widdershins' cocktail test kitchen
May 10, 2010 11:48 AM   Subscribe

I want to create my own signature cocktail and I'm looking for suggestions/tips/advice for how to go about it...

So as part of my bucket list I want to 'Create my own signature cocktail'. My mouth is watering at the very thought and I really look forward to trying my various concoctions on myself and my friends.

However, I am not a bartender with access to every liqueur under the sun - assume that I'll be starting from scratch and buying every bottle of liquor I try. What would you do if you were in my shoes and didn't want to totally break the bank? Is there any kind of process I should be aware of? Are there any general taste combinations to avoid (before I spend tons of money on expensive liqueurs that it turns out I don't like)?

If it matters, I like drinks on the sweeter side (don't hate me) though I prefer a little bit of a tart kick with it. I don't care much for distinctly-flavored alcohols like whisky, scotch or gin, but I love rum, vodka and tequila. My favorite drink is a caipirinha - if I can't get that I'll usually default to a cosmo, or, failing that, a margarita or a mai tai. I prefer on the rocks to frozen drinks.

Flavors I particularly like: lemonade, black currant, lime, cranberry (w/ a sweetener), coffee/kahlua and caramel.

I'm not looking for recipe suggestions (the whole idea is to make my own) - but do you have any general tips for methodology? Any recommendations for particular liqueurs to try based on the above flavors? Any standard ratios/basic mixing tips/general rules of thumb I should know? Any tools that would be particularly helpful in creating The Widdershins(TM)?

posted by widdershins to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not looking for recipe suggestions (the whole idea is to make my own) - but do you have any general tips for methodology?

Take a classic drink you like, such as a gimlet (gin martini with a splash of lime juice) and modify it with a fun, specialty liqueur that you find in other drinks with the same lime-y taste. Play around with it a little bit.

For example, we made a white russian into a totally different cocktail by replacing the kahlua with swiss almond chocolate liqueur and adding some espresso to it and giving it a shake. It's that simple.
posted by Hiker at 11:56 AM on May 10, 2010

Putting the alcohol aside for a moment, think about what flavor combinations you like in food and drink more generally. Then think about matching those flavor combinations. For example, I like a mounds bar, so I made a very tasty drink once using coconut syrup, chocolate liqueur, and vanilla vodka.

You like a lot of fruity things, so I might think about what I really like in a pie. For the kahlua/caramel, think about how you order your coffee.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 12:10 PM on May 10, 2010

When coming up with soething new it's often easiest to start with existing drinks and change an ingredient or two. Some of the things I've done to the drinks you've mentioned liking: add strawberries to a caipirinha to make a patricinha, muddled bell peppers or cucumbers in margaritas, add St. Germain to a costmo (or any drink with citrus).

The general rules for proportions in drinks is as follows:

Four of strong (liquor)
Three of sweet (sugar or sweet liqueurs)
Two of sour/bitters (citrus, bitters)
One of weak (ice/water)

If you follow those rules you'll generally get something drinkable.

But my suggestion to you based on the things you like is El Diablo. And the suggestion on that page to use ginger beer instead of ale is an excellent one, it's how I prepare mine.

And as far as new liqueurs to try, your local cocktail bar is your friend here. Chat up the bartender sometime when it's slow and ask about the spirits you're interested in. If the bartender's any good they'll give you a little taste and talk about how they use them.
posted by Jawn at 12:12 PM on May 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'd say the way to do it would be to take one of the liquors you don't normally like, and mix it in such a way that it's right up your alley. That way you're surprised every time that it's as good as you remember, and you can always be impressed with yourself.

Scotch and pineapple juice is a mean delicious start, from where I stand. Maybe twist that up a little bit, and you'll have a grand cocktail of your own.
posted by Blau at 12:13 PM on May 10, 2010

Do you like brandy? I'm with you; I don't like strong "alcohol" flavors, and I like drinks that are light but on the sweeter side. Being in Wisconsin, I love a good Brandy Old-Fashioned, Sweet. I agree with Hiker that you should try modifying a drink you already like, or one you think could be made slightly better.

How about putting some cranberry in something instead of lemon or lime? Cranberry mojito?

The other thing might be to let your life inspire the drink. Did you grow up or study somewhere? What kinds of liquors and cocktails are popular there? Could you work with that?

What happens when you unvent a White Russian with, say, Bailey's instead of Kahlua and rum or tequila (try some different varieties if you have them) instead of vodka?
posted by Madamina at 12:13 PM on May 10, 2010

See the Good Eats episode on cocktails—particularly the first half of scene 8 in the linked transcript, which talks about general principles before Alton starts going into specific cocktails.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:16 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

My taste seems a bit similar to yours and I agree with the other posters: take your favorite existing drink and just modify it to your liking. That's what I did. Although I never considered it my "signature drink", I guess it kind of it (variation of a cosmopolitan).
posted by Eicats at 12:38 PM on May 10, 2010

Also, depending on what you're looking for from a signature drink, there are a couple things to consider.

If you generally drink at home and are mixing your own drinks you can use any ingredients you like and mix them in the proportions you know you will in enjoy.

If you are drinking out at bars, however, you are limited to the liquor inventory on hand and the drink knowlege and mixing skill of whatever bartender happens to be working. Fancy drinks that require precise proportions and uncommon ingredients aren't something you can go from bar to bar ordering and expect to get a good product.

I've found that even if I look to see that they have the ingredients on hand (and tell them where it is on the shelf because they often don't know what bottle I'm talking about), and let them know the proper proportions and mixing techniques, many bartenders will still mess up a drink. I often order Americanos (no, not the coffee drink, I have to explain every time) a simple drink consisting of equal parts sweet vermouth, Campari, and soda served on the rocks with an orange twist, I'm constantly amazed at how often an unskilled bartender can mess this up.

