Cocktails at Home Part 2 – Dilution
I know when I first started out making cocktails at home I was itching to get straight in there and start shaking. After all, that’s what cocktails are all about, right? I soon learned quite how little I knew, and how bad I was at imitating the professionals. The problem was I didn’t know where I was going wrong; was it the ingredients, the recipe, the ice, the length of shake, the force of shake etc etc. Soon I learned that cocktail making is founded in a number of basic principles, most fundamentally perhaps is dilution.
Forgetting for a moment the category of hot cocktails, by far the majority use ice in one form or another. Ice fulfils two functions; it chills the drink, and it dilutes the drink. Achieving the correct amount of dilution is key to any cold cocktail and thus is one of the fundamental skills that anyone making drinks at home must learn. Dilution is achieved in two different ways; through shaking the ingredients with ice, and through stirring them with ice. We shall talk in later posts about the differences between each technique, and when to use each one but for now we shall focus on stirring, for this presents perhaps the easiest way to monitor the dilution throughout the creation of a drink and therefore learn about its effects.
The ‘Old Fashioned’ cocktail is one of the most recognised classics across the world. It is beautiful in it’s simplicity, consisting of just spirit, sugar, bitters and water (through dilution of ice), yet is also a delicious favourite of many. Mastering the old fashioned takes time, but it is a great drink to learn about dilution and its impact on the drink. What follows is a step by step guide to making the old fashioned, and in doing so, learning about dilution. You’ll need an ‘aged’ spirit of your choosing, sugar syrup (see stage 1), some cocktail bitters (e.g. Angostura), ice, a mixing glass and stirrer, and an orange to garnish.
You’ll first need to fix yourself some sugar syrup. This can be bought from cocktail/spirit suppliers but it is easy as pie to make at home. Just gently heat two parts sugar with one part water in a pan until all the sugar dissolves. Let it cool and decant into a clean jar.
Pick your spirit to act as the base of the old fashioned. I would stick with ‘aged’ spirits, with bourbon, rye, rum and tequila all making good options. Taste a small amount neat before you start to remind yourself of the flavours you are about to mix with; this will help to learn how dilution and the other ingredients affect things.
Add 25ml of your chosen spirit to a mixing glass with four ice cubes and stir for approximately 20 revolutions. Taste a small sample by putting your finger over one end of a straw and dipping the other end into the liquid, keep your finger over the end and bring the ‘dipped’ end to your mouth, release your finger and hey presto an easy way to taste cocktails! At this stage the liquid should be decidedly colder than neat, and diluted a little. Perhaps a few flavours will be more apparent due to the dilution, and the liquid will be ‘easier’ to drink due to the lower ABV. It will however, taste a little ‘watery’ and lacking in depth,which is where stage 4 comes in.
Add 10ml of the sugar syrup you made earlier, a couple of dashes of your bitters of choice, and another couple of ice cubes. Stir for another 20 revolutions and taste again. Although the liquid has been diluted yet again, note the effect the bitters and sugar syrup have had. You should find that the flavours have been enhanced, akin to adding salt and pepper to a food dish. The sugar will also have helped smooth the drink.
Add another 25ml of your chosen spirit, a couple more ice cubes, and stir again for another 20 or so revolutions. A final tasting reveals the (almost) finished cocktail. The alcohol kick of your chosen spirit will be mellowed by the dilution, but it’s flavours enhanced by the bitters and sugar syrup. It should be silky smooth, deep flavoured and just a touch on the sweet side. You’ll know when you have nailed it, as it will be one of the most delicious things your have ever tasted!
The final stage is to strain (using a julep strainer or hawthorne) your drink into a chilled glass in which you have placed either a large block of ice, or several smaller cubes. All that is left is to garnish with a twist of orange peel which can be achieved by cutting a slice of peel from an orange using a potato peeler and twisting over the drink to release it’s oils, before popping on top. The orange twist gives a nice citrus aroma that will complement the sweet liquor underneath.
Hopefully the way the Old Fashioned changes during its creation has helped demonstrate the importance of dilution, and how it affects the cocktail. You’ll be pretty lucky to have achieved the perfect balance first time around, so keep practicing. If it’s too ‘watery’ stir a little less, too strong, then stir a little more. The amount of sugar to add is personal preference, so adjust to the sweetness of the spirit you are using and your own palate. Finally, try making the same drink but leave adding the bitters until the very end, and try the drink first, note how ‘flat’ the flavour is?