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We’ll Drink to That / Drink like a scientist

Some commonsense guidelines for cocktail creation


As we return to (and far surpass) the cocktails made pre-Prohibition, we find ourselves largely adhering to a certain set of rules. Though seemingly arbitrary, we rarely break them and rarely even acknowledge that they exist. I guess we like to think we simply knew how to do it already.


What are these rules? Well, the Old Fashioned isn’t a star example, but I’ve never seen anyone try to make an Old Fashioned with a white spirit. Almost any dark spirit with sugar and bitters is a great rendition. We can attribute this to the deep, rich character of dark spirits enhanced by sweetness, while the light, bright character of clear spirits would be overwhelmed by the sugar/bitters addition.


The Manhattan and martini, at their core, are opportunities to pair wine with spirits, and are an even better example of our having done the right thing by accident. Vermouth, a fortified wine, is an appropriate counterpart to the spirits in both drinks. When we pair wine with food, we’re playing a matching game, and this is no different. Which vermouth will play nicely with which spirit? Gin is bright and floral, so the dry vermouth is an obvious choice; sweet vermouth can shout far louder than gin. Whiskey, however, being distilled less and aged in barrels that afford it some rich, bold flavors over time, can shout just as loud as some of the loudest sweet vermouths. A dash of bitters in each case ties the drink together, but the fat, rich flavor of Angostura bitters fits the whiskey and sweet vermouth, while the high-frequency, refined feel of orange bitters hits the gin and dry vermouth just right.


This could get a lot more complicated if vermouth were commonly made from either red or white wine, but lucky for us, it’s almost all white. The acids in wine are similar to those in citrus fruit, but grapes contain an acid that’s really easy to work with—tartaric acid. It’s unaggressive and smooth. The other primary acids in wine are citric and malic acid, which are also contained in everyone’s favorite citrus fruit, alongside ascorbic (vitamin C) and sometimes succinic (don’t worry about that one).


Here’s where things get fun. The whiskey sour, sidecar, daiquiri, and margarita are also all drinks that follow rules. These rules were not necessarily created by us aloud, yet they passively dictate the structure of nearly every citrus cocktail I’ve come across—at least the mainstream players. The whiskey sour and sidecar use brown spirits and lemon juice, while the daiquiri and margarita prefer white spirits and lime juice. And it all fits, gosh dang it. Ever have a whiskey sour with lime juice or a daiquiri with lemon? Not quite right. Now, you might be the kind of person who likes these strange parallel-universe versions of the classics, but we can’t argue that these popular cocktails became so because more people preferred them this way. Contrarian or not, the masses will dictate what’s written in books, to some degree.


So, we’re aware that most people like a whiskey sour with aged whiskey and lemon juice, and a daiquiri with white rum and lime juice. But there has to be an explanation, right? Right. Let’s start with the juices. Both lemon and lime juice are roughly six-percent acid solutions. In the case of lemon juice, this is mostly citric acid, and, in the case of lime juice, it’s a combination of citric and malic acid. Citric acid hits your palate right away and fades quickly. Lemon juice is the embodiment of citric acid, to me. Malic acid hits slower and sticks around a touch longer. For an example of lime juice’s malic acid, think cranberries or tart green apples. Lime juice hits a little in the front, and continues to do so as the malic acid takes over for the citric. The important difference between these two juices for the sake of this argument is that lemon juice has very little in the middle, and lime juice is full of it.


How does this pertain to the respective spirits? Brown spirits—at least those that turn brown because they spend time in wooden barrels—gain polyphenols, which largely hit our palates in the middle. In the case of unaged spirits such as tequila and rum, which do not gain these chemical compounds, they lack the middle aggression of the aforementioned dark spirits. We want our drinks to have body, but we don’t want to go on a rollercoaster ride.


Ethyl alcohol and citric acid are present in all of these citrus cocktails, so the active participants in these drinks are malic acid and polyphenols. The malic acid present in lime juice hits at the same time as the polyphenols gained from barreling brown spirits. The daiquiri is made with white rum, which doesn’t have this “body” we keep referring to, but lime juice does. Lime juice to the rescue. You take a sip of your daiquiri, you’ll find the ethyl alcohol and citric acid hit you up front, then fade away to make room for the malic acid to make its impression in the middle. The whiskey sour you’re about to drink will still have that ethyl alcohol and citric acid up front, but as they fade, they make room for the polyphenols added from wooden barrel aging.


Just like in a puzzle, certain pieces fit together, and others don’t. Sometimes you can press really hard and get them to fit together all ramshackle, but there’s nothing like a piece that fits perfectly. By following these simple rules, you can find your favorite drink’s practically perfect pieces: white spirits with lime, dark spirits with lemon. If you for some reason forget this rule, you may refer to the classics for advice. Most of them will steer you in the proper direction.


You may drink whatever you like best, but may you find better what you like best by having read this!                 


Donnie Clutterbuck writes about the art and science of adult beverages for Spree.


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