Inventing Cocktails: Tips & ‘Tails

Tips for Creating your own Cocktail

Whether you want to celebrate something or you just want the cache of creating your own cool signature cocktail, it’s fun to come up with your very own recipe. In my early days of hosting cocktail parties, there was always someone who wanted to jump in the kitchen with a few bottles from the bar and show me how they could ‘invent’ a cocktail on the spot. After politely sipping off a few sketchy creations based on the giddy inventor’s gut feeling or favorite colors, I realized the elements of a solid cocktail recipe aren’t always evident. Fortunately over the years, my friends have become more cocktail savvy so I’m no longer drinking weird concoctions out of politeness. But, I have gleaned a few personal guidelines for inventing cocktails. 

Understand your inspiration

Is it a cocktail for a special occasion? For a fabulous friend? To highlight your favorite ingredient? If you know why you want to create a cocktail, it’s easier to place it within a larger context so you can build your ingredients, preparation and presentation around that. It might be as simple as you want to better understand what makes a great cocktail. In which case, you’ll probably want to start building with cocktail basics in mind, which leads to Tip No. 2….

Margarita is a classic example of a cocktail that capitalizes on the trio of sweet, sour & strong

Keep it balanced

The majority of successful cocktails achieve a balance between sweet, sour and strong. The “sweet” comes from simple syrups, liqueurs or other components that bring a little sugar to the mix. The “sour” is often lemon or lime but can be other citrus fruits, vinegar, etc. The “strong” is your base spirits, which can be any alcohol you fancy. Once you have a good grasp on this trio, you’ll recognize it in lots of cocktails: margaritas, classic sours, cosmopolitans, gimlets, and so on. Also, once you have a good grasp on this, you’ll no longer be mixing drinks based on guesses, feelings or color palettes, but with a solid template. A good starting point for your mixing is 2 parts strong, 1 part sweet and 1 part sour. Taste preferences for sweet versus sour vary and the level of sweet or sour will vary depending on your choice of ingredients, so you can play around with the sweet and sour components until you find the proportions that work for you (or for each particular cocktail.)

Last Word is a pre-prohibition classic, resurrected over the last few decades

Tweak a classic

A really easy way to create a new cocktail is use an already established classic as a starting point and just swap out one or two of the ingredients. Many modern cocktail classics have been invented this way. For example, the Final Ward.  Created by Philip Ward in 2007, this drink simply swaps out the gin for whisky and the lime for lemon in the pre-prohibition era classic Last Word. Both cocktails are widely known in craft cocktail circles and can be found on menus around the world. If you’re not sure how to swap out ingredients, sometimes just topping a standard cocktail with something sparkling is enough to create something new. So find a classic you like and switch out one or two ingredients or just add some bubbles (champagne, sparkling wine, carbonated water) until you discover something new and tasty. 

What’s in season? Put it in your cocktail!

Think seasonally

Think both in terms of what kind of ingredients like fresh fruit and veg and in season and also what spirits or cocktail styles lend themselves to different times of the year. In general, I like big, bubbly, light and refreshing in the summer and something more brown bitter and stirred in the winter. (This is just a general guideline and not a hard fast rule) Once you have found a recipe template you like, you can swap out elements like fruit garnishes and syrups or spirits seasonally for an ever changing fresh take on your cocktail. 

Even with my martinis I refine and retaste for my seasonal menus

Taste and refine

I’m rarely lucky enough to get anything just right the first time (hell, I’m rarely lucky enough to get something right the fifth time!). If you’re like me, you’ll need to taste test your new creation, maybe even with some friends – in fact, it’s even better done with friends. Make subtle refinements until you are happy with your new signature cocktail. So don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t taste perfect immediately. Cocktails are like anything – it takes practice and work to get it just right. 

52 Martinis cocktail creations

There are so many fantastic classic cocktails and a lot of great bars turning out tasty creations, so I don’t often feel the need to invent drinks. But, when I do, I definitely keep all of the above in mind. Here are a few of my own creations and the thought processes behind them.

Tasting testing with friends is a very important part of creating cocktails!

The Fifth Season

When Emily Dilling of Paris Paysanne wanted to do some experimenting with extending summer flavors into fall using fruit syrups and shrubs and then putting those into cocktails, I was definitely game. I made a blueberry lemon shrub to preserve these beautiful summer berries in a way that would work in cocktails months after their season had passed.  After a few different trials (which you can read about on her blog) and taste tests with Emily and our fellow tester Melanie Vaz, I came up with a blueberry/rum cocktail topped with some zingy ginger beer, which feels very autumnal to me. The blueberries bring summer through but the ginger makes a bridge to fall. This recipe is also in Emily’s book My Paris Market Cookbook

The Fifth Season

2 oz (60ml) Dark Rum
½ oz (15 ml)  Blueberry and Lemon Zest Shrub* 
Dash Ginger Beer
Lemon Zest (for garnish)

Shake rum and shrub over ice. Serve straight up, topped with ginger beer and garnished with lemon zest.

