rum (like Havana Club 7)
- 0.75 oz Aperol
- 0.5 oz simple syrup
- 1 oz pineapple juice
- 0.5 oz lime juice
- Make the infused rum. (see www.cocktailsaway.com/blog/pineapple for recipe)
- Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice.
- Shake and double strain into a coupe glass.
Bonus: naming your cocktail
When it comes to naming your drink, the rules are fairly flexible. While it’s not really acceptable to make up a random drink and call it by any classic name. For example, root beer + orange juice + rum is not a margarita. And, if you make a classic drink and call it something random, that is also not generally accepted. So, if you make a margarita but you call it a “Funky Chicken” you will just confuse people. However, with those two exceptions, you can pretty much do whatever you want. There are a lot of fun ideas for how to name the cocktail you have invented. Here a just a few:
- Pay homage to a place. Maybe a drink reminds you of a memory of a trip you took or you want to call out where a spirit is from. Either works! Example: a “Jamaican Daiquiri” acknowledges where the rum is made and where the flavors in the bitters came from.
- Songs or Movies. If your favorite film or ballad were a cocktail, what would they taste like? This might be a fun walk down memory lane.
- Include a taste. Adding a word ‘spicy’ to the name of a classic drink can be an easy warning or delight to those who plan to try out your recipe. If you’ve swapped out or split a liquor, adding that to the name also works. Example: a “Mezcal Margarita”
- Use a season. What we like in the summer can be different than the winter. Make a cocktail and add in your preferred season to sip it.
Now it’s your turn to invent a cocktail. I’d love to hear what you make, so feel free to drop a comment below. Finally, making drinks is easier with the right tools. The bar tools used in this post are from A Bar Above; the coupon code COCKTAILSAWAY will give you 10% off your order. (I find myself making drinks just to use the bar mat, it’s a game changer.) Cheers!