Cocktail Componentry – How a drink is built

In cooking, we all know that different ingredients play different roles. You’ve got your proteins, starches, vegetables, spices, flavor enhancers like salt, and so forth. In the cocktail world there are similar categorizations. Let’s look at some very broad categorizations of common cocktail ingredients.

Base Spirits

These form the backbone of your drink and usually contribute the majority of the alcoholic content, as they’re usually at least 80 proof (40% alcohol.) Typically these are one (or occasionally two) of the following:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Whiskey, e.g. bourbon, rye, scotch, etc…
  • Rum
  • Tequila or mezcal
  • Brandy

The impact that the base spirit has on the overall taste varies widely, especially across different types of spirits. Vodka and gin usually take a background to other flavors whereas more assertive base spirits like tequila typically contribute a big(ger) part of the drink’s flavor.


Many cocktails have both a sweet and sour component to balance each other. The sweet can come from any number of sources, but examples you’ll frequently see are:

  • Orange liquors – Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Triple Sec.
  • Simple syrup – Basically sugar dissolved in water.
  • “Natural” syrups such as honey, maple or agave.
  • Fruit juices – Pineapple and orange are the big ones.


These are frequently citrus based. Lemon and lime juice are the dominant players here.


This is a very broad category. Often this component is the primary taste of the drink. Examples include:

  • The whole non-potable bitters category. Very strongly flavored, and usually applied by the drop. Angostura bitters, orange bitters, chocolate bitters, etc.
  • Potable bitters – Also known as apertifs, digestifs, and amaros.  Well known examples are Campari, Aperol, Absinthe, Fernet Branca, Averna.

Multi-role players

Some ingredients play multiple roles, including that of a sweetener. Typical examples are:

  • Sweet vermouth  – Examples are Carpano Antica Formula, and Punt E Mes,  which are sweet but also bring play a Bitters/herbs role.
  • Flavored syrups – Provide both sweet and some accent flavor. Good examples are grenadine (pomegranate), vanilla syrup, and falernum(lime, tropical spices).
  • Sweet liquors – Usually fruit or spice infusions with sugar added. Examples are limoncello (lemon), St. Germaine Elderflower, Domaine De Canton(ginger) and Cassis(blackcurrant).
  • Flavored sodas – A good example here is Ginger beer which is both sweet and sour. A more heinous usage is Coke or Pepsi.

Texture enhancers

These change the texture of a drink without dramatically changing the basic flavor.

  • Egg whites – When extensively agitated during mixing, egg whites thicken up the drink, adding volume and a smoother mouth feel. The Cup of Awesome is a good example.
  • Gum /Gomme syrups – Although they add a sweet component, their primary use is as a thickener.
  • Sparkling water/champagne – Give the drink a bubbly mouth feel, while also serving to add volume without bumping up the overall proof (or not by much.)

In a prior post, I talked about various cocktail patterns. Let’s look at some examples from each pattern and break down their ingredients by component type:

Margarita (sour pattern)

Tequila is the base spirit, lime is the sour, and the orange liquor (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or Triple sec) is the sweetener. Some margarita variations omit the orange liquor in exchange for agave or simple syrup. Alternatively, they may swap in a flavored syrup like peach syrup to make a “peach margarita.” (As a guilty pleasure, yes. As mixology, no.)

Manhattan (Manhattan pattern)

The Bourbon or Rye is the base spirit, while sweetness and herbaceousness come from the sweet vermouth. Angostura bitters also provide a slight bitter component.

Negroni (Negroni pattern)

The gin is the base spirit, the vermouth provides primarily sweetness while the Campari provides the primary bitter/herbs with secondary sweetening.

Mai Tai (Tiki pattern)

Rum is the base spirit. The sour comes from the lime, and the orgeat and Cointreau are the sweeteners.

Martini (Martini pattern) – Gin or vodka is the base spirit. Dry vermouth provides bitter/herbal essences.

And just for fun, one last example that inverts the traditional roles. One of my favorite drinks in the Trinidad sour (goes off to make one…), which is a very, very red drink, and not for the timid.

Trinidad Sour

  • 1 oz Angostura Aromatic bitters
  • 1 oz orgeat syrup
  • ¾ oz lemon juice
  • ½ oz rye

Normally Angostura bitters are used a few dashes at a time. Even at those amounts they can add a significant amount of color to a drink. What many people don’t know is that Angostura bitters have alcohol. A lot in fact! They’re 90 proof or 45% alcohol. In the Trinidad Sour the Angostura bitters serve as the base spirit. The orgeat, which is almond-flavored syrup frequently used in Tiki drinks and a personal favorite of mine, is the sweetener. The lemon juice provides the sour, and the rye, primarily adds as an accent flavor, although you could rightfully consider it a secondary base spirit.

All of the above are general categorizations to help you think about what’s making up the drink you’re eying on a cocktail menu, and aren’t hard/fast rules. They’ll come in handy in a future post where I talk about how to read a cocktail menu. Till then, cheers!

p.s. For a slightly different spin on cocktail componentry, check out Camper English’s post here.

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