In an ideal world all our cocktails would be perfect. They would look great and taste amazing. Be cheap, quick and easy to make. And making a dozen would be no harder than making one.
Back in the real world this idealized scenario isn’t common. Devoting time and energy to produce a great tasting cocktail can mean it takes longer to make. Using the highest quality ingredients to improve the taste will also increase the price. Skimp on either of these aspects to pump out lots of cocktails at speed and the quality will suffer.
This is practically a law of nature. That there is always a trade off between cost, quality and speed.
So, when making cocktails, where should our priorities lie?
Quality above all?
I am a firm believer in maintaining high standards of quality in cocktails. How a cocktail tastes is always our number 1 priority. This should come as no surprise to my readers. To my mind there is simply no point in making a cocktail if you’re going to do it badly. Just have a beer instead. You’ll probably enjoy it more.
But this is not the same as advocating that each cocktail be hand crafted using only the finest ingredients known to mankind. That would make them prohibitively expensive. And it really doesn’t matter that you can make the best cocktail in the world if a customer has to wait twenty minutes to get it. By the time he does, it will be too late. He’ll be too irritated to care how good it is.
I am not suggesting that you cut corners. But there are many ways we can make our cocktails cheaper and/or faster without compromising their quality. We just need to know how and when we can do this. A Cocktail Education is full of hints and tips to aid you in achieving this.
But I will also tell you when you cannot compromise. The best example of this is the way I keep on insisting that there is no substitute to freshly squeezed lemon/lime juice. I seem to say it so often it’s starting to feel like a mantra.
Horses for Courses
It’s an old English saying. Since everyone has a different skill set, we must choose the right person for the right job to get the best result. It applies to cocktails too.
To illustrate this point, I’ll use a couple of gin cocktails as examples.
First, the Dry Martini. Now the raison d’être of a Dry Martini is to bring the absolute best out of a gin. To subtly enhance its flavour by complementing its unique blend of botanicals with a merest hint of vermouth. And then to present it to our taste buds in the optimal manner – ice cold.
As such, there is absolutely no point in making a Dry Martini with an entry level gin. There are no subtle and delicate flavours to tease out of of such a gin. No matter what their marketing may tell you. Instead, you really need to go for a premium gin with a price tag to match. Giving a top end gin the Dry Martini treatment is to create an iconic legend. It’s well worth the extra cost. Though unless you are a gin connoisseur it will likely be wasted on you.
But on the other hand, what if I’m going to make a Bramble? I’d be mixing my gin with lemon juice and sugar syrup. Diluting it with crushed ice. Then drizzling blackberry liqueur over it. Or perhaps just splattering some muddled blackberries on it.
The subtle botanicals of a premium gin will simply be eclipsed by these potent ingredients. But the bolder, harsher flavours of the entry level gin will stand up to them. So ironically using the entry level gin makes for not only a cheaper Bramble, but actually a better one too.
Making a cocktail taste as good as possible is our top priority. But making it as efficiently as possible is a close second. Because if a cocktail takes too long to get to someone, it doesn’t matter how good it tastes.
You’ll note I said “as efficiently as possible” and not “as quickly as possible”. Making a cocktail quickly may lead you to cut corners or make mistakes. Making it efficiently means making it as quickly as possible without compromising the quality.
Why does this matter?
Well if you’re at home, making a single drink for yourself, then it doesn’t.
But in every other scenario involving cocktails, it does. In bars, a good bartender needs to send out a round of five different cocktails as quickly as possible. Because he likely has another half dozen waiting to be made. A customer wants his drinks quickly, so he can go back to his friends quickly and not miss out. And at parties or events we don’t want to keep our guests waiting too long for their drinks either. Even when we’re making them by the jug to share.
Learning how to make cocktails efficiently takes time and practice. As such it is a more advanced topic. I’ll get to it in time.
But at a basic level, let’s say I’m at a house party and am going to make a whole load of Tom Collins‘. In order to do so efficiently, I should make sure everything I’ll need is to hand when I need it. My gin is in front of me, not in the liquor cabinet. I have my glasses and ice ready. I have prepared my lemons and sugar syrup.
This sounds like common sense. But in my experience, common sense isn’t very common…
It may come as a surprise that I rank a cocktail’s appearance as only our 3rd most important priority. After all, everyone knows that the first bite is with the eye. A cocktail’s appearance is a major part of its sex appeal. Surely that should count for more? Right?
A cocktail that looks good but tastes bland is a bad cocktail. While a cocktail that tastes great but doesn’t look like it, is a diamond in the rough. It already has the most important factor sorted. It just needs a little polishing.
Similarly, get a great tasting, great looking cocktail twenty minutes after you asked for it and you won’t be happy. It doesn’t matter how good it looks or tastes. But get a great tasting and OK looking cocktail quickly, and you’ll be at least content.
True, we want cocktails to look good. But not at the expense of their taste or speed of arrival.
Efficiency of Appearance
A sometimes overlooked point is that the concept of “efficiency” doesn’t just apply to making a cocktail. It also applies to its appearance.
Bartenders like to garnish their creations. A good garnish goes a long way to enhancing a cocktail’s looks. But the point is to enhance the cocktail, not to dominate it. If you go too far in either volume or complexity of your garnish, it will actually detract from its looks. And the more complex you make a garnish, the longer it will take to make.
So the best solution is to keep your garnishes simple. Let them show their elegance in their effortless simplicity. And keep the time it takes to make the cocktail down by being efficient in their crafting.
This is often an issue when you encounter “award winning” cocktails. These are typically cocktails which won some sort of competition. As such, they were not created with the priorities I have outlined in mind. Instead, they are designed as one-shots. They maximize the impact of their taste and overall appearance at the expense of efficiency.
After all, when you have as long as you need to make a cocktail but only one chance to impress, efficiency is a low priority. This is where you may encounter some ridiculously complicated mixing techniques or flamboyant garnishes.
As I said, Horses for Courses. Such cocktails have their place – in cocktail competitions. But in general they don’t belong on bar menus due to the low priority they put on efficiency. Expect to pay a lot and wait a while when you order one.
So, to summarize our priorities when making cocktails:
- Taste. High quality cocktails are our aim.
- Efficiency. Without it we can’t make quality cocktails at speed.
- Appearance. Ideally our cocktails should look as good as they taste.
- Everything else.