Next week there is a contest taking place in conjunction with the LA launch of Rosangel tequila; participants were asked to create a new cocktail using no more than seven ingredients (including the garnish) featuring the new rosy-hued, hibiscus-infused reposado as a base. While busily destroying my kitchen in the process of working up a recipe to submit, it occurred to me that there isn’t much behind-the-scenes commentary on this site. Being something of a perfectionist, I post recipes after I’ve tasted them, tweaked them, styled the drink and snapped an agonizingly large number of photos, all with no peeking behind the curtain. Granted, one of the qualities of a great bartender is that they make their job look easy and effortless—but I, being neither great nor a bartender, have the luxury of hiding behind a computer to make this look easy.
Early on in my cocktail travels, I made a few rather sad and elementary attempts at crafting my own cocktails. Having not yet developed much of a palette or a very broad knowledge of spirits and styles of drinks, it was rather inevitable that those weren’t going to go well. Each time I found myself incredibly frustrated because I could articulate in my mind exactly what flavor I wanted to create but, much like my limited sketching abilities, I was unable to make the vision in my head align with what my hands could produce. It was intensely frustrating and, as a result, I abandoned those experiments and took a hiatus from inventing.
Because that was so early on, I didn’t yet realize that my failure wasn’t some innate inability; rather, I was putting the cart before the horse. For people who become invested in cocktailing, there is a natural progression from strict adherence to recipes to tweaking them and, after you go down that rabbithole, to making up your own. As in art, you have to learn to imitate the masters before you go out and develop your own style. Every cocktail nerd I know has subbed X for Y or thrown a grapefruit peel in instead of an orange. After we learned from those experiences, we all branched out into developing our own original concoctions, sometimes for our own edification, sometimes for parties or friends’ weddings or TDN. And all that innovation is fine and good, but how does it come about? If you’ve never tried it before, how do you make up a cocktail?
Everyone’s creative process is different; some of us enjoy the shotgun approach, where you throw as many ingredients as you can around until you come up with a combination you like. Some of us are more structured, preferring to have the liquors pre-selected and playing with combinations of those ingredients and select others until something promising occurs. And there’s the more scientific approach, where you begin with an established ratio and build the drink into something new.
For me, all creative endeavors are analogous to distillation. I’m not really a list-maker or a brain-stormer, preferring to gather my thoughts slowly and let them condense and reform until they’re ready. Like many people, I keep little bits of things that inspire me around to keep me motivated; color swatches, recipe clippings of flavor combinations that sound promising, fake tattoos, postcards, fortune cookie wrappers, hand-jotted notes about any- and everything. Keeping track of ideas that provide inspiration is an important step in this whole process, even if you store those ideas in a shoe box in the closet or, as I do, in your head.
A very large component of this process is tasting. One of the things that always impresses me when I’m at a bar is to see bartenders tasting what’s on the shelves—not taking a shot, not drinking on the job, but tasting the products on the shelves to stay familiar with what they are mixing and serving. For those of us with home bars, there are very few excuses for not having tasted everything on the shelf at least once. Scratch that—I can’t think of any excuses for not having tasted everything in your bar, as well as all the mixers and syrups at your disposal. One of the most important components of making cocktails, even cocktails that already have recipes, is to have a mental Rolodex of the primary flavors of the liquors you’re working with. With those in mind, you start to understand how and why components are mixed together and which flavors are compatible.
So, once you have your palette tasting and your thoughts fomenting, it’s time to pick a base. For me, this usually takes the form of a particular spirit that I want to work with but sometimes it’s also a particular profile I want to capture—floral, bitter, tangy, orange and almond, whatever. Obviously in this case I already had my base spirit, which only left tasting it to reveal the different notes available to work with. Rosangel is a reposado tequila that is then mellowed for two months in port barrels while simultaneously being infused with hibiscus. The floral notes of the hibiscus come through most prominently on the nose, giving it a very fruity, heady scent. Surprisingly the flavor of the tequila was not adversely affected by the infusion as I had feared it might be; the warm bite of the agave is dominant, but there is a very subtle sweetness imparted by the port barrels and the faint sweet-tart tang of the hibiscus. Complex but very straightforward, it is first and foremost a tequila rather than being a flavored tequila-based spirit.
Tasting notes in place, it’s time to assemble thoughts into plans. This is also when the scientific part of my process begins. Thinking about the flavor of the base, I start putting together various camps of potential flavor groupings. Hibiscus, obviously, was an easy match. But just layering hibiscus is going to make the cocktail taste like eating a shrubbery, so where else do you go? Grapefruit-smoked salt-prosecco? Hibiscus-cilantro-habañero? It sounds weird, but this is the part where the distillation kicks into high gear. I collect all of the flavors I would like to work with and let them roll around, comparing and contrasting until I have a suitably small range. And then I turn to the dreaded math.
As Paul wrote about last week, cocktails are all about fractions. Many classic recipes are composed of the same few ratios (1:1:1, 2:1:1 or 3:2:1), a point Jeff made a few years ago that made a lightbulb go on in my head. Fortunately proportions and ratios were some of the few areas where I showed any mathematical aptitude, so cocktail recipes became much easier to comprehend once I understood that basic premise. It’s hard not to craft a decent drink if you start working with any of those proportions and build up. Sometimes it becomes necessary to deviate from that original ratio, which is perfectly fine, but having a proportion in mind makes it much easier to sort out some factors before you start mixing, such as which flavors are more likely to dominate and to keep track of your balance of liquor, sour and acid.
Naturally, grabbing some random proportion out of thin air isn’t always going to be the best solution, especially if you aren’t yet comfortable going it alone. My other favorite tack is to take a simple drink style like a fizz, fix, cobbler or sour and swap out for the ingredients you will be using. A Margarita and a Sidecar are basically the same drink if you swap out two ingredients in the same proportion, so if you already know you want to build a drink to serve over ice, find a traditional cobbler or sour recipe, strip it down to it’s most basic components and duplicate the recipe with your spirit, juice and sweetener.
So now you have a deconstructed, reconstructed cocktail that you’re moderately happy with. The balance is good but it needs…something. And thus begins the tinkering stage. Remake your new concoction with tangerine juice instead of orange; swap sherry or port for the sweet vermouth; sub Grand Marnier for triple sec; make a flavored simple syrup to add contrast; use berry preserves instead of sugar—really, the possibilities are fairly mind-boggling. This is the stage where I usually completely destroy my kitchen in a furious bout of syrup-making, juice-extracting, garnish-peeling madness. It’s also the most fun part of the process, where you get a chance to test drive all those brilliant ideas, like using a grapefruit-cardamom syrup with celery bitters. Occasionally it’s a complete crapshoot but most of the time it’s a satisfying, entertaining experience that is creatively fulfilling as well as educational. And, of course, you do get to drink all your mistakes.
I will be posting a recipe for the drink featured here, but not until after the contest ends. The recipe is up. Cheers!]