Eric Betz in Discover magazine, lists some tips to make homemade cocktails better. October 2020.
To the average cocktail lover, the action behind a bar counter can seem full of magic and mystery. There’s a quick sprig of this and a small splash of that, followed by loud, vigorous shaking or a few stirs, then out pours a perfectly formed beverage. At first sip you know: There’s no way you could make anything this good at home.
Lately, with the weather getting cooler, and no end to this pandemic in sight, many of us are missing our neighborhood haunts. Though some bars are selling cocktails to go, many of us are on our own. If we want to drink a perfect Negroni this Halloween, we’ll have to make it ourselves.
Luckily, making cocktails isn’t magic, it’s science. A great bar is just a chemistry lab; each cocktail, a perfectly replicable concoction.
To help unravel the science of drinking, Discover talked with Kevin Liu, author of Craft Cocktails at Home: Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science. He’s also the co-owner of The Jasper in Richmond, Virginia, which was recently named one of the best new bars in the South by Garden & Gun magazine.
To Liu, the old-fashioned is a perfect example of how chemistry and science come together in drink making. The drink has just three ingredients: sugar, bitters and whiskey (or brandy, if you’re from Wisconsin). “You look at that recipe and you’re like, ‘Why is this hard? How can you even say that one place makes a better old-fashioned than another?’” he says.
But there are hidden variables in even a simple drink that can make the cocktail taste terrible at one bar and divine at another. And the difference isn’t just the quality of whiskey. Subtle differences in serving temperature change the flavors and aroma. And if you put in the ice too early, it will start to melt, changing the drink through dilution. Even just a couple dashes of bitters can be the difference between something sickly sweet and a drink that’s perfectly balanced.
Tip 1: Don’t Let Pretty Ice Distract You
Amateur cocktail aficionados often obsess over ice, but not usually in ways that matter, Liu says. These days, spherical ice “cubes” are all the rage because they can cool your drink without diluting it as quickly. They’ve gotten so popular that some new models of household refrigerators can even make them. But to create a perfect cocktail, you’ll have to look at much more fundamental aspects of how and when you use ice.
“The majority of the conversation around ice is not science-based,” Liu says. “It’s more about what looks cool. If all you want to do is cool your drink down without diluting it, the most obvious way is to stick it in the freezer.”
Tip 2: Water Quality Matters
Instead, Liu says, you should focus on the quality of your ice. Water is the most basic component of whatever booze you’re drinking. That’s why craft alcohol makers often play up their water choice.
So when it comes to cocktails or fine spirits on the rocks, the quality of the water you have at home suddenly becomes important. To find out if your ice tastes good, try simply melting a cube in a glass and tasting it.
Tip 3: You Can Learn to Control Temperature
Once you know your ice isn’t taking away from your cocktail, you can focus on more advanced methods of employing it. Ice is one of the most powerful ways to bring out subtle flavors by playing with temperature, dilution and mouth feel. Shaking versus stirring ice into a cocktail, for instance, actually does leave James Bond with a fundamentally different drink.
The booze we drink is made with ethanol, the same kind of stuff we put in our gas tanks. And it has a significantly lower freezing point than water. The ice in your freezer is also typically much colder than freezing temperature. That means you can stir in ice and bring drinks down to below 32 degrees Fahrenheit without creating a slushy. As you supercool your beverage, less alcohol will evaporate from it, making it smell — and taste — less boozy. In fact, the colder something is, the less you perceive the taste in general. For example, your martini is mostly booze, but because it’s typically served at more than a dozen degrees below freezing, it doesn’t taste like sipping a bottle of room-temperature vodka.
Shaking ice into a drink instead of stirring it also adds air bubbles, which changes the mouthfeel while also dramatically lowering the temperature. If you’re dealing with a subtle alcohol flavor, like gin, you could lose many of the drink’s pleasing notes. Meanwhile, all that shaking will also melt more of the ice, diluting the drink more than stirring would.
But dilution isn’t always a bad thing. Too little dilution and you’ll also lose the aromas amid the strength of the booze. Too much and you’ll have a weak drink. In both cases, how you use your ice makes all the difference. Mastering this balance between temperature and dilution is key to creating bar-level home cocktails.
Tip 4: Add the Ice Last
It can take years to master the mixology of shaking and stirring ice into your drinks. But Liu’s top advice about ice should be simple enough for anyone to follow for an immediate cocktail upgrade: Always add ice into the glass last.
“You have to put the ice in last because as soon as you put it in, it’s going to start melting,” he says. “You’ll have a totally different drink depending on how long it takes you to make it.”
For example, Liu recommends building an old-fashioned at room temperature, then adding ice and letting whoever’s drinking it do the stirring as they sip.