Cocktails are as complex (and interesting) as any other flavour-based, ingredient-driven dish. There’s a reason why experienced mixologists and bartenders get all the praise … they’ve learned a few tricks here and there, which allows them to craft the perfect cocktail for every individual taste. The question now is, how do we make that perfect cocktail at home? I reached out to three experts to find out. These award-winning mixologists are among Canada’s best bartenders.
Toronto-born Kaitlyn Stewart crafts delicious cocktails at Royal Dinette in Vancouver using local spirits and seasonal ingredients. Her passion and experience carried her all the way to Mexico City in 2017, where she was crowned the World Class Bartender of the Year. (She shared her Cider Cocktail with Quench back in 2018.)
Calgary-based Makina Labrecque is the Diageo Reserve Portfolio Brand Ambassador and Activation Manager for Alberta. Last year, she won the Canadian leg of the 2019 Patrón Perfectionist competition with her spruce tip cocktail (which was featured in our November 2019 issue).
Chris Thibodeau is the head bartender at Gio Restaurant and LevelBar in Halifax. Thibodeau is a trained sommelier and certified whisky ambassador. His resumé includes stints at Met et Soleil, The Middle Spoon, Noble, Five Fish and Gahan House. Thibodeau is passionate about helping people learn more about cocktails so that they can drink nice things wherever they are.
A Tasteful Balance
When it comes to the perfect cocktail, balancing sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami is key. Throw in a pleasant mouthfeel, some fancy aromas and an attractive glass, and you’ve got yourself something great.
Depending on the cocktail, each “taste” is created differently. But typically, you have citrus juice for sour, sugar syrups for sweetness, bitters for bitterness, salt or saline solution for salty and for umami, it could be as simple as adding Worcestershire sauce to a Caesar or using bacon fat to fat-wash a spirit. Like in cooking, taste in cocktails is all about balance — bringing up the brix to even out sourness or adding bitters to round out the flavours. I practise “less is more” until I know I have dialled in the desired taste of the cocktail.
To achieve some sense of perfection, it’s all about flavour pairing. Knowing the base flavour profile of the spirit you are using, and complementing it, is the best way to start a perfect cocktail. Many of my favourite “perfect” cocktails use a 2:1:1 ratio. Meaning: two parts liquor, one part sour, one part sweet. If I want to achieve a sour cocktail, I turn to lime juice first. Or use a less sour juice like grapefruit and add an acid alternative to bring up the acidity. You have to think of the final cocktail and what exactly you want it to come across as.
Usually you can divide cocktails into a few main categories — sweet, savoury, floral, spirit forward, refreshing. Of course, a cocktail can be savoury and floral at the same time. There are so many ways you can go about combining flavours, but these are the typical categorizations of taste that we use when developing menus and pairings. When it comes to creating a certain flavour in a cocktail, there are a few “go to” ingredients. When creating something lively and fresh, there is no replacement for fresh citrus. For creating depth, a pinch of salt or bitters is essential — bitters create length and a lasting finish. For floral, rosewater and orange blossom water impart floral notes easily — only a few dashes go a long way with these. When it comes to more advanced layers, you can always use oils (coconut, canola, olive oil) and other culinary techniques.
The components for a great cocktail are: a base spirit, modifying spirit, lengthener and sweetener. For example, in the Margarita, tequila is the base spirit, triple sec is the modifying spirit, the lengthener or acid in this case is the lime juice, and you can add a bar spoon of agave nectar to create some extra depth and sweet flavours for those who want it. I always only do a half rim of salt on my Margaritas to give the drinker the choice. As far as ratio goes, it is safe to do a 2:1 ratio on the base spirit to modifier — but that doesn’t always work, so experiment with it.
Balance is really what you’re after. You need a balance of the four tastes as well as mouthfeel and consistency. Heat, texture, consistency — as well as the look of a cocktail — will all contribute to the overall taste of the drink. I always say that if a drink looks and smells great, you’re already two-thirds convinced it’s a great drink.
