When you’re young, you figure out the world by executing actions and then observing the ensuing consequences. Close your eyes, and everything gets dark. Drop a rubber ball, and it bounces. Pull the cat’s tail, and…well, let’s not do that again. That didn’t turn out so well the first time.
The same goes for cocktails. I’ve never met a cocktail enthusiast or mixologist who isn’t constantly either tweaking old cocktail recipes or trying out new ones. That’s because the process is so rewarding! When combining new flavors, there’s always the slightest bit of mystery that keeps us entranced, keeps us coming back to make newer and better cocktails.
It’s also exciting because we get to become children again in the presence of flavor. By this I mean that we’re able to take the lessons we’ve learned from “perfecting” one cocktail and show how smart we are by applying those lessons to other cocktails we’d like to make. This is like the child saying to herself, “Well, my cat didn’t react well to his tail being pulled, so maybe it’s safe to assume that most cats don’t react well to that sort of treatment.” Good thinkin, kid.
Universal Cocktail Principles
Once you unlock certain cocktail principles, there’s almost no limit to where it can take you. Take this one, for example:
Sweetness softens acidity, and acidity brightens sweetness.
From this rule, we derive the Sidecar, the Aviation, the Margarita, and all the other drinks that are held in place by the tension between sugar and citrus juice.
Here’s another principle:
Orange zest darkens and deepens, while lemon zest lightens and lifts.
That’s why, when I make a Negroni with a dark vermouth (like Punt e Mes), I garnish with a lemon twist, and when I make one with a slightly brighter vermouth (like Carpano Antica), I garnish with an orange twist. The garnish harmonizes the flavors in the drink, and the union is more perfect by means of a tiny bit of discretion.
The Joy of Variations on a Theme
Musicians will play a chromatic scale in every key. Basketball players will sink a shot from every spot on the court. Painters will experiment with every shade of a color. It’s these repetitive, technical variations that result down the road in the magic we call “art.”
In his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Wallace Stevens invites us to enter the mystery of repeated variations on a stable theme. He takes his subject, the blackbird, and lets it pervade many different situations, many different lines of thought. Here are a few of my favorite stanzas:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
In these stanzas, the blackbird teaches us to think differently about the world, just as a new ingredient might teach us to think differently about a classic cocktail.
A Starting Place for Your Experiments
Instead of a recipe, I’ll leave you this week with a few popular cocktails and their less-well-known variations. It’ not an exhaustive list by any estimate, but it’s a great starting place for your experiments.
Stay Thirsty, Stay Bitter.