The cocktail as we know it today wasn’t officially invented until 1806 when The Balance and Columbian Repository penned the drink as “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water, and bitters.” Since then the cocktail has had a long history full of mobsters, bathtubs, umbrellas, and three Martini lunches. Now that the current cocktail culture expects most restaurants to offer a list of new libations that change with the seasons, having a grasp on the basics is essential.
A Balanced Composition
First things first, the cornerstone of cocktail making is in understanding how to find the balance between strong, weak and sour, and what you need to do in order to create that homeostasis in a glass:
- Too sour? Add more sweet.
- Too sweet? Add more sour.
- Too boozy? Either add more sweet, more sour or chill your drink.
Pro-tip: Chilling the drink will slow the rate of evaporation and lower the burning sensation on your palate.
- Too concentrated? Shake or stir for longer to dilute the drink with the ice.
Categories and Families
The 15 different categories of cocktails include a vast array of liquid adventures like Swizzles, Frozen, Pousse-cafes, Tropical, and Snappers. However, they can be simplified into four families: Sour, Old Fashioned, Bubbles, and Manhattans.
The many citrus-based sour drinks vary based on region but generally sours call for a base liquor, citrus juice (the sour), and something sweet. Working with those three ingredients, you can create a fantastic variety of drinks including Daiquiris, Aviations, Last Word, Side Cars, Cosmopolitans, and Margaritas.
Cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Sazerac have been around since the 1800s, and all contain a sweetened liquor and a bitter. The sweet can come from sugar, muddled fruit, syrup, or liqueur like triple sec or maraschino; the bitter, from boozy flavor extracts made by infusing barks, flowers, roots, and berries in alcohol.
This vast category of drinks includes literally any cocktail with bubbles — Sours, Fizzes, Royales, Highballs, Champagne cocktails, Collinses, Mules, and Bucks.
Similar to the Old Fashioned, these drinks are spirit-forward, comprised of a three-part combination of spirit, a modifier (usually Vermouth), and a bitter. In this family, you will find the Martini, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Negroni, Boulevardier, and Rob Roy.
Now that you have the basics down, you can start experimenting (the fun part), spicing things up with seasonal ingredients that will take you beyond Pumpkin Spice.
Here are some autumnal twists on the classics to whet your imagination:
Pro-tip: If you are looking to dive deeper into the taste relationships, check out this article by Libation Magazine.