Cocktail components date back to the original punch recipe: strong, weak, sweet, sour, bitter and dilution. Strong is your alcohol. Weak could be sodas, teas, juices or simply dilution. Your sweet could be sugar, syrups, homemade syrups, maple syrups, honey. Your sours are your citrus juices. Your bitter is your bitters and Amaris. (Bitters are the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. A little pinch goes a long way. That little bitter hint rounds out the palate and gives you a more balanced and complete cocktail.) Dilution is water, ice, topping with soda or even adding hot water.
The ratio depends on the cocktail style. For sours, you’re going to have a higher level of citrus than you would of sweetener. Maybe that’s an ounce and three-quarter ounce, or maybe it’s an ounce and a half ounce. There’s a similar ratio when adjusted for a sweet drink.
Ice, Ice, Maybe
You’ve probably heard people order their drinks “on the rocks” or “served up”; maybe you’ve noticed that there’s cubed rather than crushed ice behind the bar. Well, ice, as it happens, actually impacts a cocktails flavour.
Ice plays a massive role in the cocktail’s flavour profile, and it is often overlooked. When you use crushed ice, you have to make sure that the flavour profile is bold enough to stand up to rapid dilution. Just like when you use a king cube or ice ball, you need to take in consideration that the dilution will take longer. I believe that ice is a personal preference. If you enjoy ice in your martini, then all the power to you. For me, I typically steer away from ice when it comes to delicate, booze-forward cocktails.
Ice is your best friend when making cocktails. Dilution is key when it comes to opening up flavours in spirits and cocktails, as well as making them enjoyable. Taste your cocktail with a straw after the initial shake or stir to determine if it is ready, and take into consideration whether you are putting it on ice afterwards or keeping it neat. When you make a drink that you are serving on ice, shake or stir it a little less than you typically would to allow for the drink to gradually dilute. For sipping drinks, serve neat and perfectly diluted in a pre-chilled glass from the freezer. It’s a nice touch and the drink will stay colder longer.
Ice both chills and lowers the ABV through dilution. Drinks served with ice are meant to be enjoyed at your own pace; they will continue to dilute. The dilution time depends on the quality and size of your ice cubes. Cocktails that are “served up” are served with no ice. Those are meant to be drunk very quickly because you chill it, dilute it and pour it into a glass without any ice. It’s going to arrive at room temperature fast. [Cocktails served without ice] are more about mouthfeel. You arrive at a certain texture that you want, like a sour with that beautiful egg-white froth, and you want to preserve that as long as you can.
Adding a little finesse
Garnish. The final touch in the cocktail world. When you add a garnish to your cocktail, it must complement the cocktail and enhance the experience.
I’m a firm believer in adding a garnish only if it adds to the cocktail experience. Expressing a lemon peel over the top of a Vesper Martini is essential to the cocktail experience and flavour profile. It draws out the bright finish of the Gin and Lillet, tying the cocktail together. Sometimes garnishes are just added for the sake of adding a visual cue that the cocktail is “complete.” I don’t think that’s a good enough reason.
Garnish is often sometimes my favourite part of enjoying a cocktail. Adding garnish is a great way to add intrigue and value to a cocktail. Any garnish should be edible, that’s my rule. A garnish should add something to the drink, often aroma. Think of diving nose first into a Mojito with a big bouquet of mint as the garnish — there is nothing better nor more refreshing.
The garnish adds the visual appeal and an aromatic component. If a drink looks and smells good, you’ve already convinced others you know what you’re doing. But the garnish has to make sense. A Cosmopolitan has vodka, orange liqueur, lime juice, cranberry juice and simple syrup. Acceptable garnishes would be anything orange (twists, zest, slice, wheel), cranberries or anything lime (wheel, wedge) — it all works. It has to make sense.
Shaken vs. Stirred
Bond has gotten flack for his unruly “shaken, not stirred” demands. Turns out, there’s a good reason for this. Both actions play a very specific role in cocktail creation.
Shaking a cocktail will add more aeration, giving it a more rounded mouthfeel. Stirring will add dilution without aggressive aeration. If I have added any type of citrus to a cocktail, I am more than likely going to shake it. Why? Because it will mellow out the citrus and take the astringent quality to a lower level. If I am working with a spirit-forward cocktail, I will stir it. That way I have more control over the dilution and how the expression of the spirit is being conveyed.
