Cocktails by the Numbers: How to start experimenting with cocktail variations

Cocktails by the Numbers: How to start experimenting with cocktail variations

One of the fun things about cocktails is that, with so many ingredients and with constant tweaking of proportions, the possibilities are pretty much endless. It’s fun, at least, when you’re trying cocktails created by an expert. If you’re new to mixology, all of that potential can be overwhelming, leading to paralysis or a huge flop.

The dangers of limitless mixing remind me of one particular ill-conceived birthday party I attended with a Create Your Own Cocktail theme. A random collection of bottles was put on a table, and people were told to just go at it. And they did, with lots of enthusiasm and little discretion. There wasn’t so much a winner of the contest as someone who lost the least. As the judge who had to sample all of these concoctions, I was most certainly the biggest loser.


I’m being too hard on these contestants, though. Just like them, my mixing experiments have more often ended in disaster than in something I’d ever want to taste again. That was the case, at least, until I remembered an idea I’d learned in my one classical music class in college: variation on a theme. Being entirely unmusical, this concept didn’t have much practical application for me until I started trying to mix drinks. Cocktails, it seems, have something in common with concertos.

Variation=the potential for creativity and surprise.

A Theme=a tried and true template to work from.

Working from a theme all of a sudden puts an interesting and satisfying cocktail in reach, even for an amateur mixologist like me.


Theme #1: The Martini

There’s not any more reliable base for a cocktail than the martini. The standard martini is

  • 2 oz. gin
  • .5 oz. dry vermouth.

Here’s the key to using variation on a theme to design a cocktail: don’t add, swap. You can make any number of decent to fantastic drinks by swapping out one, the other, or both of the ingredients, if you keep to the proportions of 2 oz. of base spirit (vodka, gin, tequila, whiskey, rum) to .5 oz. of liqueur (basically liquors that aren’t a base spirit). A vodka martini, in which the gin is swapped out for vodka, is a very straightforward variation on the martini theme. The Manhattan is a more complicated one (actually it’s more likely the other way around, but let’s not be technical about it right now) in which Bourbon replaces the gin and sweet vermouth replaces dry.

Go ahead and try your own variation on 2 oz. of spirits to .5 oz. or liqueur, and see what you discover. Martini variations are great for people who like simple, spirit-forward cocktails.

Illustration with hand drawn sketch Negroni cocktail. Including recipe and ingredients on the grunge vintage background

Theme #2: The Negroni

The Negroni is one of my favorite cocktails, both in its standard form and in the opportunities it presents for experimentation. In its standard form, it’s equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari (one of the many orange peel liqueurs). Turning that into a template, you get

  • 1 oz. base spirit
  • 1 oz. fortified wine (vermouth, quinquina, port, sherry, marsala)
  • 1 oz. other liqueur

It’s amazing how much you can learn about your liquors–over a satisfying cocktail creation, no less–by simply swapping out one of the standard ingredients, like using tequila instead of gin, for instance. But there’s no need to stop at one.

The Negroni template is great for playing with balancing two or three different flavors.

Theme #3: The Reverse Martini

As you might be able to guess from the name, the reverse martini template is

  • .5 oz. base spirit
  • 2 oz. liqueur

Reversing a drink is a great trick for satisfying a guest who says that cocktails are too strong for them. You end up with a more easy-drinking cocktail, without loading it with juice or water to do so. When you reverse it, a cocktail that made your friend cough all of a sudden becomes smooth and delicious. It’s both crowd-pleasing and sophisticated. You can reverse most any recipe, or create your own with the reverse martini proportions.

I’m sure you’ll be hearing much more about our variations on these three templates. We’d love to hear about yours too.

Roberts & June