*google shrubs for various recipes and realize that shrubs are a homemade ingredient and will vary in terms of sweet/sour elements so you will likely need to adjust the proportions based on your shrub

Cara has these little coasters made for the Champagne Stiletto cocktail

Champagne Stiletto

Cara Black, author of the Aimée Leduc books, asked me to create a cocktail for the 20th anniversary of her Paris-based 90’s era detective series. Leduc solves murder mysteries in each of the Paris arrondissements – she also drinks champagne and wears leather stiletto boots. I wanted to reference her French/American roots, so I chose French champagne and American whisky. This combination felt sophisticated, soft and strong – basically delicate with a kick, which embodied how I perceived Leduc’s personality. The rye is also a nod to all the legendary and literary detectives with a bottle of whiskey in their desks. Finally, as it’s a drink for a global audience of fans and readers, I wanted it to be something that was easy to make at home or order in a bar. After taste testing with a group of friends I hit on one that someone described as a “strong and sexy female boss” and that became the Champagne Stiletto.

Champagne Stiletto

30 ml/1 oz overproof rye*
10 ml/2 tsp simple syrup

Pour rye and simple syrup into a champagne flute. Take a bit of lemon peel and express the peel over the glass so the oils spray onto the drink and the glass.  Pour in champagne to the top of the flute. Tip: it’s best if the alcohol & champagne are very cold.  

*I use Rittenhouse 100 Rye 
**I won’t judge if you use sparkling wine instead of champagne for this

Small touches like serving in (clean!) perfume bottles add value without adding work

Fall Fashioned

Regular readers might know, I usually do a seasonal cocktail menu for my home bar.

I love an old fashioned so always like to add one to the menu. Also, we recently bought a country house in Le Perche, just on the Normandy border, so we’re drinking a lot more calvados. Put those things together, and it led me to create the Fall Fashioned. The recipe is in parts (instead of ounces/millilitres) because I usually batch it in a large bottle making it easy to serve when guests arrive, meaning less time messing with measuring and mixing. I also serve it over smoked ice to add a special touch for guests, which is  something I can also prepare ahead of time and leave in the freezer until I’m ready to go (put it in a ziplock bag or two to keep the smoke smell from invading other things in the freezer) 

Fall Fashioned

6 parts calvados
1 part brown sugar syrup (equal parts brown sugar and water)
several dashes whiskey aged bitters**

Mix together over large block smoked ice cube* in rocks glass and express lemon peel over

*for the ice cube, I usually use my smoker, but if you want the quick and easy way, just add liquid smoke to the tray when making the ice.

**I add 3 to 4 dashes of bitters per drink. If you have a rough idea of how many drinks are in your batch you can multiply that by 3. Otherwise, you can just add three or four dashes when you pour the drink from the batch. 

Sometimes for extra theatrics I’ll serve the Fall Fashioneds in a seperate little perfume flacon next to the chilled glass with the ice cube ( I bought these new for the purpose – be careful about reusing bottles that had perfume in them already). Guests can then pour it themselves over the ice block. This isn’t just kind of cute and interactive but practical. I bought perfume bottles that hold nearly exactly 2 ounces (60 ml) of liquid, so I know I’m giving the same measure for each cocktail and not getting accidently overly heavy handed with the pours. 

Photo credit: Kate Hill

52 Martinis inspired creations

Sometimes we don’t invent cocktails, but we inspire them. I was recently chatting with Kate Hill on instagram. If you don’t know her, check her out. Her site describes her “professional cook and teacher, mentor, coach, and fairy godmother” and that sounds about right to me. She runs camp cassoulet and many other cooking classes from her beautiful home in Gascony. I think she’s awesome plus she’s my cassoulet guru, so of course I follow her beautiful instagram feed. When she posted about pickling coriander seeds, I mused over a text with her about whether or not they might work in a Bloody Mary. A few minutes later, she had invented the Garden Mary and shared the recipe and photo with me. It’s a delicious garden fresh drink that celebrates a bounty of summer veggies and feels like drinking sunshine and vitamins.

Garden Mary

1 very ripe tomato, grated into a juicy pulp. Add some extra tomato juice to thin if needed
Thai basil
1 stalk of lovage
Fresh green pepper
Small green onion, roots and all
Pickled green coriander seeds

Put all ingredients into a short glass, mix and add a dash of your favorite spirit and lots of ice. Garnish with a fresh cornichon.

You may not all have the bursting beautiful garden ingredients that Kate has, but as you now know from above, you can now use her recipe as a starting point for your own Mary with the veggies you do have.

Feeling creative now? Get to work! And don’t hesitate to share your creations on our facebook page.  

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