By JOSH WEISBERG
When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities was playing with my chemistry set. Inside the latch of the blue enameled metal case sat a few dozen vials of powders and liquids. When combined according to precise instructions, each experiment would highlight a different chemical reaction or process. Of course, it was also delightful to "go rogue” and mix up my own experiments, hoping the result might be noticeably annoying to a parent, sibling or pet.
The sets sold for kids nowadays are tame in comparison, but as adults we have access to a much more rewarding chemistry set: the liquor cabinet. Mixing great cocktails at home has become a much more important factor in recent days as we engage in virtual cocktail and happy hours. And sure, while it's certainly acceptable to just crack open a crispy boy, why not use that expansive leisure time to mix up something uniquely yours?
Mixology is about creating a beverage that says something good to you and the drinkers you’re supplying. A combination of aroma and flavor create a profile that engages the taste buds and the intellect (for as long as you have a functioning intellect) and is more than just an alcohol delivery system. Yes, you can always follow a recipe or tip a finger or two of booze over ice, but I’m describing true experimentation. To encourage you, I’ve outlined some tips get you started.
TIP #1 – Don’t Be Afraid To Admit Failure.
This first tip gives you permission to fail and start again. I probably bat no more than 75% mixing my own cocktail recipes and I’m not too proud to dump the contents of my cocktail shaker down the drain if the result doesn’t match the aspiration. Of course, this means you don’t want to use that 18-year old whiskey as an ingredient unless you’re extremely confident.
TIP #2 – Taste And Taste Again.
Cocktail experimentation is a building process. You start with a foundation and add essences until you’ve hit the right combination, but the key is tasting from beginning to end. Think about each sample you taste, checking the balance of sweet vs tart vs aromatic, and compare that to the desired alcohol kick.
TIP #3 – Don’t Worry About The Look.
It would be great if your mixology experiment always looked as good as it tasted but, frankly, who cares? Instagram, I suppose. While I don’t want to serve something that looks like it came out of a sewer, I’m not drinking the appearance.
TIP #4 – Use Building Blocks.
As mentioned in Tip #2, cocktail experimentation is a layering process, starting with the base layer, which is the primary spirit; say, gin or whiskey. Whatever you add after that must work in harmony with the base, not fight against it. For example, if the base is a loaded flavor profile, like bourbon, you want to avoid layering assertive flavors on top of it, such as citrus, unless you are very careful. On the other hand, base your cocktail on vodka and you can do whatever you want!
The layers added to the base spirit provide contrast and depth to the cocktail and I generally add them in small increments, tasting all the way. I look for hints of sweet, sour and bitterness or maybe something vegetal. These essences will come from other spirits, liqueurs, fresh juices, twists or sugars as well as actual fruits and vegetables.
Here’s an example of the process:
The other night, before logging into a Zoom session with friends, I was thinking that I hadn’t made a tequila cocktail in quite a while. It could be a variation on a margarita but with more depth than just cactus and lime juice with some sugar and salt.
I started with a medium pour of decent Tequila Blanco and added a small amount of fresh lime juice, followed by a small amount of some 80-proof artisanal Triple Sec I had picked up somewhere. That all packed a wallop of alcohol and tartness that needed to get toned down with some sweetness and a little smoke.
I hit it with a good shot of simple syrup flavored with grapefruit rind as well as a bit of maraschino liqueur and that balanced out the tartness while complementing the citrus. Then, for that smokiness, I added a small amount of mezcal and let the concoction sit in the shaker of ice for a few minutes to coalesce before giving it a gentle shake and pouring into a martini glass.
As a finishing touch and a nod to the traditional salt-rim margarita, I added a pinch of salt smoked over a peat fire in Scotland. I named this successful experiment in adult chemistry after my wife who enjoyed it as much as I did.
Med. Pour – Tequila Blanco
Sm. Pour – Triple Sec
Sm. Pour – Fresh Lime Juice
Sm. Pour – Simple Syrup infused with grapefruit rind
V. Sm Pour – Maraschino Liqueur
V. Sm Pour – Mezcal
Combine in a shaker over ice. Let sit for a few minutes and then shake and pour into martini glasses. Drop in a scant pinch of smoked salt and garnish with a lime twist.
Josh Weisberg co-founded WorldStages and Scharff Weisberg, Inc. He is now at Navolo Audio-Video. Josh is technical advisor to The Brief Chronicles.