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The Art of Building Cocktail Rounds

Incredible cockttail building mise en place - Bar Lone Palm Paris

The art of building rounds of cocktails efficiently is a fantastic thing to watch. And performing it is similar to the cerebral flow state that an athlete feels when they’re in the zone. Unstoppable. Time slows down, and you are just there for the ride while your body crushes cocktail volume. A twelve-hour shift feels minutes. Building Rounds is part triage, part logic puzzle, but mostly an exercise in efficiency and mindfulness. To execute a massive round of drinks flawlessly in the most efficient way while still, engaging guests requires that the bartender have complete mastery of all of those elements.

In a well-composed drink recipe, one can see a beautiful logic. Each ingredient has to flawlessly and deliciously interact with other components. This method of building rounds honors the exquisite balance and composure required to make a perfect drink, while multitasking seamlessly and profitably, and never sacrificing hospitable intensity.

Mise En Place

Mise en place is defined as “put in place,” and is a culinary term used to refer to prepping individual ingredients thoroughly before they are combined with other ingredients to create a dish. But it is so much more than that. For me, it is one of the guiding principles in my life; it is a mindset, a philosophy, a way of being and thinking. One chef said “It really is a way of life…it’s a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions……You mis-en-place your life.”

Look at building rounds through the lens of mise-en-place; it is a question of guidance, but never control.
Say, for example, that your guests are seated at a correctly set table, where everything is measuring to the fraction of an inch. Should they be allowed to move things? Of course. But you might want to unpretentiously and inconspicuously “straighten things out” when you have the opportunity. Remember, you are creating an experience, not merely serving food and drinks. You might want to use a small out-of-the-way dry table as a staging area in case something needs to be swapped out. This is what I mean by Mise-en-place as a way of life. How you think is how you serve the public and add purpose to your own life.

Our workspace is sophisticated and has a lot of moving parts. Keeping this space neat, tidy, organized, topped up, and ready for anything is only the beginning. Nothing can destroy a flow like endlessly picking up empty, sticky, or misplaced bottles. Again, mise en place is beginning, middle and end when it comes to building rounds. It is the guiding principle, the north star, the underlying philosophy. The placement of your tools is the difference between a good round and a complete breakdown.

I’m not a spiritual person, but I genuinely believe that a drink made from happy hands and by a person with a happy heart makes profoundly better drinks. A positive attitude is contagious and can set the tone in a room full of people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up after blazing through a set of tickets to see guests who have taken notice of the bartender–he’s happy, interacting with guests and staff, beaming with pride at the great drinks he’s serving, and he knows he’s a master of execution. Customers cannot possibly have a bad night under those conditions and, of course, they will come back–again and again.

Mise en place is like life. I like my life organized, and I want to be prepared for anything. Mise en place (literally “Put in Place” in French” is essential in the pursuit of building rounds. It’s is vitally important that before your shift starts, and periodically through the shift, you are mindful of what you have available to you. Spirits, juices, mixers, garnishes, and service items that can’t fit in the well or surrounding service area needs to be backed up and handy.
All of this is moot if you don’t know the ingredients and specs like the back of your hand. Remembering hundreds (thousands?) of old drink recipes isn’t everyone’s strength, so we developed a bit of a verbal shorthand when we got confused about a spec, especially something from a back catalog. You’ll notice it typically goes from smallest to biggest, or biggest to smallest, and there’s a logic. A reason. It goes something like this:

J: Hey Thomas, What are the specs on the Frisco Club again?
T: Quarter, Quarter, Half, Half, Three-Quarter, Two, Up with Grapefruit Discard.
J: Lemon or Lime?
T: Lime
J: Nice.

Ambidexterity
Almost everybody has a dominant hand. Being adept in the use of both the left and the right hand is an essential element in building rounds comfortably and efficiently. Most top surgeons have taught themselves to be ambidextrous. Why is this important?

Every bar is unique. Some have ingredients and workspaces in front of you; some are behind you, some above, some below. If you’re right-handed, and you are reaching acrocriticalss your body to retrieve an ingredient on your left, you’re not only wasting time, but you’re also putting unnecessary stress on your back twisting back and forth all night. Learn to use your left (or right) hand for reaching, measuring, and pouring. It is possible and will make you that much faster. Also, your back will thank you for it.

AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC OF EFFICIENCY: Did you know that UPS drivers are required to plan their routes so that they never have to make a left turn? It’s true. The reason is that it is neither cost- or time-efficient to sit at a red light waiting for it to change. And then you have to wait for traffic going straight first. And, heaven forbid, you may have to sit through several changes of the light before you can turn left. Unacceptable. This and many other efficiencies are why they are the industry leader in package delivery.

Pivoting
It is essential to set up your well like a cockpit because you are about to pilot a plane. Everything you need should be within one step of your original spot. One of your feet should grow roots in one place when the shit hits the fan, and with a single pivot,explicitlyyou should be able to reach every single commonly used bottle. You don’t see drummers walking around looking for the drum they want to use, right?

Tool Efficiency
Using tools more than once is a great way to trim seconds off your build time, but this isn’t monkey knife fighting. There are rules. These rules do not supersede the “cheap stuff first rule,” but the universe supports these rules for using tools. When it’s impossible to follow these rules, set the tool aside and use a new one until the round is fully executed.

  • Sugars – It is perfectly fine to use the same tool (teaspoon, spoon, jigger) for sugar provided get you to follow these rules.
    • Low density to high. Pour the thin liquids (I.E., 1:1 simple syrup) first. These ingredients also tend to be the cheapest, so less revenue is lost if you make a mistake! As you get into denser sugars (maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, etc.), more fluToid ; theywill stick to the walls of the tool, and the measurement will be impacted, thus less accurate.
    • Neutral flavors first. Flavors do carry! Start with unflavored syrups then move on to the cinnamon, then that sweet beet & pistachio shrub you’ve been dying to use.
  • Acids – By acids, I typically mean pressed or extracted fruit juice. I would place vinegars, shrubs, and citrates into a separate category.
    • Low volume to high volume. If it’s only a quarter of an ounce in one drink, get it out of the way. This usually works itself out as there are rarely more than two fresh acids in a cocktail.
    • “Hard acids” like lemon, lime, and grapefruit juices can share a jigger without being washed in between. The residual liquid from the last pour is negligible and has a slight impact on the flavor of the drink if you are sure to pour all of the previous measurement out.
    • Lemon and lime are the most common acids. Before you put that bottle back, ask yourself, “Can I use this bottle again in this round?” if so, don’t put that bottle back until all that juice is portioned out.
  • Bases – I’m talking about the spirit base, which is typically anything 80+ proof, or the predominant ingredient base of the cocktail if there is one.
    • Neutral flavors first. Anything can go after vodka. By (American) definition, vodka is flavorless and odorless. Measuring vodka will likely leave your measure cleaner than it was before. I rarely cleaned my tools after they handled vodka.
    • If the components are in the same drink, there’s no need to rinse the jigger between ingredients.
    • It is not necessary to switch tools between like-category spirits within reason. Switching from one Bourbon or Rye to another Bourbon or Rye is probably not needed; however, there is a dramatic difference between blended Scotch and single malt or Islay, and you would need to use a new measuring tool. Know, respect, and honor your spirits! Always assume your guest has a palate that can discern the difference.
    • Rinse or toss your measure when switching categories, i.e., from gin to tequila, or from rum to another rum that may be similar but isn’t quite the same style rum.
    • Don’t be lazy. A maybe is a no.

Crossing Over or “Bartenders Ballet”
If your mise en place is flawless, efficient and beautiful, you probably shouldn’t be crossing over your other bartenders. That said, every bar is a precious snowflake with its unique layout, so this may be unavoidable.
New York, for instance, was built a couple of hundred years ago and we have to build bars around the existing architecture. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 changed all of that, and now public accommodations are required by law. I once built a mise-en-place in a bar that had six seats and served 120 seats. Talk about getting crushed. There were two bartenders, and we were climbing all over each other all night. When I see bars around the states that were built in the last three decades, I can alwaan essentialys picture a jumbo jet landing there. This also has its disadvantages.

