Cocktails are completely subjective.
It is completely unreasonable to assume that you and the person next to you will have the exact same taste in cocktails. This isn’t to say that you are right and your neighbor is wrong, but people just like different things. In this article, I’ll explain my thoughts about the commonalities between good drinks and bad ones, and generally my thoughts on the components of a good drink.
We’ll go in too many factors that make up a good drink, but for me, no one single factor dictates what my experience will be, but the sequence is very important. First things first…
What’s the first impression of a delicious cocktail?
If you said “It’s delicious”, you’d be jumping the gun a little bit. In fact, tasting a drink is one of the last experiences you’ll have when enjoying your cocktail. That’s right, the first impression you get is the visual composition of the drink. This plays a large factor in your overall experience because your lizard brain is already starting to analyze and judge. Is this poison? Will this kill me? Unless you’re having 15 of them, probably not.
What I look for in a ‘good’ drink is typically simplicity, symmetry, and subtlety. I don’t typically gravitate towards flashy garnishes or large, ornate edible dioramas that tell the story of Noah’s Arc, but sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s vitally important that each garnish in the drink has a role to play, and I would argue that it also MUST BE EDIBLE.
What’s next for a delicious cocktail?
Naturally, the next thing you’re going to do is pick up the cocktail and bring it to your lips. I like the feel of a good sturdy cocktail glass in my hand. It makes me feel like I’m holding something worthwhile. I get a little antsy when I hold a glass that is very brittle. It makes me feel like I need to pay more attention to NOT breaking my glass than to increase my enjoyment of the experience. Never let some little glass get in the way of your experience. For me, cocktails themselves are rarely the actual occasion.
A delicious cocktail is made more delicious if it’s not spilling all over you, so I have to insist that my drinks fit in their glass, and aren’t spilling every damn where. I really get upset when I’m having a drink (mostly) sober, and I get a slight nudge from behind and spill my drink. Then your hands are all sticky, and it’s a mess. This, you see, has happened once or twice. You will likely never see me with a V-shaped martini glass, just for the sheer virtue of the fact that they’re completely useless at containing cocktails.
NOW we can get olfactory.
At this point, you have your drink, and it is up to your nose and mouth. This is when we can actually start to SMELL the drink. 90% of all flavor is derived from the aroma. Translation: if it doesn’t smell good, it’s not going to taste good. And if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point. This is where I start to form the bulk of my opinion of the cocktail I’m drinking. I can forgive a wilted mint garnish if the cocktail is delicious. I can’t forgive an egg white cocktail that smells like a wet dog even if the cocktail is delicious.
Finally, one of the last elements you encounter is the actual taste of the cocktail. I don’t like to get too deep on this, but what I’m looking for here is an intelligent use of flavors that have some representation of the ingredients that mix well without any single ingredient being too powerful (or too weak). You don’t want it to be too sweet, too sour, too boozy, not diluted enough etc. either.
For me, the next level in delicious cocktails is with flavor affinities. Assembling either complementary or in some cases contrasting flavors can create a very delightful experience for me and this is where the real creativity comes in. What flavors pair well together? Would an infusion help here? This is where the magic happens.
How does a delicious cocktail feel?
We all know how it feels AFTER you drink it, but what I’m asking for here, is how does it feel in our hand. How does it feel in your mouth? I like a big solid glass, but likewise, sometimes I like a bid solid, dense, viscous sugar to not only bind flavors together in a cocktail but to also give it a cohesive and full-bodied texture without being syrupy.
Along with a good recipe, and good measurements comes to the coup de grace for a delicious cocktail and that’s the preparation. Shaking and stirring (among other preparations) have dramatically different effects on the cocktail, and that is the single biggest factor in the texture which can make or break a delicious cocktail. Shaken drinks –historically reserved for fresh juice cocktails — will have a lighter, effervescent texture. Stirred cocktails like the Manhattan will be strong, but they should feel velvety-smooth on your tongue and go down real nice after a nice meal.
Similarly, and of course, the temperature is a huge influence on what I would call a really good drink. More volatile aromatics escape in warmer temperatures, but when you shake the bejesus out of a drink, you get those amazing effervescent and light qualities.
What is the point anyway?
What all good drinks have in common (for me anyway), is that the ingredients are carefully prepared, assembled, and delivered. When I go to a bar as a guest, I don’t necessarily like to critique or fuss about anything, I can’t imagine our guest would want to either…well unless that particular guest brought their own ice. If we put a little bit of intensity into these elements of our cocktails, the results can be astounding.
What qualifies as a delicious drink for you and your guests? Need help narrowing it down? Let’s chat!