Anyone performing even casual research into cocktails will quickly encounter different cocktail recipe styles. I’m not just talking about different recipes for the same cocktail. I’m talking about the style they are presented in.
Some of these styles are meticulous and precise. Others are descriptive and accurate without being verbose. While others seem more vague, relying upon the bartender’s skill to make them correctly, but encouraging experimentation.
Each of these styles have their pros and cons. I make use of each of them when appropriate. The purpose of this post is to present and consider each recipe style in turn. And also to explain why I structure my recipes in A Cocktail Education the way I do.
Spec Sheet Recipes
The first style is probably also the most common. It is seen in cocktail books and web pages all over the world. A precise list of all ingredients with exact measurements. The Singapore Sling recipe card I obtained as a souvenir from Raffles is a good example.
At first glance this recipe style seems ideal. It is unequivocal, giving you all the information you need in precise detail. It also allows for a standardization of how a particular cocktail is made regardless of who makes it.
Often there is also a bartenders’ shorthand included to explain all pertinent details. Like mixing method, glassware, ice type, garnish etc.
For the Singapore Sling this shorthand would go something like this: shake; strain -> sling glass, cubed ice; garnish w/ pineapple wedge/cherry.
The ideal use of this recipe style is in a bar’s spec sheet. The precise and concise specifications of how to make every cocktail on that bar’s menu in that bar’s style. Typically this is produced after a period of experimentation and debate among the key players of that bar. It is then used to get newly recruited bartenders up to speed.
This is necessary because in a new bar you may have different products than you are used to. Different glassware which doesn’t contain the same volume of liquid as before. Or perhaps you have access to new garnish options now that you’re connected to a restaurant with a cool dessert section. So how you used to make a cocktail may not fit your new environment.
This style is optimized to an efficiently run, top end bar setup. As soon as we try to apply it universally, issues arise. Or in other words, as soon as we apply it to the real world.
Just Plain Wrong
The first and most obvious issue is what if the highly specific recipe you’re trying to follow is just plain wrong? You’re reading this on the internet. You all know just how much complete and utter rubbish there is on the internet. So how can you trust that the recipe you have is correct?
Consider the Mojito. In my recent post on the Mojito I stated that the most common reason why people screw up this cocktail is muddling the mint. I explained why in detail – check it out if you’re curious. So as an exercise, try searching for Mojito recipes and see how many get this wrong. I just tried this out myself. Of the top 10 Google hits for “Mojito Recipe” at time of writing, seven clearly stated that you should muddle the mint along with the lime and sugar. Plus the Wikipedia article did too.
Ten recipes is not a statistically significant sample size, I know. But still, a 7/10 failure rate at the first hurdle is poor going. Only one of those hits got everything else in the recipe and method correct. If you were trying to follow one of the 7/10 then you likely ended up with a Mojito that just didn’t taste right. Not the way you remember it. And you would have no way to figure out what you did wrong. Or how to correct your mistake in the future.
It’s because of events like this I set up A Cocktail Education in the first place.
But even if the recipe you have is accurate there are still potential problems.
First, if a recipe is specifically balanced for certain products, what happens when you don’t have them? Is something close OK? Or will it screw things up? I’ve run out of light rum – can I use dark? The strawberries have gone off, can I use strawberry syrup instead? Without any understanding of why a certain product was chosen it’s tough to replace it while maintaining quality.
Second, have another look at that Singapore Sling recipe card. Note that it calls for precisely 7.5ml of Benedictine. How exactly am I supposed to be that accurate with my measurements? Using a pipette? Sure – but it’s not exactly a swift or efficient method, is it? And since using one seems far more suited to a laboratory than a bar, what would your customers think?
This raises a good question. Do these recipes need to be that precise? After all, we’re talking about creating cocktails here, not explosives. Cocktails (usually) don’t blow up in your face if your measurements are slightly off. The answer is that sometimes they do. Need to be that precise that is, not blow up in your face.
But far more often they don’t. If a recipe calls for one shot (25ml) of something, then usually anything in the 20-30ml range will do just fine. Especially when considering that personal taste varies a great deal. There are always exceptions to this where precision is required. And nor can you go too far off the suggested quantities before running into trouble. But focusing too much on absolute precision when following recipes is missing the point.
