How to Invent a Cocktail, Part VI of VI

(Recently, my friend Luke quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here. I created a signature cocktail for the launch party, and because I sometimes get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought you might like to see my thought process for this one. It's a longish story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe. Last week's chapter, "Trusting your gut, even when your gut just gave you every reason not to." can be found here.)

Chapter 6: Reaching a recipe by technique and tinkering.
Cognac ended up being a really good choice, and very little more was required besides mucking around with the proportions. I left the absinthe out, kept the Peychaud's in, traded the lemon twist for lemon juice, and held onto the kirschwasser as the star ingredient. I also added simple syrup, which deserves a story of its own.

For a long time, I thought of simple syrup as existing for the primary purpose of making drinks sweeter. And I suppose that's technically true, but it's not the only thing it does in a cocktail, and in many cases it isn't the most noticeable or the most important. Given how long I've been at this and the whole scientific research thing, it surprises me that it took me so long to appreciate the other benefits of simple syrup.

First of all, it affects the mouthfeel of the drink. Simple syrup adds viscosity, and it doesn't take a lot to make the drink as a whole feel richer and fuller-bodied. If you try using different concentrations of simple syrup (e.g., 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, instead of 1:1), you'll notice that the same volumes have different effects on the texture and feel of the drink. We often forget it, but cocktails are a tactile experience, too.

Second, sweetness affects your perception of other flavors present in the recipe. There's a theory that your body interprets the sugar as a sign that this is good, calorie-dense food, heightening your awareness of things like, for instance, the fruity flavors of raisin and cherry in this drink. It also seems to round out sourness, which may be why we add sugar to drinks that use citrus juice. We don't have a perfect, complete map of the changes in perceived flavor due to added sugar (at least, not that I know of), but if you find yourself working on a recipe that seems to be just a little bit off, and you aren't sure what's the matter, try adding a quarter of an ounce of simple syrup and see if that improves it.

That was the technique I used, and it paid off so well I ended up doubling it. After some tinkering with the other proportions, I settled on a recipe I was very happy with. The color ends up being a warm, slightly red- or orange-tinted amber, reminiscent of the old streetlights with sodium bulbs. That tipped the scales, and the drink officially became the Nightglow.


2 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. Kirschwasser
1/2 oz. 1:1 Simple Syrup
1/4 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and serve.

I designed this using Courvoisier, which is my go-to cocktail Cognac and makes this a damn fine drink. Most of the Cognacs you'll come across can be substituted for one another, but I find that Hennessy has a harsh overtone and too much wood, and so I try to avoid using it unless the recipe specifically benefits from those elements.

Having said that, at the launch party for Abacus, there was one bottle each of Hennessy and Courvoisier, and I decided I'd rather use a 50:50 blend in each drink than have 100% Courvoisier at the beginning of the night and 100% Hennessy at the end. I was very pleasantly surprised by the results. So if you're the sort of person who keeps multiple cocktail Cognacs in your house, you should give this a try with an ounce of each. (And we should be friends!)

That's all for this series! If you've got a reason to commission a cocktail recipe from me - whether it's for an important person in your life, a special occasion, or the hell of it - this is the kind of process I'll go through to make it. Email if you'd like one of your very own!

Vieux Carré

Vieux Carré (dry)

1 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. dry vermouth
2 barspoons Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir before adding bitters. Serve neat or with ice, as you prefer.

I’ve been wanting to put this one up for a while. I made these left, right, and center while Mardi Gras was upon us, but they were going down so fast I never got a photo of one. Until now!

"Vieux Carré" is the French name for what Anglophones would call the French Quarter, New Orleans’s oldest, most famous neighborhood. The Vieux Carré is not New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, that honor probably falling to the Sazerac, but it was invented there, at the Carousel Bar of the Hotel Monteleone.

This is a nice cocktail in that all of the recipes are very similar. It’s not quite as formulaic as the Negroni, but it’s reasonably easy to get in your head. Start with equal parts of whiskey, brandy and vermouth. Add a spoonful or so of Bénédictine, then top with equal parts of Angostura and Peychaud’s (ordinarily one or two dashes). All the recipes I’ve seen for the Vieux Carré can be described like this, although they quibble over the precise numbers. Mine is more Bénédictine-heavy than most, but, hey, I like Bénédictine.

The Vieux Carré is most commonly found with sweet vermouth. I have to credit Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails with the knowledge that it can be made with the dry stuff as well. It’s a perfect one-for-one substitution. That’s not always the case - Jon and I had to do a lot more doctoring when we tried to make a dry Americano. But in this case, don’t stress about your vermouth. I just use whichever I feel like that day, or in this case, happen to have on hand.

According to Haigh, this drink had been forgotten at the Carousel Bar itself, until very recently. I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case. The Carousel Bar is, in fact, where I first met the Vieux Carré, during Tales of the Cocktail in 2012.

Peychaud’s Bitters

Very happy to announce I’ve gone out and gotten myself a bottle of Peychaud’s. It’s about time - they’ve been around for two hundred years.

Peychaud’s is the signature bitters of New Orleans, and is essential in both the Sazerac (whose namesake company now produces the bitters) and the Vieux Carré. Followers of the blog may remember a version of that second drink I put up a while back, substituting cardamom bitters for the Peychaud’s. That’ll work in a pinch, but it’s not the same.

Peychaud’s’s flavor profile (there’s got to be a better way to render that possessive) hits anise and cherry notes most strikingly. In addition to being a storied bitters that is often specifically called for, it makes a fun variation for Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, or really anything that calls for bitters. I’m going to enjoy playing around with it.