Cocktails, like so many things in life, are all about balance: the interplay of powerful spirits with the tempering elements of sweetness, bitterness, sourness and dilution makes a good mixed drink far more than the sum of its parts. Despite the infinite variations that exist, with all their evocative names and eye-catching presentations, there are really only two cocktail recipes. By learning them both and understanding the balance of their ingredients, you will be able to mix drinks like a professional with anything to hand, whatever flavours your drinking partner prefers.
At some point in the late 18th century in North America, when the herbal tinctures that we now call bitters were becoming popular, some enterprising apothecary or publican started mixing them into spirits. Balancing the bitters with a bit of sugar and diluting the harshness of the spirit with a little water, the fundamental formula of the cocktail was created: booze, bitterness, sweetness and dilution. Known today as an old-fashioned, this is the drink many consider to be the original cocktail.
The formula has been riffed on in a million different ways, from the Manhattan to the Negroni. The key is balance: while an old-fashioned calls for 10 millilitres of sugar syrup as the sweetener, the Manhattan has double that of sweet vermouth because the sweetness is less concentrated. A Negroni has a full shot of Campari for bitterness instead of just a couple of dashes of bitters, again because its bitterness is more diluted. Even the espresso martini is a spin-off of the old-fashioned, with coffee acting as the bittering agent and Kahlúa as the sweet.
Understand the balance of your ingredients and the rest is down to personal preference. Don’t like whisky? Fine. Make your Manhattans with dark rum. Or tequila. Or even gin. The other base recipe — the one that has become by far the most popular around the world — is the sour. It keeps the boozy spirit base and the sugar for sweetness but replaces bitter with sour, usually in the form of citrus juice. A whisky sour has whisky, of course, plus sugar and lemon. Some add egg white, others don’t, but that only changes the texture; it doesn’t affect the balance of sweet and sour.
The daiquiri is a simple sour of white rum, sugar and fresh lime. In Brazil, they replace the rum with cachaça for a caipirinha, and in Peru with pisco for a pisco sour. For something longer and more refreshing, put a daiquiri in a tall glass with a handful of mint, some crushed ice and a splash of soda, and voila: the mojito. The basic ratio of spirit, fresh citrus and sugar remains the same. Like a 12-bar blues or the structure of a pop song, it’s a formula that works no matter how you dress it up.
The formula can be adapted to suit the sweetness, sourness or bitterness of your ingredients. An amaretto sour, for example, is made with a sweetened spirit, so the sugar should be reduced accordingly. In a margarita, the addition of sweet triple sec means the sugar is eliminated entirely. But let’s say there’s no tequila, no triple sec and no limes in the house. Instead you have gin, apricot liqueur and lemons. The margarita recipe will work just as well with these ingredients because they have the same balance of booze, sweet and sour.
From these two straightforward formulas, almost any cocktail can be made, modified, extended and enhanced. Just as a triangle can take any form — from equilateral to 1:2:3 ratio — as long as the angles add up to 180 degrees, the geometry holds.