Her drinks sound delicious. An apple bourbon old-fashioned, or a dark and stormy with brown butter banana rum. To create these flavors, Gabriella Mlynarczyk, a bartender at Ink, will sous vide liquor in fruit, “fat wash” booze with bacon grease, and even use a smoking gun to make a spirit taste toasted, but when I ask her if there’s one secret to designing the perfect cocktail, she doesn’t hesitate.
“There’s definitely a formula,” she says. “My basic ratio for any drink is usually 1.5 to 2 ounces of alcohol, to one ounce of tart, to one ounce of sweet.”
That’s 2:1:1, liquor to tart to sweet. Of course, now that you know Mlynarczyk’s magic number, it’s time to pick her brain on all those variables within the equation of the perfect drink.
“I kind of compare making a drink to making perfume,” Mlynarczyk tells me. “When you think about a scent, it has to have several layers. Once the alcohol evaporates, what are you left with?
“Most perfumes started with a solid base note. So I start tasting different spirits, trying to figure out which one I want to start with as my base mix for the drink. Because at the end of the day, when you take a sip of the cocktail, what you’re going to be left with is that base flavor.”
That base note spirit, first and foremost, must be complementary with whatever her muse for the drink may be—and usually that’s food. With this approach, infusing bananas and butter in rum is a natural fit (think bananas foster) because bananas foster will sit at the base of the drink. Everything else can be like a topping.
With the base liquor chosen (and it should be noted, you could always have two alcohols in this base), the sweet and tart elements become the canvas for creativity. A tart element could be something like a grapefruit or lime juice, while a sweet element could include simple syrup, agave, a (lower ABV) liqueur, and plenty of far less concentrated sweet options like orange juice. With this framework in mind, the mix-and-match possibilities are endless.
But Mlynarczyk says that the difference between good drinks and great drinks is often their length—how long their flavor can sit in your mouth, intriguing your mind “after it hits your gullet.” By making these sweet and tart elements complementary to the base flavor, you’ll extend the experience of the cocktail. (This base-flavor approach is also why Mlynarczyk tends to be drawn to brown spirits for her creations. Whiskeys tend to have more complementary flavors than tequila or vodka.)
“I have a cocktail I played with for a while that had a lot of popcorn in it. I wanted to prolong that flavor of popcorn, so I used an unaged white corn whiskey,” she explains. “During the first sip you take, usually you taste the whiskey. Then it progresses in this long-lasting buttered popcorn flavor. Without the two [corn flavors], I don’t think you’d get that.”
With your 2:1:1 core cocktail complete, the next step is that of adding aromatics. And the easiest way to do that is to add a few drops of bitters—a scant amount of liquid that won’t throw your ratio out of whack.
“Technically, in the classic cocktail world, a cocktail is not a cocktail unless it contains bitters,” she explains, referencing the fact that the original formula for a cocktail was just alcohol, sugar, and bitters. “If you don’t add bitters, you can taste something missing. They add this final kind of balance that brings everything together—like the glue.”
But bitters aren’t the only solution. Another way you can add that complex glue quickly is through a wash on the inside of the glass with something like absinthe. Or you could also use a hydrosol, which is a distillate of herbs or flowers suspended in water or oil. That vocabulary sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Have you heard of rosewater? Okay, that’s a hydrosol.
At the same time, don’t let these extra ingredients get out of hand. Most of Mlynarczyk’s drinks consist of just five ingredients. Beyond that, the flavors can quickly become muddled, plus it’s hard to mix anything more complex for hundreds of patrons a night.
Whatever you have at this point should taste pretty good, but what if it’s just too boozy? What if it’s simply not very satisfying? Or what if it would just look more beautiful in a taller glass? These are issues you can tweak at the end of your cocktail design process, by altering the potency and mouthfeel.
“I’m not crazy about just adding water to a cocktail, but it is more interesting to have bubbles,” Mlynarczyk says. “So I tend to add beer to a lot of my highball drinks because I love beer. It adds a yeasty or floral quality.” She also prefers to dilute a drink with champagne or soda water that’s been enhanced with some citric acid and simple syrup (again, playing on that idea of tart and sweet). And don’t be afraid to call your bubbles “effervescents” to amp up the snob factor.
In other cases, you may not want to water down the flavors of your cocktail, but it may still seem too boozy. This is a case where changing the texture can alter the experience. An egg white or gomme syrup (a thickening simple syrup) can inject a silkiness that will distract from the burn.
Now, none of this is all that complicated. Just keep in mind, you can’t simply eye these measurements up once you’ve figured them out. “Cocktail making is very much like baking in that you need to measure every little ingredient or your balance is going to get completely thrown off,” Mlynarczyk stresses.
James Bond famously orders his vodka martinis “shaken, not stirred,” but in this particular case, Bond is actually wrong. As Mlynarczyk points out, the rule of thumb is that you stir spirits and you shake juices. The core idea is that you don’t want to water down a martini, but when you’re working with juices (usually citrus), a shaken drink will hold together the entire beverage’s structure, longer.
“I think the perception that a shaken drink will get colder than a stirred one is actually incorrect,” Mlynarczyk explains. “If you crack your ice, then you stir it, you get far more chill on the drink than you would shaking it. But some people, you can’t change their mind. They want shards of ice in their drink.”
For any drink on the rocks, ice should be thick and dense—those solid cubes that look straight out of Antarctica’s freezer, so favored by mixologists, have nothing to do with saving money; they actually melt more slowly, watering down your drink less as you enjoy it.
As a final case study, I toss Mlynarczyk a challenge, to tweak one of my favorite, super-minimal margarita recipes for the better. I only realize how unfair it is of me after the fact. Bon Appetit’s agave margarita follows much of Mlynarczyk’s methodology to a T. It’s 2:1:1—two parts tequila, one part lime juice (tart), one part agave syrup (sweet). Two of the components are sourced from agave, making it complementary. And it’s shaken, to dilute the acidity while stabilizing the solution. Even still, Mlynarczyk sees plenty of room for improvement.
“A classic margarita has an orange liqueur in it. You’re missing the orange liqueur!” she responds to my simple-minded agave abomination. “If you didn’t want to go with an orange liqueur, I’d add an orange bitter. You could also infuse your tequila with orange zest.” Her other recommendation is that I replace some or all of the tequila with mezcal.
Instantly, without tasting it, I recognize that a half shot of mezcal and a splash of orange bitters will make my go-to margarita even better. But I’ll be testing Mlynarczyk’s hypothesis—for science.
Read more about cocktails on Mlynarczyk’s blog.
[Hat tip: Cool Hunting]