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!

How to Invent a Cocktail, Part V 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, "Taking stock - now what have we got?" can be found here.)

Chapter 5: Trusting your gut, even when your gut gives you every reason not to.
If I've learned anything from creative pursuits - cocktails, writing, or otherwise - it's that you have to listen to your instincts. They'll be wrong occasionally (or often, when you're trying something new), and that's OK. That's how you learn.

Best of all, sometimes your gut will tell you something that sounds bizarre but works on some deeper level. No matter how nicely bitter, herbal flavors contrast with pineapple, the Jungle Bird must still have seemed ridiculous the first time it was tried, because what kind of nut puts Campari in a tiki drink?

You miss opportunities like that if you become dismissive of your own ideas. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially when you know other people have been doing something longer than you, or do it better than you. This is why a lot of authors practice spontaneous writing: if you do it right, you're too busy writing to think about all the ways in which the writing is bad, which frees you to actually write. You can edit later, when you actually have something written.

I've been making cocktails for a long time now, and my instincts are, on the whole, pretty good. That's what I reminded myself when I went back to the drawing board with the following two thoughts:

  • Given how poorly this has gone so far, it's weird that I thought it would work at all, let alone through so much tinkering. Maybe I should can the whole thing and look to a different poem for inspiration.
  • Wait this drink might actually work with Cognac.

In retrospect, I can tell you exactly why the Cognac worked. The subtle wood and strong fruit flavor (raisin, in this case) complement the plantiness and the cherry of the kirschwasser. There are no distracting savory or evergreen notes. It doesn't have the oiliness of gin, which was causing textural problems I didn't even get into before. And the warm, rich lactones of an aged spirit base gave the cocktail a depth that could support everything else.

But that wasn't a conscious thought process at the time. "Cognac!" popped into my head, and I went with it. I knew that even if my judgment was compromised that day, at least this would turn out badly in a different way, which was enough for me to give my mind's palate the benefit of the doubt.

I want to save the big reveal for next week, but I did promise you a recipe. Since this week brought us back around to Cognac, and we'll spend some of next week on the importance of simple syrup, I'll leave you today with a cocktail that uses both extremely well: Joaquín Simó's Sidecar.


Simó Sidecar
2 oz. Cognac
3/4 oz. Curaçao
3/4 oz. Lemon Juice
1 tsp. 2:1 Demerara Simple Syrup
Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel (or not at all).

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 6: Reaching a recipe by technique and tinkering."

How to Invent a Cocktail, Part I of VI

I do enjoy a good recipe challenge. I've had a few friends ask me to come up with signature recipes for special occasions, particularly weddings. It manages to be a nice and very personal alternative to a traditional wedding present - as well as a lasting one, because I give them the recipe.

(Shameless plug: I will also do this for money! If you want to commission a custom cocktail recipe, there's contact information at the bottom of this page.)

Recently, a friend of mine quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here; doing so may help you understand the rest of this post. I'm always happy to see people produce interesting writing, particularly when they're people I know, and this is an interesting volume: every poem is constrained in some way beyond the verse form. If you're familiar with Gadsby, the novel written without the use of the letter "e", that's the sort of thing going on in each poem, except that doing without a single letter is much easier in a poem than it is in a novel, and so the constraints Luke has chosen for his poetry tend to be stricter.

In any case, we had a launch party for his book, and I was placed in charge of the signature drink. Because I occasionally get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought it might be interesting for fans of the blog to see my thought process for this one described in depth, particularly because, in this case, it turned out poorly before it turned out well.

This is a somewhat long story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe. 

Chapter One: What goes into an artist's cocktail? 
Ingredients and cocktail styles often acquire associations over time. If you wanted a drink to evoke New Orleans, you would probably use Peychaud's bitters. For Vermont, you'd reach for the bottle of maple syrup. Dozens of bars have played with the Jungle Bird's rum-bitters-pineapple formula and put the results on their menus with avian names. If the cocktail's name has "revive" or "reviver" in it, you can bet it's a variation on the Corpse Reviver #2 (not even on the less popular Corpse Reviver #1); if it has "Word," odds are it's a Last Word riff. And if you call something a "Julep," people are expecting mint and thinking of Dixie, even though the word got its start in the Middle East talking about rosewater.

