Let me pose a question to you… What is a cocktail? Better yet, what is a good cocktail?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a cocktail is any spirit base mixed with a mixer. Now, would you consider a brandy and coke to be a cocktail? What about a vodka and lime cordial on the rocks? In essence, yes. I like to use the following explanation: Take a glass of straight up orange juice, add vodka, and it becomes a screwdriver. Add Peach Schnapps and a dash of Grenadine to this and you have Sex on the Beach. Remove the vodka from it and it’s called a Fuzzy Navel. Now take out the peach and grenadine, add vodka with a Galliano float and we have a Harvey Wallbanger. Adding or removing a single ingredient can change the drink into a completely different cocktail from the other side of the world.

So then, what is a good cocktail? In short, it’s the one your guest likes. Sometimes you’ll find bartenders influencing guests’ preferences by suggesting the latest trends and/or their favoured tipples, but at the end of the day it’s really what the guest enjoys and what speaks to their tastebuds.

Having said that, though, there are definitely a few things to keep in mind when creating a cocktail. Firstly, technique plays a big role in the final taste, texture and temperature of your bevvie; the fancy mustachioed bartender behind the bar, stirring that old fashioned for an absurdly long time before pouring it, he has a reason. Techniques such as shaking and stirring are chosen according to which end result we are after with the cocktail. Do we want a lot of dilution or just a bit? Do we want the cocktail to be made quickly or do we want the process to be somewhat ritualistic in its preparation?

Let’s break the techniques down a bit more:

Building: This method is quick, straight forward and really impossible not to do correctly. Take the glass, add ice, add ingredients, garnish and serve. All the basic “cocktails” ie. mixed drinks are served this way. It’s fast and effective, but if left for too long without being consumed will water down horrifically.

Stirring: This process chills the liquid and blends the ingredients rather gently. The temperature drop is gradual which means that the dilution will be greater. The rule of thumb here is “More ice, Less dilution” and this method is great for making spirit-forward cocktails and old style prohibition style drinks.

Shaking: This process rapidly cools and mixes the ingredients due to the vigorous shake. Because the temperature drops very quickly, the dilution will be less than the stirring method. A great benefit of the hard shake is that it forces air into the liquid which results in a soft and fluffy mouth feel. If you are using bold flavours that need to be toned down, then this is the method to go for.

Possibly the most important consideration for your cocktail is balance. By balance, I mean the fine line between acidity and sweetness. In the bar, we use sugar very much the same way that a chef will use salt in the kitchen. It’s a flavour enhancer and it also neutralizes acidity by taking that bitter tang at the back of the palate away while bringing out more flavours. Then more citric acid such as line juice is needed to then balance out the sugar. A well balanced cocktail is essential as it can be altered to suit the palate of the guest or your palate.

Finally… Flavour. While achieving a beautiful flavour in the drink is naturally the main aim, you really don’t want the flavour to be overwhelming. Think of flavour like perfume or cologne – too much and it’s invasive, but just the right amount leads to you wanting more. The same goes for the cocktail: when you sip it, you want to think “Wow, what is that flavour?” which means taking another sip… and another… and another.

  • Keegan Smith
    Keegan Smith

    Keegan Smith from Barsmith Cocktail Co specialises in flair bartending, bottled cocktails and mobile bar services. He has over 17 years’ experience in bartending, is a multiple SA flair bartending champion and founder of Flair for Life foundation. For more information you can email him on keegan.thebarsmith@gmail.com or phone 067 729 1873.

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