Understanding the Structure of Cocktails

Some drink recipe sites offer—I’m not kidding—over 50,000 recipes.  That sort of site is to be rigorously avoided, although, frankly, I can’t say one way or another if that’s because there aren’t any good recipes, or if the insurmountable problem is simply finding a good recipe that could be hiding among the dreck.

The fact is that the basic cocktail structures aren’t all that numerous, and while taxonomies are often the stuff of strife and division, the following works as well as many, and better than most.

Liquor.com is a decent site, with decent images, such as this Flip category cocktail.

Old-Fashioned cocktails are just that, old fashioned, comprising spirit, sugar, and bitters, which is pretty much how cocktails started out, and don’t knock it. This style of cocktail—earliest typically used brandy—probably added sugar to help smooth out liquors of modest quality. The reason for the bitters may be several, including the medicinal benefits such bitters were invented for, to broaden the flavor profile of the drink, and, well, because the combination tastes good.  My guess is that someone once agreed to take something to settle his stomach, insisted that he do so with some booze, and bob is your uncle.  But who knows? Fist fights break out when people discuss the origin and meaning of early cocktails, and for me valor is indeed the better part of valor.

The other important aspect of the emergence of cocktails was the emergence of accessible ice, as ice houses and ice harvesting and ice transporting became more common. Before this happened a typical way to doctor your liquor (think rum, here) was to warm it up, throw in items with strong flavors (think cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg) in mulling wines and the harder stuff. Read English literature from before ice and you’ll run into a lot of references about mulled this or that.

And so, old-fashioned cocktails, which, incidentally, are served in glassware called Old-Fashioned, which is also often the glassware a bar uses to serve liquor on the rocks, which makes a whole lot of sense since this type of glass tends to be short and wide, just right for putting in a bunch of ice, or a big cube, or a chunk of ice carved from a bigger hunk of ice.

There is a relation between Old-Fashioned cocktails and cocktails coming out of New Orleans such as the Sazerac: similar construction and similar timeline, but with the latter Peychards bitters, a quintessential New Orleans ingredient, instead of aromatic bitters like Angostura. There are some great New Orleans cocktails, but these typically follow several cocktail structures with flavor profiles and bitters distinguishing these cocktails from other types.

Classic cocktails–liquor mixing with aromatized wines such as vermouth–began when products like Byrrh came to our shore in the 19th Century.

Aromatized wines cocktails, which is quite a mouthful (literally, too) for what most of us think of as the traditional cocktails, of which the most widely known are the Martini and Manhattan.  Starting in the mid-late nineteenth century vermouths and similar products started making it to America, after being developed in various European countries, but mainly France and Italy. These products were based in wines fortified with added grain alcohol that had been infused or further distilled with aromatic herbs, roots, bark, and who knows what else.

Fortified wines such as vermouth, or Lillet or Dubonnet rouge or blanc, or Biggelett China China, or Byrrh (Gran Quinquina), or Campari, or amari of many stripes, etc., etc., tend not to be all that much stronger in alcohol content despite the “fortified” aspect, so it should be surprising to few that these might be added to liquor. Vermouth to gin and whiskey made for the Martini and Manhattan, respectively, and “classic” cocktails were born. And classic cocktails still live.

After the American Golden Age of Cocktails (to be said out loud only with hush reverent tone), which more or less ended with Prohibition’s start, many of the aromatized products more or less passed from common American memory, although Europe kept many in production, praise be.  The use of such products declined, of course, but even with the still common vermouths, the volume dropped, as did the institutional memory of the need to protect such products from oxidation, which can be done by several means, including drinking bottles up in a timely way, and/or keeping such bottles sensibly, including refrigeration and capping the bottles. Alas, a downward cycle ensued: less vermouth was used, the bottles sat around too long and spoiled, and even fewer people were interested in using these often-spoiled ingredients. Part of the cocktail revival that’s been underway for two decades has been the kind treatment of vermouths and the resurrection of other similar products, although it remains far too easy to enter a bar that hasn’t a clue about vermouth spoilage or how other similar products can be used in the making of terrific drinks.

Sours cocktails, may be the next best-known category of cocktails, and there are many great cocktails within this structure category. A sour structure is simple: liquor (and may include other ingredients such as liqueurs, bitters, egg whites), a tart element, such as citrus juice, and a sweet element, such as simple sugar or liqueurs. The sweet-tart foundation is a great way to enjoy many kinds of liquor, and often enough the quality of such liquor does not have to top shelf, which probably is one reason for this cocktail type’s popularity.

Almost any kind of whiskey, for example, can be used in a Whiskey Sour, including Canadian, Bourbon, Rye, Irish, and, yes, even Scotch. In fact, a friend of mine insisted that I try a Johnnie Red Label in a sour, and I did, reluctantly, since I’m very much not a fan of this particular blended scotch. By gosh, the guy was right, and some of the flavor notes I don’t like in Red Label actually came through to help make the sour especially good, so there you go. Generally speaking, avoid lousy liquor in sours, but don’t bother using up expensive liquor either. One exception to this rule may be the Sidecar, which, I believe, suffers from the use of middling brandy, and requires a good cognac, VS or better, to be great; in fact the Sidecar, a terrific cocktail, is fussy in other ways, and only fresh-squeezed lemon juice can deliver the best in a Sidecar.

Another interesting thing about sours is that many traditionally included egg white, but this treatment has largely disappeared, alas.  And that is a shame, since egg whites provide a pleasurable mouth feel to the sour and helps broaden and balance the other ingredients. Egg whites were largely dropped largely because this ingredient is a pain in the neck, as well as one likely to engender some concern from guests who fear the spoils of drinking a spoiled egg. Science and technology saves the day, in my opinion: the hardship of manually shaking egg white until all is incorporated and emulsified is now resolved through the use of a Cuisinart Wand or other like instrument, and pasteurization offsets the unease of the hypochondriacally inclined even while making the storing, handling, and measuring of this ingredient easy for the bartender.  Win-Win.

There are a number of other cocktail structures to be described, but the aforementioned are the most commonly consumed. There are Champagne cocktails, at their simplest, bitters, sugar or juices, and champagne or other sparkling wine, usually served in flutes. The Highball structure is also a simple one: liquor (or liqueur), a mixer, garnish, typically served in a tall—or Highball—glass, with lots of ice; this foundation also includes Collins and Fizzes and if you’ve ever enjoyed a Gin and Tonic you’ve enjoyed a Highball.

There is a Cream cocktails structure that relies, not surprisingly, on cream or milk as an ingredient and have some overlap with Flips but are typically simpler and less blend/shake intensive (e.g. White Russian, Brandy Alexander). Milk punches, which have gained interest recently, share many traits with the Cream category of cocktail, and might well best be grouped within this one category. Another candidate for category simplification—again, with Creams–is Flips and nogs, which use egg yolk or whole egg, and which are typically rich and savory and which have largely fallen from use, except for specific holiday season beverages such as eggnog.

And then there are Flips, Juleps, and Punches, and Hot drinks and Dessert cocktails, and the ever mysterious and elusive Tiki, but enough. I’m parched.

A pretty picture, and not mine. I came across this on the web, of course, and, yes, co-opted it. Original caption: “Whiskey Sour at the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland, Ohio,” Photo Credit: Edsel Little. Come on Edsel. There’s a drink on the house waiting for you.t cocktails, and the ever mysterious and elusive Tiki, but enough. I’m parched.



One Comment on “Understanding the Structure of Cocktails”

  1. In these times of unfair snow accumulation ruining our Spring bulb planting plans, it’s good to appreciate the medicinal advantages of a great cocktail! Salute!

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