Quora Answer: How do I make a cocktail?

This is another in a series recapping answers that I’ve given to various cocktail questions on Quora. This answer covers some liqueurs most people may not be familiar with that are useful for making interesting cocktails.

The question: How do I make a cocktail?

Making a cocktail is a pretty basic process, but there are definitely some things that you can do to make your mixed drinks stand above those mixed by a total novice.

  • Always measure – you can use a jigger (a small measuring device, often with a concial shape) or just a small measuring cup. Professionals often learn to free pour, but keep in mind that they’re using devices like mental timing or liquid levels in the glass to get fairly exact measured pours.
  • Use quality ingredients – squeeze your juices from fresh fruit, don’t leave your vermouth and other wine-like ingredients in the fridge for months, and buy good liquor.
  • Mix with ice – Nearly all cocktails should be cold when served, and the use of ice while shaking or stirring will both cool down the drink to a reasonable temperature and dilute the mixture somewhat. Most recipes rely on this dilution to achieve the desired flavor profile…otherwise you’ll end up with way too much heat on the tongue.
  • Shake or Stir – A general rule is that you should shake anything containing juice, cream, or egg. Anything with entirely alcohol components (e.g. spirit, vermouth, bitters drinks like the Manhattan and Martini) should be stirred. These aren’t hard and fast rules however. Stirring will usually leave the drink with a pleasingly clear appearance, which is why most people say to stir martinis. Shaking is essential for cream and egg drinks to get adequate mixing. Drinks that use egg should be given a “dry shake,” which means shaking the ingredients first without ice before subsequently adding ice and shaking again. Drinks that use both egg and cream need to be shaken for an extended period of time to ensure proper emulsification (e.g., the Ramos Gin Fizz).
  • Strain – It is typically best to not serve the drink with the ice that it was mixed in, because this ice has already begun to melt and will be reduced in size (and possibly crushed when shaking) and will melt much more quickly than fresh ice. Thus, the best practice is to strain the drink out of the glass that it was mixed in, leaving the old ice behind, into a new glass with new ice (if ice is called for). If you muddle anything in your drink, you should also use a fine strainer to make sure none of the solid pieces from the muddled fruit or herbs end up in the final drink.
  • Serve in a cold glass – It is good practice to pre-cool your glasses before serving so that your cocktail stays colder longer and any ice melts less quickly. This can be done by storing your cocktail glasses in a fridge/freezer, or putting ice and water into the serving glass before beginning to mix the drink.  The ice and water in the serving glass is then poured out before straining the cocktail into the glass (obviously).
  • Use the appropriate glass – This is less important compared to most of the other rules. A tall, thin glass should be used for drinks that contain carbonated ingredients like ginger beer or club soda. This minimizes the surface area at the top of the glass so that the drink will stay carbonated longer.  Old-fashioned glasses or tumblers are often used for spirit forward drinks without carbonation that require ice in the glass. Stem glasses are used when you are not leaving ice in the drink.
  • Garnish – In many cases, the garnish is an important flavor element in a cocktail. If a fruit twist is called for, it must be added.  When creating a twist, it is important to squeeze some of the essential oils from the fruit peel over the drink to get these flavor components into the drink.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and having the right tools is also important, but with just this you should be well on your way to making a great cocktail.

Links: How to Write Tasting Notes

I am horrible at describing how a spirit tastes or smells. As part of trying to educate myself on how to improve in this area, I’ve been looking around the web for good how-to articles. Most of what I’ve found has focused on wine, but I think most of the points for wine tasting are very applicable to spirits. Here are a couple that I’ve found: