The Balance of Sour

A significant majority of cocktails rely on the correct Balance of Sour for their success.  That is, having the right balance between Sweet and Sour so that the other flavours in the cocktail reach their full potential.

What this balance is may vary greatly between individual cocktails.

The purpose of this post is to teach you how to intuitively reach any balance you choose.  Any point along the Sweet vs Sour axis.  And to understand how to fix your cocktail when you didn’t *quite* hit the target first time around.

I created the grid axes of my taste profile model to visually illustrate this concept.  Sweet vs Sour is one of the primary axes as it visually displays the relative sweetness or sourness of any given cocktail.  Its Balance of Sour.  And it can be paired up with other axes to give a more complete understanding of a cocktail’s taste profile.  Long vs Strong is a typical companion axis.

Blank Taste Profile

Blank Flavour Map

Mastering the Sweet vs Sour axis is your entry point into mixology.  It will allow you to intuit a good framework whenever you try to experiment with variants or create a new cocktail outright.  It will also let you make quick fixes to save cocktails that didn’t come out quite right.

An invaluable skill in any setting.

Now I can explain this in words all night long.  But words alone are never going to be an effective teaching tool.  In order to understand the tastes involved, novice bartenders have to taste them for themselves.

Cocktail Experiments

So I created a series of hands-on teaching experiments designed to do just that.  Two of them are explained below.  By going through them and experimenting you’ll start to learn for yourself how to achieve the appropriate Balance of Sour.

As with any experiment we need to apply the Scientific Method in order to achieve proper results.  In this case we want to minimize the number of variables to only the ones we choose.  That way the changes in taste we experience will be a result of the changes we made.

We’ll be altering the quantities of sugar syrup and/or lemon/lime juice to explore the Balance of Sour.  Everything else in every drink needs to be standardized.  Same quantity of ice in each drink; the same quantity of spirit, or mixer.  Same method of mixing.  Identical glassware.

Going into these experiments I’m assuming that you’ve read the following posts: The Axes of Taste; Sugar Syrup; and the Essence of Sour.  If you haven’t read them, do so before attempting the cocktail experiments described below.

Also, the Lemonade Experiment ties into an exploration of the Collins family of cocktails.  And the Fruit Daiquiri experiment unsurprisingly ties into making Fruit Daiquiris.

The Lemonade Experiment

Alright, we’re going to make some lemonade.

Sugar Syrup

Sugar Syrup

In order to perform this experiment you’re going to need:

  • A number of identical glasses.  Any size you choose.
  • Plenty of ice.
  • Sugar syrup.
  • Lemons, to be squeezed for their juice.
  • Soda water.  That’s club soda to my American readers.

Arrange five glasses in front of you: far left; left; centre; right; and far right.

To the far left  add the juice of half a lemon and four measured shots of sugar syrup.  These don’t have to be exactly 25ml, just make sure that whatever measure you use, you use the same for all five glasses.

Then to the left add the juice of half a lemon and two measured shots of sugar syrup.

To the centre add the juice of half a lemon and one measured shot of sugar syrup.

And to the right add the juice of a whole lemon and one measured shot of sugar syrup.

Finally to the far right  add the juice of two whole lemons and one measured shot of sugar syrup.



Now to each one add say three cubes of ice and four measured shots of soda water.  As before the precise quantity is irrelevant so long as you use the exact same quantity for each glass.

Now give them each a quick stir and taste each in turn.

What you should find is that the far left is sickly sweet while the far right is uncomfortably sour.  Those on the left and right are less so, and the centre one is more or less balanced.

Now here’s the heart of the matter.  Using your sugar syrup and lemon juice, make all of the other glasses taste like the one in the centre.

I’m not going to tell you how.  It’s up to you to figure it out.

Take your time, play around.  Try adding small quantities of lemon juice or sugar syrup at a time, stirring them in and then tasting them.

What you’re doing is tasting your way up and down the Sweet vs Sour axis attempting to find the Balance of Sour.  Because in this case there are no other flavours to influence it, that Balance of Sour will be right in the middle of the axis.  That’s where it will taste right.

It is quite likely that your centre glass wasn’t perfectly balanced between sweet and sour in the first place.  This was deliberate.  The idea is to teach you both how to match a taste, but also to decide which taste is best.  As you approached your centre from one side or the other you likely passed through your ideal Balance of Sour.

Now, with a fresh glass try to recreate that ideal Balance of Sour.  Give it a few tries to make sure that you’ve got it right.  This is what some would call real lemonade or old fashioned lemonade – made from real lemons.

Now add a couple shots of gin to your lemonade.

Congratulations!  You have just made your first cocktail – a Tom Collins!

The Fruit Daiquiri Experiment

Now that you’ve got the hang of this, we’re going to introduce alcohol into the mix.

Half a lime

Half a lime

In order to perform this experiment you’re going to need:

  • A number of identical glasses.  Any size you choose.
  • Plenty of ice.
  • Sugar syrup.
  • Limes, to be squeezed for their juice.
  • Ideally some light rum, but for an experiment vodka will do.
  • Fruit of your choice.  But I’d recommend a punnet of something like raspberries or blueberries.  Puree would be ideal, but I’m not expecting you to have that at home.
  • Perhaps a friend or two to help you drink them.

So we’re going to do the same as for the lemonade experiment, but this time we’ll use only three glasses and vary only the quantity of lime juice.  If you want to repeat the experiment keeping the quantity of lime juice constant but altering the sugar syrup, you now know how.

Into each of three glasses add the same quantity of fruit, and muddle it.  Half a dozen raspberries or blueberries should be fine.  Then add one shot of sugar syrup and two shots of your spirit of choice to each glass.

Then to the left glass add the juice of half a lime; to the centre a whole lime; and to the right a lime and a half.

As before, add identical quantities of ice and mix before tasting.  You’ll need to mix these more thoroughly than the lemonade to get the fruit flavours into the mix.  You might want to consider shaking each in turn and double straining into a fresh glass if you have that option.

Then taste each in turn.  As before you’re likely to end up with one too sweet and one too sour and one just about right but probably not quite perfect.

Raspberry Daiquiri

Raspberry Daiquiri

Same drill as before.  Determine where the optimal Balance of Sour is for this set of flavours.   Then use the tools at your disposal to get them all to taste the same.

Make sure you can recreate this ideal balance from scratch, and take note of it for the future.

Then sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour…

Using the Balance of Sour

These experiments demonstrate the process by which we learn to control the Balance of Sour.  Given time and practice you’ll be able to hit that balance every time without measuring.  But for now, you at least know what you’re aiming for and how to correct your mistake if your initial aim was slightly off.

Most cocktails require you to get their Balance of Sour correct to turn out right.  However, be advised that there are many cocktails which do not use any sour element, and as such do not have a Balance of Sour.

The Dry Martini, Sweet Manhattan and the Negroni are all examples of this.  As I outlined at the beginning, though understanding the Balance of Sour is a key part of mixology, it is far from the whole story.