When working in a tight space, it’s imperative that you never violate the others’ space without announcing your presence. This is a safety issue. This is usually in the form of a verbal “behind you!”, but there are other ways to signal your presence. At one place, for example, we developed a system of using a gentle tap on the back. This subtle tap was very effective, especially when you didn’t want the guest to be distracted by our internal communication. The idea is that we make it as effortless as possible for them to enjoy the drink. The guests don’t typically want the labor pain; they want the baby.

I worked at a bar that had some 75 smaller “cheater” bottles that were shared between the two bartenders. This was a bar that was 95% menu drinks and classics. To service this, the bar was split in two. The “point” bartender would service all the guests at the bar (12 seats), and the service bartender would serve the servers and their roughly 40 guests. The point well was designed around executing the items used most, not necessarily around what we thought a “standard bar order” would be in most bars. The service bartender had a much larger well because the likelihood of the 40 guests at tables to order some classic, exotic, or previous menu item was relatively high. Since our wells were not the same, when the point bartender needed something, he or she had to communicate to avoid crossing over. In this situation, this was the most efficient path. When they were done with it, it was immediately placed in a commonly agreed place and returned to its right spot quickly.

Another example of setting up your mise-en-place efficiency is to take a look at your sales if you have a digital POS. If you’re constantly going to the back bar to grab that same bottle of premium Scotch, by all means, put it in your well and back it up! You can still keep it on the back bar to display it if you want, but its all about efficiency, and efficiency leads to speed. Speed leads to more sales. More sales lead to more money in your pocket.

drinks, people and luxury concept - woman bartender with shaker pouring alcohol into jigger and preparing cocktail at bar counter

Envato Elements Stock Image – Used with Permission. And they’re left-handed by the way…

Measuring
Measuring is very important, especially with complex cocktails. I’m not saying you need to measure a two ounce, 80 proof base spirit every time, but hopefully, you’re constantly reminding yourself that you’re human, and not a machine. The reason we measure is that all ingredients work in concert with the type of ice you have, and the size of the glassware you use. If you don’t measure, not only do you risk the drink being out of balance, and wrong, but it will also differ from bartender to bartender. I’m not railing against free-poiring, don’t be cavalier about it. However you do it, do it consistently.

Ice
Ice always comes last when building individual cocktails, and should only be done when all drinks in the round are ready to be chilled or diluted.

Think of it like it’s baking. If you’re making a loaf of bread, once it’s in the oven, it starts to cook, right? Once you add ice, it starts to chill…and dilute your drink. To have more control over temperature and dilution, save the ice for last unless you’re specifically timing for that round. Generally speaking, go from big ice to little ice. Big ice has less surface area and melts slower.

Icing Sequence:

  • Shaking with big blocks (if you use them)
  • Shaking with Kold Draft/Hoshizaki/Dense cubes
  • Shaking with Shell Ice
  • Shaking with pellet ice (this should be a prescribed amount of ice strictly to chill with minimal dilution

When preparing and building cocktail rounds, it’s vitally important not to begin the dilution portion yet. Up until the icing point, you can verify that you got all ingredients measured correctly and make any adjustments necessary before the clock starts ticking. It’s worth it to take a moment to get this straight in your head. This is an excellent time to straw-taste your drinks.
“Presentation” Order (when you put in fresh ice for final delivery):

  • Large Cubes (whether molded or cut)
  • Collins “Spears”
  • Kold Draft/Hoshizaki/Dense cubes
  • Served Up or Neat (sans ice)
  • Pellet Ice
  • Shaved Ice

Allow me to expand on this. I like it when the ice is dry on the top of the drink. It looks fresh. I’m not talking about ice that gushes out and makes a drink look not full, and is hard to drink, but rather a drink that is full, but not overflowing, has fresh ice, and is just slightly asymmetrical.

building cocktail rounds straining

Envato Elements Stock Image – Used with Permission.

Techniques: Shaking, Straining and Stirring

Shaking Cocktails

How important can shaking be? The answer is–very. Also, sometimes, folks think it’s just for show. It isn’t.
Shaking is often underestimated, but every shake is seismically distinct. Shaking should be graceful and meaningful, and is an important way to influence the temperature, texture, and dilution of your finished cocktail.

