In cooking and baking there are all sorts of pattern for food categories. For instance, most bread recipes share the basic idea of flour, yeast, liquid, and eggs. Within that pattern there is an infinite variety of ways to modify, highlight and improvise: different types and amounts of flour, yeasts, sugars, salts all let you tailor what the bread will be. The same holds true for the category of sauces – Some sort of base, e.g. tomatoes, oil, and herbs/spices. There was a recent influential book, Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman that covers this idea in great detail.
As you’d expect given the title of this post, many well-made cocktails fall into similar patterns. Once you internalize this idea, it’s easy to look at a restaurant cocktail menu and get a sense of what the drink aspires to be, and hopefully if you’d enjoy it. The particular challenge with cocktails and patterns is the naming of drinks. Instead of calling them a “rum sour with lime” or a “scotch manhattan”, we refer to them by fancy names like “Daiquiri” and “Rob Roy”. The names are certainly fun but do little to enlighten the curious drinker who wants to know what they’re consuming.
If you’re inclined to make your own drinks at home, patterns can help you dream up new and interesting variations of a well-worn classic to try. Or maybe a recipe looks amazing but you’re missing the one specific bottle of liquor infused by bicycle-riding monks in Bulgaria utilizing a secret recipe of 47 herbs grown only in the alpine meadows. Knowing that this particular bottle serves as the “amaro” portion of the Negroni pattern, you can figure out an alternative spirit to use instead. Hooray! You’ve saved the day for your thirsty friends who are also likely to be dazzled by your skill.
That said, not all great drinks fall into an easily identifiable pattern, and that’s fine. The Blood and Sand is an amazing drink but it sure as heck doesn’t fall into any pattern I recognize. As an aspiring cocktail wonk it’s fine to start your enlightenment by first focusing on the classic patterns. You won’t find yourself lacking for cocktail options within them.
Of course, there are also many awful cocktails that despite being execrable have taken on a life of their own, persisting long after they should have died off. These are the junk food of the cocktail world – almost anti-patterns if you will. The first that comes to mind is the Long Island Iced Tea – Four base spirits that when blended together are the alcohol equivalent of mixing together all the colors in a paint-by-numbers kit; each pretty on its own, but mixed together results in gray blah. To that, add cola and lemon juice. Mmmm… right? Another is the Bahama Mama. I love sweet things, but rum and a whole bunch of sweet juices and syrups mixed together kitchen-sink style do not a balanced, thoughtful drink make.
Henceforth are the patterns that I find myself coming back to over and over. There are other patterns, and some folks may call them something else, but this is my blog so I get to choose the names. I’ll cover each of these patterns in much more detail in subsequent posts – For now I’m just highlighting the ideas from a 30,000 foot perspective.
The Sour Pattern – Three components: A single base spirit (rum, whiskey, gin, vodka, etc…), plus something sour, plus something sweet. The base spirit typically is 2 ounces, and the sour and sweet components typically are usually in equal amounts and together add up to 1 ounce. The sour component is typically citrus – Lemon and Lime are very popular here. The sweet part is often just sugar (or simple syrup, the liquid form of sugar). The other popular sweet component is orange liqueurs, as they’re often very sweet. Prime examples are Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and triple sec.
The perfect example of the sour pattern is the margarita. The base spirit is tequila, the sour comes from lime juice, and the sweet comes from an orange liquor. A proper daiquiri (not the frozen kind, heathens!) is light rum, lime, and sugar. A sidecar stars brandy as the base spirit with lemon juice and orange liqueur as the sweet/sour twins.
A subspecies of the sour pattern I’ve noticed is what I call the “accented sour”. Starting from your basic sour, some other interesting ingredient is added in as a guest vocalist. Unusual and fun tasting spirits like St. Germaine often take this guest role.
The Manhattan Pattern – Three ingredients: A darker base spirit, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The Manhattan is the best known example of this pattern, hence the name. The base spirit in a Manhattan is typically rye or bourbon, and the bitters are Angostura. Manhattan pattern cocktails should always be stirred, not shaken – Always a risk at a bar with unknown provenance.
If you use Scotch whisky as the base spirit, it’s known as a Rob Roy. Use rum instead of scotch and it could be called a Palmetto. One of my favorites spins on the Manhattan pattern is to use a smooth, high end aged rum (Zaya is particularly good) and with chocolate mole bitters instead of Angostura.
The nice thing about the Manhattan pattern is that besides switching around the base spirit, you can also experiment with different vermouths. There are bigger variations in sweet vermouth tastes than you might guess.
The Negroni pattern – Three ingredients (again!): Equal parts of a base spirit, a sweet vermouth, and a bitter spirit. Always stirred, never shaken. The classic Negroni recipe calls for gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Switch out the gin for bourbon and you’ve got yourself a boulevardier. Use aged rum instead of gin and you’ve got yourself a “Right Hand”. A trend I very much approve of is bars like Canon here in Seattle offering Negroni variation flights: Three variations (smaller sized) of the Negroni:
My favorite substitution for Campari is Gran Classico, another bitter spirit that I find a bit more complex and less “in your face”. On the downsize, you do lose the pretty red color. First world problems, I know.
The Tiki Pattern – Classic tiki drinks are almost always some combination of rum (usually aged), lime, and flavored syrup. Fruit juice frequently appears as well. Typical syrups found in tiki drinks are orgeat (almond-flavored), cinnamon, and falernum (lime and other spices). Using my earlier definitions, tiki drinks can technically be considered heavily accented rum sours.
One of my personal tiki joys is that it provides an outlet for the many varieties of rum flavors that most people aren’t aware of. There are enormous differences between the taste of a Jamaican rum like Smith and Cross, and a Rhum Agricole such as Barbancourt. Given that most people’s perception of rum taste is Bacardi Silver, a visit to a craft tiki bar like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco can be an enormous eye opener for folks whose perception of tiki is “Hawaiian punch with too much clear rum.” Here’s me enjoying full-metal tiki at the Tonga Room in San Francisco:
The Martini pattern – This one is easy: Clear base spirit, dry vermouth, olive and/or lemon peel. Typically the base spirit is vodka or gin, although there’s no reason you couldn’t make this with a fine white rum like Cana Brava. The big debate among martini drinker is what the proper ratio of base spirit to vermouth is. For some reason, some folks like to think that the perfect “bone-dry” martini means that the bottle of vermouth was simply in the adjoining room from the base spirit. If that’s what you want, just drink chilled vodka or gin as the case may be. The reality is that “dry” in the context of martinis means how dry/sweet the vermouth is.
Are there any patterns I’m missing? Leave comments!