Most people will tell you if the drink has citrus and syrups or any sweeteners, you shake it in order to make sure that you are combining the ingredients fully and adding air to the cocktail to achieve the final result. Stirring comes into play when you have a cocktail that is simply booze and bitters (and often a light form of sweetener). Some people like their Martinis shaken — I don’t judge. The Martini is a great example of a drink that is super personal to the drinker. There is no right way — only your way. I do however prefer my Martinis stirred, gin and slightly wet with a grapefruit twist, for the record.
Stirred cocktails feel silky smooth. They’re all about the spirits and liqueurs used. You stir cocktails to chill and dilute at a slower pace. I’ll count every single time; it takes a little bit more practice to stir a cocktail. Shaken cocktails feel fizzy or more lively compared to stirred cocktails. Shaking chills, dilutes, aerates and lowers ABV. If your cocktail contains juices, egg or egg whites, you should shake the cocktail. That’s pretty much the bottom line. You’re never going to stir a citrus cocktail. You want to fill it full of air, you want to get that mouthfeel, that extra dilution. It’s just the way of the world.
By Makina Labrecque
1 1/2 oz Tanqueray No. Ten Gin
1/2 oz pisco
1/4 oz Giffard Banane du Brésil
1/2 oz coriander syrup*
1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Cilantro leaf, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds, fine-strain into a coupe, garnish and serve.
*Coriander Syrup Recipe
Steep 3 Tbsp of whole dried coriander in 250 grams of boiled (but removed from heat) water for 2 hours. Fine-strain the water, then simmer with 250 grams of fine granulated white sugar until dissolved. Cool before using.
Tools of the Trade
It’s time to make sure we have all the tools we need to channel our inner mixologist. Our experts made up this list of essentials: Cocktail shaker, Jigger, Bar spoon, Hawthorne strainer, Fine strainer, Citrus peeler, Paring knife, Cutting board and Mixing glass. And then shared the tools they can’t live without.
I’m a fairly basic bartender when it comes to tools, but I have been known to make a margarita or two at home with my protein shaker. I couldn't live without my jigger. I like the comfort of knowing my measurements are always on point. I love using a milkshake mixer when it comes to egg white or dairy-based cocktails. It whips up the perfect sour, but it’s totally unnecessary.
You want those main tools on hand, most importantly a jigger because without measurements there is no consistency. A muddler comes in handy for cocktails with a sugar cube. I always keep a funnel on hand for extra tools because, typically, after making an ingredient, you are adding it back into another container. Coffee filters and cheese cloth are also great to have around so that you can fine-strain ingredients with very small unwanted particles.
You want an ice scoop; you shouldn’t be handling ice with your hands. Also, ice cube trays. The dollar store has really good trays to make large cubes, two dollars apiece. I have eight of them because they’re fantastic. I think a lighter is very much an essential tool. I take an orange peel; I keep the lighter lit and then squeeze that orange peel. It shoots the orange oils on top of the drink and caramelizes them. It smells incredible and takes your aromatic game to the next level.
Now that we’ve got the basics, the experts shared some final thoughts before sending us into our home bars to experiment and create our “perfect” cocktails.
Less is more. Start with the basic elements of a cocktails — spirit, sugar, water and bitters — and go from there. I find taking a classic cocktail and twisting one or two elements really gets the creative juices going. If you’re making an Old Fashioned, maybe change up the bitters. Start there and then move onto more adventurous risks.
Read as much as possible. There are so many online resources that keep you up to date, current and informed. Aside from that, keep experimenting and go to your local cocktail bars and ask questions — it’s flattering that people do what we bartenders do for work as a hobby at home — nobody is going home to practice accounting after their day job, so it’s a great compliment.
Drink less, but drink better. Get out of your comfort zone. Find out what you like and ask questions. The more questions you ask, the more you’re going to learn, the more you’re going to get excited about it. When you start to make drinks at home, don’t be afraid of honest feedback. You’re probably going to make some terrible things. Everyone’s been there. It takes practice. You’re an ounce to a quarter ounce away.
By Kaitlyn Stewart
2 oz blanco tequila
1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
Salt for rim
Salt half the rim of the glass. Pour the tequila and lime juice into a Collins glass. Add ice and top with soda. Mix through.
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