Friday, January 23, 2015

What is a cocktail anyway?

As with many things, the definition of “cocktail” depends on who you ask and how pedantic you want to get about it.
Classic definitions generally refer to a combination of four ingredients- liquor, bitters, sugar, and water.  I like to relax that a bit by considering those as four classes of ingredients- liquors, bitters or bittering agents, sweeteners, and water.  Liquor is self explanatory, but the others need a little elaboration.
Bitters provide balance, sharpness, and complexity to drinks.  The ingredients which fill this role generally come from a bottle with the word “bitters” on the label, but they don’t have to.  And there are a myriad of different types of bitters, from the ubiquitous and versatile Angostura bitters, to dozens of craft bitters, to all of those Italian bitters liquors, to the original “digestive” style bitters.  The herbs, spices, and other wonders which go into bitters can sometimes bypass the bottle and go right into your drink (although you’ll probably strain the big chunks out before serving).
Sugar certainly doesn’t just mean the refined white powder in the sugar bowl, there are a wide variety of sweeteners available, many bringing their own flavor complexities to your cocktails.  White sugar, or more rustic sugars like demerara, turbinado, and sucanat all have their place, and their flavors.  Sweeteners such as coconut sugar, maple sugar and syrup, honey, and others also expand the flavor horizons.
Don’t take “water” to mean you have to pour water in your glass.  The water that frees up flavors in many drinks comes from the ice alone- the shaking and stirring both chill drinks and add water, they aren’t just about mixing ingredients or aeration.  Of course any fruit juice, soda, wine or almost any liquid will add some water to the mix.
Keep in mind that many ingredients span more than one class of ingredient.  Fruit juices are sweeteners and add water, grapefruit juice goes further and covers bittering, sugars, and water.  Ginger ale adds sugar and water, ginger beer goes further and adds ginger’s bitter zing.
At this point you are probably thinking something like “great, but I want a drink”.  Fear not, in my next post we’ll start with the classic Old Fashioned, it includes the four traditional ingredients, encourages experimentation, and provides a framework for a wide variety of derivative drinks.

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