If you don’t have your very own house cocktail, what’s stopping you? As with any kind of personalization, whether it’s home décor or clothing, building a signature drink begins with individual preferences. We talked to two of the metro’s best bartenders and asked for some tips on how best to design cocktails for our own homes.
Chris Barrett oversees one of Oklahoma City’s most extensive liquor selections from behind the bar at Ludivine. He said that when a customer asks for a custom cocktail at Ludivine, the bartenders ask first what the base spirit is, and then work step by step through a process.
Kristin Weddendorf of Scratch in Norman agreed with Barrett that the cocktail has to start with a person’s own taste preference when it comes to spirits. Hate tequila? No problem; avoid it. Love gin? Start there. After you pick — and you can blend spirits, too — the steps are pretty straightforward, but require a little time and experimentation to work through.
The Cardinal Rules of Cocktailing
► Sweetness balances a sour drink.
► Bitters will balance a drink that is too sweet.
► Salt negates bitters.
► For rum, think mint, as in a mojito, or citrus and berry fruits.
► Tequila is great with spicy flavors like pepper tinctures, smoky flavors and, of course, citrus.
► Rye and Bourbon go great with many fruits and nearly any bitters.
► If you want to make a batch for friends or guests, start small and make sure everything works together, and then batch the drink. Starting small will save you from wasting booze.
A note on bitters: start with a dash. Barrett cautions that they are very potent, and bartenders rarely use more than a couple of dashes. Weddendorf said to make sure you have Angostura, Peychaud’s and maybe orange bitters around. Use your nose to sort out the appropriate use and preference.
Glassware: Use a stem if you don’t want the drink getting warmed by your hands. This is super important with martinis and Manhattans. If the drink is on the rocks and doesn’t contain soda or a lot of juice, use a rocks glass, or a Collins glass if it is lengthened with soda or juice.
7 Steps to Creating a House Cocktail
Step 1. “Do you want light and refreshing or bitter and boozy?” Barrett asks. This step determines much of what happens after. The former option usually means citrus, and the latter is typically a drink with bitters.
Step 2. The important factor from here forward is the idea of balance. “The key to a well-made cocktail is balance,” Barrett says. He means to keep the basic tastes in harmony: sweet, sour, bitter and, to some extent, salty and savory (umami). This is a trial-and-error process, so start with a little and work up to a lot or you’ll just be wasting booze.
Step 3. Do you want more than one spirit? Except for Long Island Iced Tea (PSA: You’re not 21 anymore), tequila and gin are not really friends, nor should they be. Some booze does pair well, though. “I find that rye whiskey and cognac cozy up well,” Barrett says. “Also, tequila with a touch of mezcal can give you smoke without too much smoke, and combining two different gins broadens the flavor palate in interesting ways.”
Some of this part is helped by simply asking people who know more about it. Talk to your favorite bartender, read a good book on cocktails or check out an informative site such as Imbibe or The 9-Bottle Bar. Again, it’s a trial-and-error game based on your own tastes, so enjoy the process.
Step 4. Weddendorf offered a few tips in terms of how to proceed once you have picked your spirits. This is where liqueurs and vermouths come into play, and she suggested tasting different ones at your favorite bar … but don’t wear out the bartender with taste requests, and remember to tip well if she is helping to educate you.
Step 5. The non-boozy ingredients are largely based on what you like. Again, Weddendorf has some basic tips, which we’ve outlined in our sidebars, but first, a really important rule: Don’t fruit the gin! Fruit anything else you want, but don’t destroy the subtle botanical flavors of gin by tossing a lime wedge in the glass.
Step 6. Shake or stir. This is the easiest part. Shake if the drink contains citrus, egg whites or cream. Stir everything else. Strain all cocktails. All of them. Double-strain any cocktail with muddled fruit, mint or herbs. (You don’t want a mouthful of green flecks, do you?)
Step 7. The garnish. Barrett said some are aesthetic and some are functional. Mint can amp up the aromatics, as it does in a julep. Basil and rosemary do the same, but all three add noticeable flavors to the drink. Be sure the tastes work well together before you toss a small bush into your cocktail. You have a couple of choices in terms of how you handle fruit wedges or peels, too: If you like a drink more bitter, squeeze the oils from the peel into the drink. (Bartenders call it “expressing” the peel.) If you prefer less bitterness, don’t express it, but you may rim the glass with it to add a touch. Don’t squeeze the fruit unless you have factored in its effect on balance. Barrett said he recommends The Flavor Bible for a great primer on flavors.
Bonus! Step 8: Give your finished creation an awesome name, and enjoy the fruits of your mixological labors.
Liquors, Liqueurs and Vermouths
A Pairings Primer
Vodka Chartreuse, either green or yellow, goes great with vodka, as do orange liqueurs like Aperol or Campari. Vodka is a neutral spirit, so it’s a blank palette, and Weddendorf would like to see more bartenders experiment with it.
Gin Vermouth, either sweet or dry, for classic martinis. Bitter liqueurs work well with it, too, such as Aperol or Amaro.
Rum This one is pretty easy, and we don’t mean fruit-flavored rum. Orange liqueurs, nut liqueurs and coffee liqueurs go really well with rum, and you will need to adjust proportions based on how spicy the rum is.
Rye/Bourbon Barrett recommends being a grownup and drinking it neat or with one large ice cube, but if you must mix, bitters are great, as are fruit liqueurs.