TEMPERATURE, TEXTURE, AND DILUTION ARE THREE VITAL COMPONENTS OF BUILDING A DELICIOUS COCKTAIL

Whether you are serving your drink cold, at room temperature, fizzy, neat, served up, or in your cupped hands, mindfulness of temperature, texture, and dilution will yield a more perfect and consistent cocktail Shaken drinks are typically served last to retain as much vitality as possible.

Shake length for various preparations:

Assumptions – Frozen glass, fresh ice (not sweaty), a shaker full of ice. I could prescribe shaking measures, but if you followed it, you probably wouldn’t get the same results as I would. I’m not saying you’re undisciplined; I’m assuming that there are too many variables that perhaps differ from my conditions to prescribe a shaking length. Also, as these elements change, so should your shake.

  • Infiniti/No shake: room temp cocktail
  • Longest: shaken, strained, up or neat cocktail
  • Shorter: shaking more than two different tins
  • Shorter: shaken, strained, served on a large block
  • Shorter: shaken, topped with Champagne or Prosecco
  • Shorter: shaken, served on kold draft or similar (dense cube ice)
  • Shorter: shaken, served on kold draft or similar (dense cube ice), topped with effervescent
  • Shortest: shaken, served on crushed or pebble ice. Only shaken with only a few pieces of ice. Meant to chill, or “prime” liquid for pebble ice. Not meant for dilution. Also known as a “whip” shake.

Straining Cocktails

Straining a cocktail is just as important as any one of the other steps in making a cocktail (if not more). A wise man once said that there are two things you do slowly and deliberately. Measure and strain. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. The reason you want to strain a shaken drink slowly is to allow the Hawthorne Strainer to do its job and capture as much ice as possible. I use a fine mesh strainer whenever I shake with any ice other than block ice because my particular style and desired texture prescribe an extremely hard shake. You should see the ice dust left in my tins. A fine strainer catches all the solids a Hawthorne Strainer can’t. UPDATE: Check out THIS GAMECHANGER.

Stirring Cocktails

In order to be a legend at Building Rounds, you must master the technique of stirring. Stirring is a significant element of building rounds efficiently because it is the “bookends” of your round. It’s where you start and finish, and timing is crucial. Don’t stir long enough? Not enough water. Stir too long? Too wet. This is compounded by whether or not the drink is served on the ice. If so, what kind of ice? These factors along with environmental considerations (Air Conditioning? Event in the Sahara?) have a significant impact on how good your drink is going to be.

Efficiency Techniques

Double Shaking

The only reason you should use this technique is if you have mastered the single shake with both hands. Often, people have a different shake when they double shake. How is this a good representation of your skill? How does this show your attention to detail in your finish or “prestige” as magicians call it? Master a shake in your less dominant hand by itself, then incorporate the other hand eventually. Like anything involving your weaker side, this will feel awkward, but when your strength is up, this ability will pay dividends in spades as far as efficiency is concerned.
Note, not all drinks are meant to be shaken for the same length of time. Sometimes you’re only shaking with a single piece of ice to chill, not necessarily to dilute as is usually the case with cocktails served on crushed, cracked, or pebble ice. Keep in mind that with the large surface area of these types of ice, the surface area is much larger and dilution will occur on the drinks journey to the guest’s table. This is mitigated by other factors as well such as the temperature of the glass, wetness of the ice, and distance to the guest. This is yet another reason why ice is typically one of the very last elements in finishing a round.

Double/Triple/Quadruple Stirring

Practice this and master this technique before trying this in service. I promise a barrage of public shaming by your peers if you pull this out and fail…especially when it’s busy. The affable Phil Ward first perfected this technique in the early 2000’s. Check out a demonstration from the legend, Tom Macy.

Shaking and Stirring Simultaneously

This is a lot like walking and chewing gum, except you want to walk a certain distance and chew for a different amount of time.

Build Order

As the orders start pouring in, it’s time to start thinking about “Stacking Orders.” This technique is essential to efficiency when a large volume of orders start coming in all at once. The name of the game is getting tickets out FAST. Drinks that made well, taste good. Drinks that come out right and fast taste GREAT. Get the short, easy drinks out first!

