Found: A Libra’s Dream Cocktail, Perfectly Balanced
Craft cocktail gurus Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz teach us about how to create balance with sweetness in this first installation of a 5-part series.
There’s something to be said about balanced cocktails … not too sweet, not too spirituous, not too strong. So how does a master craft perfectly proportioned cocktails every time? Bittercube scoops us on balancing sweetness in this first part of a 5-part series.
served raw: why are sweeteners so important to balancing cocktails?
Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowicz: Sweetness is an integral part of any cocktail. The sweet component of a drink softens spirits, counteracts acidity, balances bitterness, allows liqueurs to be tasted, amongst other subtle roles. Understanding how to balance sweetness is an important tool, because cocktails that are too sweet can be hard to swallow, literally! Under-sweetened drinks can be muddy and incoherent. An imbalance between sweetness and other components can make a recipe candy-like with a strange sweet-tart flavor.
what types of sweetening agents do cocktails utilize?
The syrups interview lists basically every type of sugar and sweetener that we use. We’ve also recently discovered Okinawa Kobuto sugar, also known as black sugar. It has an extremely thick, rich molasses flavor. We don’t recommend making a syrup with this sugar alone, but substituting it for a portion of granulated in a simple syrup makes for a unique flavor.
do sweeteners play a different role than simply to sweeten cocktails?
Sweetness has many functions besides its most obvious role. Its most important and misunderstood secondary job is to act as an enabler. Often, a subtle liqueur will get lost in a cocktail, with the citrus and spirit dominating it. Adding a small amount of sweetness will enable the liqueur to be tasted. Adding a touch of sweetness to a cocktail can make a jumbled-tasting cocktail balanced. The opposite can also be true. Some drinks may need a quarter ounce less of a sweetener to allow the other components to step forward. Beyond acting as an enabler, sweeteners give flavor, as well. Agave, demerara, brown sugar, honey, they all bring a flavor component, beyond sweetness. Creating compound syrups with various teas and spices is another great way to add depth and dimension to a cocktail without needing to add numerous extra ingredients and steps to your creation.
talk about out-of-the-box techniques for imparting sweetness into cocktails.
There are some classic cocktails that call for a sugar rim, like the sidecar and the brandy crusta. We generally don’t use a sugared rim other than for classics that specifically call for them. For a cocktail dinner this past winter we did a course with battling old fashioneds and for the Wisconsin style, we created candied orange twists. Candied ginger is another interesting garnish. Liqueur rinses are another way to garnish a cocktail. Rinsing a glass can give an interesting aroma as well as subtle flavor.
do all cocktails need a sweet element?
Yes. But just to clarify, is vodka shaken with olive juice a cocktail? No. Is a gin and seltzer a cocktail? No. Cocktails have a sweet element. Even a stirred gin martini with dry vermouth and orange bitters has a sweetening agent — the vermouth was fortified with some type of sweetening agent and the wine itself carries residual sugars. This is not to say that all cocktails must be sweet, just that they cannot be balanced without some sweetening agent. Even a bitter liqueur like Campari has a sweet element.
scenario: new bar and you don’t know the bartender’s style … is there a polite way to make sure they don’t hit you over the head with a glass full of sweetness?
Having an understanding of what a guest is looking for in their cocktail and the know-how to create that dialogue is an important part of what it means to be a great bartender. Not all cocktails are created equally and when crafting a drink menu, a bartender or bar manager is most likely trying to put a list together that is well rounded and hits as many palates as possible. Even the finest cocktail bars in the world are going to have a fruit-forward cocktail or two on their menu.
Most craft bartenders won’t serve an overly sweet cocktail as they’ll understand how to balance sweetness with the other elements of the cocktail. If you do ask for a not-too-sweet cocktail, it’s necessary to give more descriptors. Citrusy, light, bitter, stirred, boozy, floral are all ways to give a bartender some direction. With that said, as bartenders we definitely would rather have a guest give us some direction before making a cocktail then having to tweak it or remake it after the fact because it isn’t too their liking. So it isn’t rude to ask your bartender to not make your cocktail overly sweet.
- 1 ounce Paul Masson Brandy
- ¾ ounce Domaine de Canton
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- 1 ½ ounces sparkling wine
- Shake lightly without sparkling wine, strain through tea strainer into champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a lemon twist.
Milk Punch (1862)
- 1 ½ ounces Tariquet Armagnac
- ½ ounce Cruzan Blackstrap
- 1 ounce simple syrup
- 2 dashes bourbon vanilla extract
- 2 ounces whole milk
- Shake lightly, strain into a glass mug filled with fresh ice. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.