More than any other spirit, absinthe says "art." It has a tradition of being taken to spur creativity, whether by hallucination or mere ordinary intoxication. It calls to mind the Bohemian era in Paris, when liberally quaffed by poets and painters and occasionally their patrons. Even the experience of drinking it is aesthetic, ritualistic, transformational. An artist's drink if ever there was one.

As if to prove my point, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec somewhat famously invented a cocktail using absinthe, which he called the Earthquake ("Tremblement de Terre" in French, which, let's be honest, is a much cooler name). It consisted of three parts Cognac, three parts absinthe, and a glass. What I love about this is that it doesn't matter what you use to measure your ingredients. It could be a jigger, a punch bowl, or your left shoe, and Lautrec will still insist that you fill it three times with each one.

I've served a less earthshaking version at events in the past, and it is delicious. It's essentially a glass of Cognac with a quarter-ounce of absinthe stirred in and a lemon twist. Not unlike a Sazerac. And that became my jumping-off point.


Tremblement de Terre
2 ½ oz. Cognac
¼ oz. Absinthe
Combine in a rocks glass and stir without ice.
Rim the glass with a lemon peel, twist it over the cocktail, then discard.

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Step 2: What goes into this artist's cocktail?"

Niagara Wine

Niagara Wine

1 1/2 oz. Hennessy Cognac
1/4 oz. Luxardo maraschino
1 tsp Welch’s white grape/peach juice
1 dash Scrappy’s cardamom bitters

Stir. Serve chilled but neat.

A response to the Welch’s white grape/peach juice ingredient challenge, and a reminder that a very little bit of fruit juice is all you need in a cocktail. Substituting straight peach or white grape juice, or something similar, like white cranberry juice, should work just as well.

One more thing this drink reminds us is that Scrappy’s cardamom bitters go with everything. (Find them here:

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.



4 parts (2 oz.) Courvoisier cognac
1 part (1/2 oz.) Cointreau
1 part (1/2 oz.) fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Sugar rim

This is where that lemon juice I mentioned went. The Sidecar may well be my favorite of the classic recipes. It’s also one of a very small number of drinks I consider to be “solved” - that is, I’ve found a way to make them that I like so much, I see no reason to deviate.

Courvoisier is far and away the best cocktail cognac. Hennessy, its closest cousin in terms of quality, has a harsh bite to it that relegates it to use in brandy/rye and brandy/bourbon cocktails, which are already covering a parallel trait in the whiskey. Courvoisier retails in the low thirties.

Cointreau is an orange liqueur with a neutral base. Most bars use it for their Sidecars. If you have your own orange liqueur, feel free to substitute it. Luxardo’s triple sec, Solerno blood orange liqueur, and the inimitable Grand Marnier all make pleasant Sidecar variations, although you should note that the substitution is not as easy in most drinks, particularly in the case of Grand Marnier. (Thus, “inimitable.”)

With a drink like this, so simple and with so few ingredients, always use fresh lemon juice. I tell people a drink is never better than its worst ingredient. Sometimes you can get away with a weak link, if it’s a bit player in the act. Here you can’t.

I recommend shaking for the Sidecar. It’s advisable for all drinks with fruit juices in them, to be sure everything distributes evenly. The bit of water from the melting ice also opens up the flavor of certain spirits, including brandy. All that said, you can stir this one without too much worry.

The eternal Sidecar question is, “Sugared rim?” The answer may be yes or no. Certainly you shouldn’t be afraid of it. The sugar is there to answer the sour of the fresh lemon. The drink works without it, but sometimes you’re in the right mood. If you’re worried you’ll look girly drinking out of a sugar-rimmed glass, stick to Old Fashioneds until you’re secure in your masculinity. The rest of you, keep reading.

To sugar a glass, pour some powdered or granulated sugar into a small dish or saucer. Please be sure your dish is larger than the glass you intend to coat, and your sugar isn’t in clumps. Chill the glass in the freezer for a few minutes. When you take it out, there will be condensation on it. Overturn the glass into the dish of sugar, and give it a few turns. The sugar will stick to the wet rim of the glass. Something similar may be accomplished by filling the glass temporarily with ice cubes to chill it, or by running a bit of lemon around the rim. So long as it’s wet, the sugar will stick.

This works any time you need to sugar a glass, or salt one, if you’re making Margaritas. Assuming all your dishes and glassware are clean, you can even return the leftover sugar to its container when you’re finished. Or revel in the decadence of pitching it. Up to you.