Never-made-before cocktails can be born from all sorts of ideas, memories, events, or senses. For some, the idea of a new cocktail is inspired and guided by color. Christoph Dornemann, bartender manager at Arnaud's and the French 75 Bar, explained, "If I want to make a green or yellow or purple cocktail with natural ingredients, I have a set of limitations that guide me to what will go into the drink. Sometimes, it's a seasonal focus that makes me think of what flavors are right for the time of year and what cocktail customers are expecting to order."
Bartender Joey Laura of Compère Lapin, which reopens November 11th, echoed the sentiment. "I find the idea sticks best when the ingredients tell a story—there's a reason that they're paired together," he said. "I like to think of cocktail builds as 'color maps.' Building a drink with all brown ingredients (bourbon, chocolate, vanilla, dark sugar) might be tasty, but it'll be very straightforward. Once I start to think about the complexities of what our palates can handle, I like to bring flavor profiles from all over a color map: Green could be the grassy and vegetal flavor of mezcal, brown could be dry and savory chocolate bitters, yellow could be lemon or a blanc vermouth for brightness, orange could be a large peel of tangerine. The options really are limitless, so we owe it to our curious selves to expand the possibilities of flavor combinations."
Every sense can come into play while crafting cocktails, which is why every element of the drink needs to be considered. "Imagine a mind-blowing cocktail that smells good and tastes great, but it has a muddy color, or the dairy in it started to separate into curds," Laura added. "Your cocktail doesn't have to be a standalone work of visual art, but it needs to look appealing if you want to pique someone's curiosity enough to ask, 'Ooh, what's in that?'"
Another important aspect of the drink is how the flavor changes as time goes on, such as the ice melting as you sip. "One thing that is important is tasting a cocktail from the first sip to the last. A cocktail can change significantly by the end of it," said Dornemann.
The basic building blocks of cocktails begin with the type of taste you want to achieve. Dornemann explained, "Will it be boozy (spirit-forward)? Citrus? Light and refreshing? Spiced and rich? Then, for me, I think of what classic style of cocktail will inform the build of the drink. For example, will it be like an Old Fashioned, manhattan, martini, colada, sour, tiki-style, or cobbler? Once that is figured out, the builds follow familiar formulas but will be tweaked and modified; based on the ingredients."
"Classic cocktails will inform ratios, styles, and balance, so I always recommend starting with the basics. My first cocktails were not balanced, needed editing, but were definitely creative," he continued. "Eventually, after years of learning more classics and their formulas, I could turn these experiments into something viable. Pure creativity doesn't mean a cocktail will be good on a menu or even sell well. A simple but creative riff on a classic is much more likely to succeed and impress."
Laura also endorses getting to know the classics in order to strengthen your cocktail-creation game. "Even if you've mastered the classic cocktails, it's still useful to go back and revisit them, see them with new eyes, and continually challenge yourself," he said. "If Orson Welles could watch John Ford's Stagecoach every night before going to bed; while making Citizen Kane, we can all afford to revisit a Sazerac, martini, or cosmopolitan and reflect on what it does so well."
Once you have an idea of what to make, you need the right tools for the job. "A cocktail shaker, strainer, bar spoon, and jigger are the essentials. A vegetable peeler for making twists is the next step, and a fine mesh double-strainer is the next step to move to more advanced cocktails," Dornemann said.
Getting the right ratio of ingredients for this brand-new beverage can be a journey. Laura talked about one such drink he made, saying, "When I was first asked to make a mezcal cocktail, I wanted to find a way to tip that 'seesaw' of flavor: How do you keep balancing the strong flavors in each new ingredient? So I used a Negroni as my inspiration: spirit, bitter liqueur, and fortified wine. So, to balance the smokiness and grassiness of mezcal, I split it with rye whiskey, which gives it a little more body. Instead of Campari, I opted to use two different amari (dark and bitter herbal liqueurs), Averna, which is a bit sweet, and Montenegro, which is floral but bracing. For the sweet vermouth, I opted for a quinquina, a quinine-bittered sweet vermouth from Spain. Down the road, we infused the mezcal with coffee beans. So what is normally a bright-red bitter bomb is now transformed into a contemplative, smoky, and bitter yet mellow sipper."
"Once you have the ingredients for a drink, you'll have to add water (a.k.a. dilution) somehow to the cocktail," he added. "You can do this by shaking (any drinks with juices, dairy, or eggs) or stirring, so I would recommend a two-piece shaker set (not the three-piece set with the cap that allows you to strain through the shaker lid). The two-piece set seals differently, but it's very easy to use with a few practice rounds. While you can stir in the larger shaker tin, I would suggest a mixing glass with a bar spoon. Properly stirring with a bar spoon takes practice. There's absolutely no shame in buying a 'tear dropper' stirrer that ends with a rounded tip. A quality strainer with tight coils and a jigger with incremental quarter-ounce markings are very helpful to have on hand. A small tea strainer will keep your shaken cocktails clean-looking and free of ice chips. If you like the ice chips (for example, in a shaken vodka martini), then you can do without the tea strainer."
"Always build your drinks with the cheapest ingredients first: syrups, fresh citrus or bottled-juice lime cranberry, alcoholic modifiers (fortified wines like vermouth, liqueurs), then spirits," Laura continued. "That way, if you screw up the recipe along the way (no stress, we've all done it), you're not throwing out your most expensive ingredients. And then put in your ice last, so you can maximize the ice's dilution and chill. If you put the ice in first, it's melting with every ingredient you add to it (especially the alcohol). As long as you use quality and fresh ingredients, you can make cocktails just as good, if not better, than your favorite bar. It's not rocket science, but it is alchemy."
The spirits are not the only feature of the drink to be considered. "I believe garnishes are an essential part of serving craft cocktails. I see it as plating for a dish at a restaurant," said Dronemann. "Now, I don't love every garnish. Plastic flags or gimmicky add-ons can be annoying. There has to be a reason and effect. Does it represent the flavors of the drink? Does it enhance the appearance or aroma of the drink? Is it edible and adds another flavor experience for the customer? Those questions decide what the garnish should be."
Laura said, "Imagine a Mint Julep without a sprig of fresh mint; the drink would be lacking without it. Garnishes can also provide a balance of flavor. You don't have to have it, but it's certainly less fun without all the decadence. I mean, what's a Shark Attack without the toy shark?"
When you begin to fantasize about what new cocktail to bring into the world, introspect before you start any other step. "Go with flavors that excite you. Childhood memories, cuisines that you love, and traveling can provide inspiration that you need to create vibrant and delicious cocktails," Dornemann recommends.