The actual order that the chits/tickets/etc. Arrive is not nearly as important as efficiency, but only if there are efficiencies to be had. If you see the same drink on two tickets, build them both in the same tin! This should not be at the expense of the larger ticket, however.

For instance, if you see a four-top that ordered a Manhattan, a Margarita, A beer, and a Vodka Soda, and you see another ticket for another table with a single margarita, by all means, double up that Margarita and kill two birds with one stone.

The first step in building a round is receiving the order. This is where you take a second to internalize the ticket and visualize how you are going to light it up. When it’s slow is a great time to practice this. Think about how many times you need to pick up a bottle. Does lime juice go in more than one drink? Is there the same bourbon in two drinks?

Once you know your ticket, set it aside for reference in case you need it. It’s better to get the round right than to have to make it over. Set up your glassware and tins, the vessels that will receive the cocktails you’re making — this is an essential part of remembering what you’re going to be making. And take a moment to visualize how you’re going to build this round. Start with one drink, then two, then four, then six, then 10! Challenge yourself to make the maximum amount of complete rounds your equipment allows.

Production Order

  1. Neat Pours/Shots (Get rid of them!)
  2. Muddled “garbage” (set up a placeholder shaker and put the fruit in there, do not muddle)
  3. Blended drinks
  4. Stirred Down
  5. Stirred Up
  6. Shaken Down/On the Rocks
  7. Shaken With Effervescent (Don’t top yet)
  8. Shaken Up
  9. Room temperature
  10. Muddle time!
  11. Swizzled
  12. Built Cocktail (1:1/Highball)
  13. Glass of Wine
  14. Bottle Beer
  15. Top all effervescent drinks with fizzy ingredients
  16. Draft Beer
  17. Champagne/Prosecco
  18. High Fives all around!

Quality Control

There is nothing wrong with making a mistake. While internalizing this method, mistakes are going to happen a lot. My advice is to mentally walk through rounds with a co-worker before using live bottles. It’s hard enough for cocktail bars to make money without having to comp drinks that weren’t prepared properly or took forever. Start with two drinks at a time, always making two different drinks. This is also a great way to learn classic specs. Move on to three and four and five. If you’re getting and executing any more than eight different drinks at a time, congratulations, you’re a badass, and you don’t need my help.

There’s a lot you can tell about the quality of your drinks just by tasting them. Is the color right? Is the wash-line right? Good job, you’re a round-building ninja!

About author

WHAT I DO: I help bars, craft spirits brands, hotels, and event managers to glorify their brands by providing high-end cocktail expertise, hospitality consulting, and winning operations management. Working in the space where craft meets commerce, I can put together creative, develop go-to-market strategies, promote your brand to bartenders, develop trade advocacy initiatives, and put together back end financials. I develop concept designs, effective marketing platforms, and turnaround strategies. HOW I DO IT: I am a craft cocktail personality and event planner with 10 years of experience bartending, training bartenders, writing menus, setting up cost-effective operations, communicating brand messages to trade, and leading the bartending community. WHO I WORK WITH: • Craft Spirit Marketing Directors and Brand Owners seeking fresh go-to-market strategies • Hospitality Executives and Owners for bars, restaurants, and hotels • Marketing and PR Agencies for Events and Targeted Marketing • Struggling bars seeking a turnaround specialist MY FAVORITE CALL: “Hi Jason, I’ve got this amazing spirit. I want bartenders to know what it is and how to use it.” WHY IT WORKS: I am uniquely positioned in the industry because of my work experience, industry connections, and leadership. I’ve got my ear to the ground, and as a nano-agency, I’m an agile specialist with expertise that bigger, more conservative agencies can’t match. WHY I’M DIFFERENT: As a bartender by trade, I’m a skilled organizer with great communication skills and attention to detail. I build delicious drinks, strong teams, and successful events and businesses. I can produce high-end cocktails en masse at a festival, make them for a photo shoot, train your staff to make them, or convert your struggling bar into a winning concept with a killer story and world-class drinks.
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