Straight Up: How to Create Your Own Cocktail Recipes

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Over the past few months here at The Kitchn, there’s been a lot of talk of “cooking by feel” – of bypassing the comfortable authority cookbooks often seem to offer, and taking a more creative and intuitive to approach to preparing meals. But what about applying this freestyle, seat-of-the-pants technique to mixing drinks?

Over the weekend, I did just that.

On Saturday, I attended one in an ongoing series of workshops led by Jonathan Pogash at the Astor Center called “The Elements of Mixology.” There were eleven of us in the class, with diverse cocktailian backgrounds: enthusiastic beginners, seasoned home cocktail makers, along with a few diehard bartending professionals.

After a quick but thorough overview of cocktail history and technique, we were divided into groups of two or three. We then got down to business: In the style of Iron Chef, each team was given a surprise ingredient to work with (unveiled from under a bar towel) and then allotted 40 minutes to design an original cocktail.

With a comprehensively large bar at our disposal, replete with a wide range of spirits, fresh fruit garnishes and juices, sweeteners (simple syrup and agave), and a dazzling array of bitters, we felt a little like kids in a candy store. But it was also a bit overwhelming. Our group’s key ingredient was Celtic Crossing, a honey-like liqueur with an Irish whiskey base. Where to begin?

We reviewed Jonathan’s basic cocktail-designing principles:

  • First try to form a clear taste “picture” of your ingredients together in your mind, then tweak the recipe through hands-on trial and error. (Like cooking by feel, this skill comes with practice.)
  • Short cocktails (those served straight up in a “martini” glass) are generally 4 ounces total: 3 ounces ingredients (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) plus 1 ounce of water dilution created by shaking or stirring the ice.
  • Remember balance: Use equal parts of sweet and sour, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic components (where applicable).
  • Shake drinks containing juice or (non-carbonated) mixer. Stir drinks that are 100 percent alcohol.
  • Always use fresh juices, syrups, etc., NEVER pre-made mixes.
  • Use the proper type of ice (large cubes for shaken and stirred cocktails).
  • Don’t forget small touches. A drop of bitters or a twist of lemon or lime rubbed around the edge of the glass and then dropped into the drink can make a world of difference.

The pressure was on and the clock was ticking. (Okay, we were having fun.) But after a few undrinkable, Frankenstein-like prototypes, our group finally came up with something we were pretty pleased with:

Celtic Crossover
makes one cocktail

2 oz. Ardbeg Single Malt Scotch Whisky (a smoky Islay malt)
1 oz. Celtic Crossing Liqueur
2 dashes Regans’ Orange Bitters
2 dashes Fee Brothers Orange Bitters

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with an orange peel rubbed around the rim of the glass and then dropped inside the cocktail.

Have you ever designed your own cocktail? Any original recipes you’d like to share? Let us know!

Related: Cooking Without Recipes: Understanding Flavor

(Image: Nora Maynard)