The point is, that if your signature drink is something even slightly non-mainstream most bartenders will give you a blank stare, or say they've never heard of it. And even if you can describe precisely how to mix it, they will screw it up and you will be consantly disappointed in your favourite drink (which really sucks, I often order Sazeracs to test bartenders and it's a shame how badly such a simple drink can be made.)

Now, if you frequent one or two spots regularly you have a much better chance of teaching your bartenders how to make you your perfect drink, and they'll probably even be able to bring in new spirits if there's something you find you really enjoy that they don't stock.
posted by Jawn at 1:13 PM on May 10, 2010

I've taken to infusing cheap vodka with various flavors (thai basil, meyer lemon) lately and have been happy with the results. I use cheap vodka in part because these are experiments in taste. Alternately, I've also made a few flavored simple syrups (fresh mint, ginger, nutmeg/cinnamon) to use in drinks. Given that you like the more flavorless liquors and cost is a concern, you might want to start exploring such things. Apart from rolling your own distillery, what could be more signature than your own handcrafted infusions?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:51 PM on May 10, 2010

How you make a really good 'new' cocktail is to first learn how to make a lot of the old style ones first. And I mean really learn how. Make a Manhattan and experiment with different bitters, try changing out a different bourbon. Or a caprihina since that is your default go to option. Learn how to make that really, really well. And then start playing with it, maybe try different types of citrus flavors, or try it with a really fine silver tequila instead of rum. You will find that a lot of those combinations have already been made, but that doesn't mean you can't perfect it, and claim it as your own. Murray Stenson of the Zig Zag Cafe is considered one of the best in the cocktail business, and his recently notable drink, the Last Word, is based off a recipe he found in an old cocktail book from the 40's held together with packing tape. It was someone elses recipe, but he made it his own (and if you've seen him work, you can tell it truly is his).

To learn how to make drinks, I can't suggest a better place to start than Robert Hess's Cocktail Spirit video podcast collection, where he runs down the basics of starting your own bar collection, and how to just start being a cocktail nerd. That little blurb about "how to make your own cocktail" is something I picked up from him (can't link to that episode from behind this firewall), and it is a useful thing to keep in mind. Some of the best cocktails are just twists on old standbys that have long been forgotten.

You don't have to go all out for it, since you have a very specific goal in mind (your cocktail), but he has a wealth of information, and his video podcasts are commonly used for bartender training in places where people like their martinis stirred (and know why that matters).
posted by mrzarquon at 1:52 PM on May 10, 2010

Sometimes a small inexpensive change can give big results.

- Try ordering exotic bitters (orange and peach are my favorite) on Amazon - @ $5

- Make sugar syrup using gum arabic (for "gomme syrup" - it makes a drink a little thicker), or just make syrups out of different sugars.

- Make an infusion at home and use that. There are recipes online for grenadine (pomegranate), falernum (lime, cloves, ginger) and orgeat (almonds) - I've made them all, and all are yummy - and the commercial varieties of each are vile. You'll be the only one on your block with the real thing!

* Ahh, just make some grenadine now! Especially since you like sweet drinks. The "cold" method is to mix 1 cup pomegranate juice with 1 cup sugar. Shake it until sugar is dissolved. Add one shot rum or brandy as a preservative. The "hot" method is to cook down 2 cups of pomegranate juice down to 1 cup, then add 1 c sugar and 1 shot rum or brandy.

- Use different citrus and herb combinations in your caipirinha and mojitos. (An orange-basil mojito is awesome!). And just using fresh squeezed juices can make anything you do a signature drink!

- Experiment with exotic garnishes. I've become a fan of "burnt orange" - squeeze a twist of peel over a match; the oils spark and land on the drink.

- Show vermouth some love. It has such a bad reputation in the US that a good bottle is still pretty cheap. I usually use Cinzano.

- Ditch the vodka. Anything you do has been done with it already.

- If you want to add a new liquor, I second the suggestion to try Campari. It's a little sweet, and a little herbal / bitter. I adore it, though it's not for everyone. Jawn mentioned the Americano. It also goes well with orange juice, or in a negroni.

And report back, ok???
posted by kanewai at 3:27 PM on May 10, 2010

Wow, great answers - thank you so much! Can't wait to get cracking - I'll report back...
posted by widdershins at 5:35 AM on May 11, 2010

I admit that I have not fully perused the answers, so apologies if I duplicate somebody else's suggestion...

That said, a very good way to make your own house cocktails is to create your own house-blend mixers.

Infused liquors are old hat. Bitters can also be made very easily, as can vermouth. House bitters can go a LONG way towards shaping even well-known cocktails into your own "personal" version. And a martini or a negroni mixed with your own dialed-in-to-your-palate vermouth? Sure to impress!
posted by kaseijin at 10:03 AM on May 11, 2010


Buy a small distillation device and learn to produce your own spirits. This is illegal, so if you do it then we don't want to hear about it. But I hear that gin can be made fairly easily (hence its popularity during prohibition).

Imagine your own completely house martini!

Also -- make cellos. You're probably familiar with lemoncello... but what about trying one with fresh bergamot, grapefruit, tangerine?
posted by kaseijin at 10:06 AM on May 11, 2010

Sweet and tart? Use Rose's Lime Cordial.
posted by deborah at 8:06 PM on May 11, 2010

I would suggest Gary Reagan's "the joy of mixology." He does an amazing job of giving basic ratios for different classes of drinks. Typing this on my phone, sorry for lack of a link.
posted by nestor_makhno at 7:39 PM on June 3, 2010

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