It seems like the simplest thing in the world: take a bit of lime juice, add some sugar and rum, shake it up with ice and strain it into a glass… the perfect daiquiri right? Well then why is it that sometimes I am left so disappointed by what should be the simplest of drinks? At other times I see the bartender reaching for flavours that are strong and counter-intuitive, but the finished drink is the embodiment of liquid perfection. It comes down to a matter of balance!
I was judging a cocktail competition recently and got talking to a young bartender who’s new to the trade, is passionate about cocktails and wants to learn more. He comes from a food background so understands flavour, but as he put it, ‘I just don’t quite know what I have to do to balance one ingredient against the next’. It made me wonder just how many young bartenders are banging out drinks to the spec they’ve been given by their bar manager, but who have never actually been shown how to balance a drink.
Well that seemed like the perfect reason for me to have a look at what it takes to balance a drink. It’s something that experienced bartenders seem to make look so easy but is the difference between having a great drinking experience or vowing never to return to the bar you’re visiting. It’s definitely one of the most important factors in making a drink and yet it seems it is seldom discussed.
SOUR TO SWEET
When you bring it down to basics there’s the rule of ‘sour to sweet and strong to weak’ that perhaps gives the building blocks to start from. The idea is that every sour ingredient needs some sweetness to balance it out, and every strong ingredient, (be it alcohol content or strong flavour) needs a weak ingredient to tone it down.
This certainly works for a lot of the basic drinks that every bartender should be able to make well. The daiquiri, as I mentioned earlier, is a great example of this, with 25 ml of lime juice being balanced by 10 ml of gomme, and 50 ml of white rum being toned down by water, in the form of dilution from being shaken hard with plenty of ice. I always bare this approximate ratio in mind when I am working with citrus.
But of course not all sweet ingredients are as sweet as sugar (or gomme)… and that’s where it gets a bit more complicated. If you use a liqueur as your sweetener, for example, then as a rough guide you’ll need twice as much as you would sugar, to create the same sweetness; so when balancing against citrus, I’d use about 2 parts citrus to one part sugar or roughly equal measures of liqueur to citrus. Unless of course you are using a sweet citrus like orange or pink grapefruit… I think I’m beginning to see why so many people find balancing a drink difficult!
For me it comes down to thinking about the taste profile of the sour ingredient I’m working with and then imagining roughly how much sweetness I might need to add to achieve a balanced finished product. A little hint to the less experienced bartenders out there… use less sweet than you think you need, as it’s easier to add more later than to rebalance an entire drink.
I’ve heard lots of debate about tasting a drink as you make it and I can see both sides of the argument. Peter Dorelli is famously quoted as hating to see bartenders dip-tasting (dipping a straw into a half finished drink, placing your finger over the end and drawing out a small amount to taste), as he believes an experienced bartender, using familiar ingredients should be able to make a balanced drink easily enough. To my mind this is true to an extent, but taking a sip gives you not only the chance to adjust the drink but to learn about how different ingredients balance against each other. I say dip, sip and learn!
STRONG TO WEAK
So now we have sweet versus sour under control, what about strong versus weak? Let’s start with alcohol content. Most cocktails should be refreshing and pleasant to drink, and often the base spirit needs a little toning down to make it really enjoyable. Water is the most obvious liquid when it comes to diluting a drink, so simply giving a drink a good stir or a shake will add enough dilution to give you your balance. The ice isn’t there just to make the drink cold.
Diluting a drink is another tricky balancing act that takes a bit of practice as there’s a fine line between a drink being too strong or too watered down. Getting it right takes a bit of common sense, a bit of practice and a bit of thought about how the drink is being served. A drink served with crushed ice for example will naturally get watered down as you drink it, where as one served straight up needs to be perfectly diluted when it leaves the shaker or mixing glass. Drinks served on the rocks can get away with less dilution as the ice will melt slowly as you are sipping.
To my mind stirred drinks are probably the ones that take the gentlest touch as the range in which a drink is perfect is pretty small. Perhaps the perfect example of this is the Old Fashioned where the drink has to be slowly stirred to open up the flavour of the bourbon, but needs to be stopped while it still has a punch as it is served on the rocks.
Drop a bitters soaked sugar cube into the bottom of an old fashioned glass and add a small splash of soda water. Crush the sugar cube using the flat end of a barspoon until it is dissolved into the soda water. Add three ice cubes and a splash of good bourbon and stir slowly for about 30 seconds, before adding a few more ice cubes and some more bourbon. Continue this process, tasting it from time to time until you have added about 60 ml of bourbon and have a taste that suits you. Remember the drink will continue to dilute as you drink it so don’t over do the stirring. Finish it of with a lemon twist.
The whole issue of balance in a drink gets more complicated still when you start using strongly flavoured ingredients, as these also need something weak to soften them, to avoid overpowering the drink. Sometimes that weak ingredient is just dilution, but in many cases it may be a fruit juice or mixer, especially in the case of tall drinks.
This for me is where a lot of drinks go wrong. One of the comps I judged recently featured several very refreshing drinks, but in all honesty I could have been drinking a mix of fruit juices, as I couldn’t even taste the base spirit. Think about the flavour of the spirit you are using and what might accentuate it, not what will drown it.
In the case of my favourite tiki drink, the Zombie, there are strong flavours, strong spirits and sour elements that all need balancing to make an enjoyable drink. Punchy rum gets softened with the use of fruit juices, lemon and lime have their sour edge taken down a notch by the passion fruit syrup and a touch of brown sugar, and the whole drink is opened up by dilution from the crushed ice, given a little structure with a dash of bitters and finally made fragrant by a sprig of mint. It is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of creating a balanced drink without losing the essence of the ingredients. Tropical fruit flavours and rich rum - made refreshing and easy to drink.
To make a perfectly balanced Zombie you have to turn to Don Beach’s original recipe where he dissolved a barspoon of brown sugar into 30 ml of lemon juice before adding 30 ml each of golden Puerto Rican rum, 151 proof Demerara rum, white Puerto Rican rum, unsweetened pineapple juice, fresh lime juice and passion fruit syrup along with a dash of Angostura bitters. Add plenty of crushed ice to the shaker and give a quick shake before tipping it all into a Collins glass and finishing off with more ice if needed and a sprig of mint.
Of course there is also such a thing as having too much balance. Sometimes such a perfect balance is struck up between sweet and sour, strong and weak, that all you are left with is a bland uninspiring drink. The trick is to decide which flavours you wish to accentuate and what character you want your drink to have. Should it be long and tropical? Or maybe sharp and refreshing? Or maybe you want the base spirit to really come through and be supported by simple ingredients that will lengthen but not overpower it?
Yep, balancing a drink is not always as easy as you might think, but taking a moment to consider each of the ingredients and complement they need to make them shine, should take you a step in the right direction. And of course, if you need a second opinion about a drink you’ve created I’m always happy to come down to your bar and offer a second opinion!