Now we get down to the important part of craft cocktail making. In our previous installments, we described the role that acidity, sugar and bitterness play in balancing and harmonizing a cocktail. Each component can work either separately, or in various combinations to produce something worth drinking.
While it is possible to make a cocktail without bitters or acid or sweetness, it is impossible to make a cocktail without alcohol. It is the canvas for every other flavor in a drink. Most craft cocktail creators think about alcohol for its flavor rather than its physiological effects ... and alcohol has many. So consider this your fair warning – there’s going to be more chemistry and genetics from here on out. Don’t worry, it’s all good stuff.
First, we need some definitions. From a chemical standpoint, an “alcohol” is simply a compound with a hydroxyl group (-OH) bonded to a carbon atom. Lots of things that you wouldn’t want to ingest are technically alcohols, including methanol (or wood alcohol, which causes blindness and death), cetyl alcohol (used in shampoo and lotions), and geraniol, which smells like roses, but is probably unpleasant to taste.
What we’re talking about is ethanol (you chemistry types have probably figured out that the –ol ending denotes an alcohol), a colorless, volatile, flammable liquid produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeast. Evidence of fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage for human consumption dates back 9,000 years. Separating the ethanol from the non-alcoholic liquid is called distillation, and was first recorded in the 12th century in the southern Italian port city of Solerno. It was there that alchemists gathered the works of the ancient Greeks, along with new advances from the Islamic world and translated them into Latin.
Fermentation and distillation provide all the forms and types of alcohol we get to play with. Let’s start by stripping away everything but the pure ethanol. As an experiment, take about half an ounce of Everclear (hopefully the 190 proof stuff, but vodka will work in a pinch), and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds before spitting it out. Weird isn’t it? Oily textured, sweet, burning and cold at the same time? Feel a little tipsy now, do you? Good… let’s look at those four effects.
At least in rat brains (but probably also in humans), ethanol activates neural pathways that respond to sucrose. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. One gram of alcohol has seven calories (less than fat at 9, but more than protein or carbohydrates at 4), all of which are absorbed by the body, so your half ounce of Everclear, if you had swallowed it, would give you around 95 calories.
Alcohol also evaporates quickly, especially at body temperature. This evaporative cooling is why wine tasters swirl their glass – the evaporation of alcohol off the thin crystal carries aroma and compounds to the nose more effectively than the alcohol simply evaporating out of the surrounding liquid.
Here’s where things get strange. It turns out that some clever people figured out that TRPV-1, the same ion channel responsible for the burning sensation of capsaicin, is activated by ethanol. This ion channel is responsible for telling the body that it’s being burned, and triggers at 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Ethanol lowers this trigger threshold down to 93 degrees, which is lower than body temperature, so that you feel a burning sensation. This is also why distilled spirits taste “hot” at room temperature.
Finally, alcohol is absorbed by every mucosal surface in the body, including the mouth, stomach, intestinal tract, and, well, the lowest part of the intestinal tract. It gets into the blood quickly, where it is transported to the liver, which uses an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase to metabolize it into acetaldehyde, which is then further metabolized into acetate. Acetaldehyde is toxic, and exposure leads to nausea, vomiting and headaches. Sound familiar?
In cocktail usage, alcohol is quite interesting. First, there’s no getting around it. Alcohol is going to be in your cocktail, and knowing how it acts can help build well balanced drinks. Alcohol is weirdly sweet, and like sugar, not only binds disparate flavors together but softens acidity as well. Alcohol and bitterness are a bit more combative – alcohol enhances bitter flavors. Alcohol also increases the texture of a cocktail, but too much becomes hot and fumy.
While finding a cocktail without a significant addition of sugar, acidity or bitterness is difficult, think about the difference between a glass of Scotch and a Scotch and soda. The addition of water “opens” the spirit (making it easier to detect flavors and aromas). It decreases the proof of the spirit, reducing the irritating effects of the alcohol. It removes the oily texture of the Scotch and since most club soda comes out of the refrigerator, it drops the temperature of the drink in the mouth below the triggering threshold of 93 degrees.[
One of the other secrets of alcohol is that is boils (evaporates) at 172 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why you can light a Blue Blazer on fire but not a glass of Scotch. If you’re making a warm cocktail, please remember that you should use less alcohol than you think you need, as its impact in the finished drink will be magnified in both aroma and sensation in the mouth. Drinking a Martini at 28 degrees is much different than drinking a Tom and Jerry at 185 degrees. Ingredients that interfere with the perception of alcohol (like sugar and dairy products) can help mitigate the effects temperature on a drink.
Looking at specific cocktails, one that violates a lot of the rules is The Brave, from Anvil Bar and Refuge in Houston. The Brave combines smoky Mezcal and Sotol with a bare amount of sweetener in the form of Curaçao and some Averna and Angostura bitters. The drink is made at room temperature, and is poured into a snifter, both of which magnify alcohol aromas. There is also very little to get in the way of the primary spirits, so that balance is only achieved through a very careful balancing act.
The Martini is balanced in a different fashion. Here, gin at 80 or 90 proof is chilled and reduced in proof through the action of dry vermouth to 30 to 40 proof in a ratio of two or three to one. Dry vermouth has an incredibly complex balance of sweetness, acidity and delicate bitterness, and combined with the chilling and dilution, tames the gin’s alcohol level while enhancing the green/piney character of juniper.
While craft cocktails can certainly be made through trial and error, for the home enthusiast, pouring good alcohol down the drain can be an expensive and frustrating proposition. With an understanding of how the basic building blocks of cocktails work both with and against each other to produce balance and harmony, better drinking can be your reward.
Editors Note: This is the last in a 4-part series on cocktail construction by Kindred Cocktails editor, Zachary Pearson.