Zooming In On Ingredients

Yesterday I was at the Diageo World Class seminar in Cleveland. A question popped up that really illuminated to me why the modern cocktail movement is basically playing in a different league than the old-school, classic cocktailers.

The question was something to the effect of “How many ingredients should be in a great cocktail.” The available answers were 3-4, 5-6, or as many as it takes. There was a handy-dandy live poll to see what people said and probably over 100 people in attendance.

From a classic perspective, the first two answers (which about 80% of people chose) would seem on the surface to make sense. A Manhattan is a fantastic cocktail, and its whiskey, bitters, and vermouth. Three ingredients right? A lot of people like to argue that if a cocktail has 7+ ingredients it’s a jumbled mess, and I think we’ve all had a bartender whose eagerness exceeds his skill level serve us a kitchen sink cocktail that was horrendous once or twice.

But let’s unpack that Manhattan for a second. First off, you have aromatic bitters. Let’s go with good old Angostura. What’s in Angostura? We don’t know exactly, but we know it’s a maceration of several different herbs in alcohol. This recipe from Serious Eats which attempts to replicate it contains 11 flavors (herbs, peels, raisin, sugar) in addition to whatever is in the alcohol. Ango is basically a blend of several different tinctures.

Then we have our sweet vermouth. Sweet vermouth is a lot like bitters. Several different herbs are added to wine, along with caramel for coloring and sweetness. Here’s a recipe from Serious Eats for those inclined to make their own. I count 12 separate ingredients, though perhaps we should ignore water as its already the predominate ingredient in every cocktail. And there are a couple overlapping with the bitters.

But you get my point. Before we’ve even added the rye, we’re probably close to 20 ingredients. And each ingredient itself is probably made of multiple different volatile organic compounds, not to mention all of the flavors in the rye that get through distilling or come from the wood after, but we’ll stay zoomed out a little bit for clarity here.

I’ve recently gotten into making tinctures a little bit. It’s a science I’d like to get down more. Unfortunately, in most states it’s hard to get really high proof neutral alcohol. Everclear has some bad flavors associated with it that make it unsuitable for really anything I think. I got a couple bottles of Technical Reserve, which is basically exactly what I am looking for but expensive and unavailable in most states, from New York to tide me over for a bit and I’ve been playing around with them. I’ll be delving more into it when I get a stable source of low cost, neutral, high proof spirits, which I think will be very soon.


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