How to balance a cocktail?
ALWAYS TASTE YOUR DRINKS BEFORE YOU SERVE THEM!
Don’t take a sip out of everyone’s glass just before you hand it to them! Use a clean spoon or a straw as a pipette. Taste from the mixing jug or shaker if you are using them, and if you are making the drink straight into the glass, do it BEFORE you add all the ice or any garnishes. No point making the drink look perfect until you know that you don’t need to tweak the ingredients before you serve it.
A chef won’t make a sauce, then sling it onto a plate and send it out to a paying guest without first tasting it. You must apply the same rationale to your drinks making.
Every piece of fruit is different, ingredients get forgotten, ice melts at different rates, and sometimes you want to try a variation on a classic. If you don’t taste your drinks, any one of these variables can ruin your drink and you won’t know if what you‘re serving tastes any good until it’s too late.
However, if you taste your drinks, adjust when needed and trust your nose and palate, then you should never serve another poor drink again. Hooray!
So, what’s this all-powerful ‘BALANCE’ that we keep harping on about, and how are you expected to know when you have reached it? Well, we’re going to help you understand when you’ve nailed it, and as importantly, when it’s all gone wrong!
Simply put, balance is when you taste a drink and…
No ONE flavour overpowers or dominates any other. Instead it allows you to taste every element of the cocktail in perfect harmony – THIS is the definition of a drink in balance.
Simple eh? Yes, yes it is…and yet, sadly, not every drink is served balanced, and there’s really no excuse for it!
Get Nerdy With It
Let’s divide different ingredients into broader categories to make it easier to get your head around the concept.
We’ll start with the formula for the classic family of drinks called ‘SOURS’. If you’ve never heard of this cocktail family before, you will no doubt have heard of some of its members like the Margarita, Daiquiri or Whisky Sour.
They break down like this:
As you can see, the elements of the cocktail are broken down into flavour profiles that create:
Two sets of opposing pairs. Each pair must balance themselves and then come together to balance the drink as a whole.
Strong & Weak
STRONG – Whatever base spirit you are using, this is the STRONG element of your recipe. Alcohol is an excellent carrier of flavour and aroma, and is why distilled alcohol is regularly used as a base in perfume. BUT, you have to unlock these flavours and aromas to fully experience them.
WEAK – Simply put, this is DILUTION which is the least understood of all ingredients, and probably the biggest reason that drinks are served out of balance. Dilution is vital to any well made cocktail and it can come from many different sources such as the water added when shaking or stirring ingredients with ice, the lengthening ingredient like sparkling water or tonic water in a highball, fresh juice, or even just good old ‘water’ water when you are batching cocktails for a party.
As alcohol is a carrier of flavour and aroma, water is the key to unlock them. It softens the alcoholic heat and burn that can numb the palate and limit enjoyment.
Finally, water makes sense of it all. Without water, the tart and sweet elements just don’t work. Even with the perfect amount of sugar and citrus, without the addition of water, the flavours are too intense. They are both too sweet and too sour at the same time making your face shrivel up like you just licked a vinegar soaked battery that’s been dipped in sugar. It’s not a good taste and it’s not a good look!
Tart & Sweet
TART – Acidity that usually comes from citrus fruit but could also be from an acid or even a shrub (made from vinegar). To be clear tart isn’t bitter. Some may confuse these two flavour profiles but they are completely different. Bitter doesn’t have an opposite flavour it can be balanced with, while TART is balanced by sweetness, or occasionally it can be balanced by a lot of dilution to quell its acidic bite. The sharpness from the TART element is vital to bring structure to a recipe. A backbone, if you like, off which other flavours can be built upon.
SWEET – Sugars, syrups, liqueurs…whatever sweetness will balance the acidity of the TART element. A quick ‘rule of thumb’ ratio here is:
2 TART : 1 SWEET
The acidity of your TART ingredient and the sweetness of your syrup, liqueur, cordial etc…
It’s based on the classic combination of lemon / lime juice and sugar. To get 1 part of sugar from a liqueur, you will (usually) need to double the volume.
Therefore in a Daiquiri the ratio is 2 parts lime / 1 part sugar. While the Margarita uses equal parts of lime and orange liqueur (depending on the liqueur).
BALANCE – In action
Let’s look at some classic recipes and see how they break down into this structure:
All professionals have various ‘magic ratios’ in the back of their minds, that help when it comes to writing new recipes, reading a recipe for the first time, or when ad-libbing a drink on the spot.
You may have spotted the most useful magic ratio above, the ratio of a sour –