Third, as I have stated many times, there is no substitute for using freshly squeezed lemon/lime juice. Many recipes call for “the juice of 1/2 a lemon”. But this raises the question, how much juice is in half a lemon? Well it varies, doesn’t it? So how can I ensure that I have exactly 15ml, as demanded by the recipe?
As I say, the spec sheet recipe style runs into trouble as soon as it encounters the real world. As a result, I consider it to be an inferior cocktail recipe style. This despite the fact it is the most common recipe style around. Don’t get me wrong – it definitely has its place. In a well run bar environment, accurate spec sheets are of supreme value. But as a universal recipe style it sucks.
I prefer to use a recipe style based on flexible principles rather than immutable facts.
You could argue that this makes my recipes hard to follow as you really need to know what you’re doing to understand them. I’d counter that in order to make good cocktails you always need to know what you’re doing, making that argument irrelevant.
And by explaining the underlying principles you need to understand to make good cocktails, I am encouraging you to think for yourself. This would not be the case if I were to simply spoon feed recipes to you in the manner of most cocktail books or websites. You could simply learn them by rote and follow them without really knowing what you were doing. As I have explained, this often ends badly.
What this comes down to is philosophy, and how I view my role here. It is not to tell you how to make cocktails. It is to teach you how. To provide A Cocktail Education.
So, what are those principles I base my recipe style on?
First off, I always aim for roughly two shots (~50ml) of alcohol per cocktail. This is then divided between the various alcoholic components. So in the case of the Singapore Sling that would be: one shot gin; 1/2 shot cherry brandy; and ~1/4 shot each of Benedictine and Cointreau.
The dash of bitters speaks for itself. And since I use fresh lime I’ll say the juice of 1/2 a lime. Since the purpose of the lime juice is not to make the drink sour as much as to balance the otherwise excessive sweetness of the other ingredients, 1/2 a lime is sufficient.
But as to how much grenadine and pineapple juice to use, I won’t be too specific.
Grenadine acts as the primary sweetening agent for this cocktail. Sure, the liqueurs certainly play their part, but grenadine contributes the bulk of the drink’s sweetness. So you need to use enough to attain the correct Balance of Sour for this cocktail. Since the taste profile for the Singapore Sling puts it in the Tall and Fruity section, that’s just slightly on the sweet side.
Similarly, pineapple juice is the cocktail’s primary lengthening agent. So exactly how much you choose to use depends on how tall you want to make it. This in turn depends both on personal taste and the glassware you’re using. If I know the exact volume of glass you plan on using then I can tell you exactly how much pineapple juice to use. Like I would when writing a spec sheet for a bar. But since I don’t know, I must leave that decision up to you.
There is, however, an intermediate recipe style between these two extremes. One which is descriptive rather than prescriptive, making it quite versatile. However, it does require a fair degree of cocktail knowledge to utilize.
This recipe style revolves around the idea of cocktail styles. The methods typically used to make classic cocktails.
For example, I may describe a house cocktail as being a rum-based Collins-style with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.
The “Collins-style” tells you that the drink is tall, light and refreshing and uses spirit, sugar syrup, lemon juice and soda water. The “rum-based” and “fresh grapefruit juice” serve to fill in the details.
Or I could simply call a cocktail a “Cucumber and Elderflower Collins“. The name alone tells you everything you need to know to make that cocktail.
Or perhaps I could call a cocktail Mojito-style with mandarin vodka and kumquats.
The “Mojito-style” says lime, sugar, mint, spirit and soda. It also says tall, crushed ice, built by muddling fruit, adding mint, then churning the drink. The mandarin vodka and kumquats just fill in the details. Clearly the kumquats are to be muddled along with the lime and sugar while mandarin vodka takes the place of rum.
This is the method I would use to quickly explain how to make a house cocktail to another bartender of sufficient experience. It’s maybe not how I’d describe it to a customer as they may find it confusing.
Each recipe style has its merits, and a niche where its use is superior. But given that the purpose of this blog is to provide A Cocktail Education, I stand by the standard use of my style.