Tempered Spirits

Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels

What is a Cocktail?

To a cocktail geek like me, that’s a loaded question. To anybody else, though, the answer’s fairly simple:

A cocktail is a mixed drink.

That’s it, really. You can get really technical here and go back to the “original” definition, which says that it’s a mixed drink containing liquor, sugar, and bitters — in the early 1800s, this was the only cocktail, and anything else had a different name. Additional mixed drinks evolved over time, each falling into a special category. “Cocktails” retained their original definition until sometime in the late 1800s, when more ingredients became available and were incorporated into the old recipes. In the early 1900s, the definition was further expanded to include nearly all mixed drinks concocted in a shaker — which was most of them. Nowadays, “cocktail” is a catch-all term for “mixed drinks,” no matter the ingredient or the preparation.

The Mother Formula

To go with our broad-minded definition, I have a handy, all-encompassing formula:

Booze + Sweetener + Flavor + Water = Cocktail

Pretty simple, huh? Think of each part of the formula as a variable — you can plug in any ingredient that falls within that category and get a drink. It may not be great, and it may not be new, but it’ll be a drink. Here’s a breakdown of the categories:

Booze = Primary source of alcohol — liquor, liqueurs, fortified wines, etc.

Sweetener = Sugar, Simple Syrup, Liqueur, Fortified Wines

Flavor = Bitters, Liqueur, Citrus Juice, Herbs, Fortified Wines

Water = Ice, Soda, or both

The only tricky bit here is that some ingredients cover two categories at once — liqueurs, for instance, might act as the main sweetening agent and provide a significant flavor in one drink, while they’ll add just a touch of interesting flavor to another. In very “dry” (i.e. “not sweet”) cocktails, the only sweetening agent present might be vermouth, which also provides Flavor. Here are some examples:

Whiskey + Sugar + Bitters + Ice = Old-Fashioned

Gin + Dry Vermouth + Orange Bitters + Stirred Ice = Classic Martini

Rum + Sugar + Lime Juice + Shaken Ice = Daiquiri

All of the above follow the Mother Formula.

This will even work with two-ingredient drinks like the Rum & Coke — rum is the Booze, Coke is both the Sweetener and Flavor. Scotch and Soda? Well, that’s pushing the limit, but I would argue that Booze and Flavor are combined with a hint of Sweetness in the whisky, the Water and remainder of the Flavor (acidity from the CO2 and minerals in the water) are part of the soda.

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