What are Cocktails?

At first glance this might seem like a dumb question.  But it’s not.  The essential nature of a cocktail is in fact something quite profound.  It takes time and careful consideration to properly understand.  But once you do understand it, you control it.

“Now hold on a minute!”  You might say.  “I know what a cocktail is.  It’s obvious!”

But is it?

Dry Martini

Dry Martini

The Dry Martini is one of the most iconic cocktails ever created.  It is likely also the most popular cocktail of the entire 20th century.  Yet it contains only two ingredients – gin and dry vermouth.  Is that really enough to be called a cocktail?


A Dry Martini is specifically designed to bring the best out of a top quality gin while making it more approachable.  But there’s another drink out there which does exactly the same but in a different way.  A gin and tonic.  It too only contains two ingredients.

So why is a Dry Martini considered a cocktail while a gin and tonic is not?

Why is a Cuba Libra considered a cocktail while a rum and coke is not?

Beats me.

If you’re looking for hard definitions of what constitutes a cocktail which are consistently applied, then you won’t find them.  I’ve looked.  Every official definition you can find is either too broad and nebulous to count, or has so many exceptions it fails to define anything.

The world can be a bitch like that.  Not giving us simple answers to simple questions.

So let’s ask a different question.

What do Cocktails mean?

As in, what do they stand for?  You see someone sipping a cocktail, what does that say about them?  What are they trying to say with their beverage choice?

Once again, we’re on tricky ground.  Because a cocktail is not a monolithic institution.  Cocktails can and do mean different things to different people:



To some they are a symbol of elegance and decadence designed to impress.

To others they represent a mark of sophistication.  Of good taste.  A rare treat to be only occasionally enjoyed.

Sometimes they are considered to be a badge of sorts.  A statement of membership in a particular group.

And for a few they are merely a way to make cheap liquor palatable.  This was especially true during the Prohibition era – one of cocktails’ heydays.

But what a cocktail is NOT is a cost effective way of getting as much alcohol into your body as quickly as possible.

If that’s your aim then I’d recommend some Everclear (95% ABV) and a funnel of some sort.  Just be sure to call an ambulance first – you’ll need it.

Ok, so we still have no agreement.  Some topics just defy simplification.

But at least we can all agree on one thing.  Cocktails look great!


If they’re made properly, then yes they do.  But does that really matter?

Looks Aren’t Everything

Let’s not kid ourselves.  What’s on the surface does matter.  A lot.  Whether we’re talking about cocktails or about people, what we see heavily informs our first impression of them.  But in truth what lies beneath the surface is far more important.

A selection of Sours

See anything you like?

It really doesn’t matter how good a cocktail looks if it can’t deliver a similarly awesome taste experience.  In the same way that the most attractive people seem like the most desirable lovers.  They might be.  But if all they can do in bed is lie there disinterested like a dead fish, then their looks count for nothing.

So if looks aren’t everything, then what is it about a cocktail that matters most?  What is it that makes an amazing cocktail far greater than the sum of its parts?  What is the secret?

The answer is this:

Every great cocktail has an essential nature.  This is true both of classics which have been around for a century, and something you’re creating bespoke on the spot.  If you adhere to this essential nature in every aspect of your work, the result will be good.  If you ignore or run contrary to this essential nature, the result will be bad.

To me there are two ways to describe and understand or to visualize this concept: philosophy, and taste profiles.  Which you find more useful varies from case to case.

Cocktail Philosophy

Sometimes when crafting a cocktail it helps to think in terms of a cocktail’s individual philosophy.  What it is trying to achieve.

Dry Martini

Dry Martini

An excellent example of this is the Dry Martini.

A Dry Martini takes a high quality gin and seeks to subtly enhance the delicate flavours imparted by its signature set of botanicals.  It cuts down the alcoholic burn to present these magnificent flavours to our taste buds in the best possible manner.

That is its essential nature.

With this philosophy in mind, the details fall into place.  Stirring rather than shaking makes sense to minimize the oxidation of the delicate chemicals which impart these flavours.  Chilling to minimal temperature cuts alcoholic burn and improve the gin’s taste.  Serving it straight up ensures that no further dilution of the drink will occur.  I could go on.

All of this I’ll cover in my post on the Dry Martini, and I have a full section devoted to variants on this classic.  Turning philosophical constructs like this into practical measures is part of the purpose of this blog.

Cocktail Taste Profiles

The other way of thinking about or visualizing the essential nature of a cocktail is to consider its taste profile.  This is the way I teach new bartenders.  To consider where a given cocktail should reside on the Axes of Taste.

Elderberry Collins

Elderberry Collins

Let’s say I want to create a cocktail that is tall, light and refreshing.  Just those simple words tell me exactly where this cocktail will fall on the axes of taste.  Once that is clear, I have a structural framework for how to create this cocktail.  I know what proportion of juice I’ll use compared to spirit.  How much syrup or liqueur I will use.  What glass to put it in.

But within this framework, I can play with the details.  Want to make something vodka based with the flavours of vanilla and raspberry?  No problem.  Or maybe a more tropical rum drink, using passion fruit, lychee and pineapple?  Easy.

Over the course of this blog I’ll go over all these details.  But this early lesson is clear cut and simple:

First, understand the essential nature of the cocktail you’re going to make.  Once you understand it, then everything else is merely details.  Easily manipulated details.