The easiest place to start is the Sour. By definition, this drink is simply a combination of a base spirit, a sweetening agent, and a souring or acidic agent, usually citrus juice. First a brief history...
Long before the "Cock-tail" or "Bittered Sling" the Punch was the king of the mixed drink world. Appearing first in at least the mid 16th century, Punch became a staple in home and tavern drinking from the mid 17th century until the mid 19th. It consisted of simply a collection of local spices, seasonal fruit, liqueurs and spirits, and later - if one was so fortunate to have any - a block of ice. It was in the the mid 1800's that sitting around a bowl of Punch for hours on end lost its appeal and drinkers preferred something smaller and quicker. So, Punch shrank from bowl-size to glass-size and thus birthed the Golden Age of Mixed Drinks. The simplest of Punches became the simplest of juice drinks - The Sour - and variations ensued, including the Fizz, Fix, Collins, Smash, Daisy, and so on. Changing the presentation or ice, adding a little or a lot of soda, and adding cordials and liqueurs created new drinks with new names, but the basic idea remained the same.
Later bartenders such as David Embury in the 1940's took an analytical approach to mixing and designed a system of categorizing drinks and their ingredients. This is very useful to understand as a bartender for remembering recipes, balancing flavours, and creating original ideas. The system is evident by looking at even the oldest recipes, but Embury is worth reading (and you can see my post on him here). Here is a generalized idea:
- The main ingredient of your drink is the "base," which should in almost all cases be a spirit (using a liqueur as your base would make much too sweet a drink). The other ingredients are added to accentuate the flavours of your base.
Once you understand the role of each ingredient you can learn the basic structure. As I mentioned, each bartender has his or her own favourite recipe. The best one is the one you like the best - but I warn you not to make your drinks too sweet! Embury, for example, gives a ratio of 8:2:1 for his Sours - that is 8 parts base to 2 parts sour to 1 part sweet. The oldest recipes tend to be on the much sweeter side, sometimes with double the sweet to sour. At home I often prefer a 4:1:1. However, where I work, for the purpose of consistency we all use the same Golden Ratio, a starting point I highly recommend: 6:4:3 for base to sweet to sour. Translated to measurements, this is:
1.5oz base spirit
This will undoubtedly give you a very balanced drink. You may prefer something a little different for your own palate, so find what you like, though I recommend not going much sweeter than this.
Now we have the ingredient types and a ratio to use for basically all sours. Let's refer back to our list of variations at the start, using our ratio to separate our ingredients.
Others would follow suit:
The list goes on and on.
Perhaps your bar is limited at home. You want to make Margaritas but you have no triple sec of any kind, but you do, however, have St. Germain. Being a liqueur, it will act as a sweetening agent, so use it in place of the triple sec for a tequila-elderflower sour. You can make Whiskey Sours with lime instead of lemon, or a Clover Club with a different kind of berry cordial. The options are endless. Creativity begins when you recognize similarities in ingredients and pair new products with old structures. Try pairing more than one sweetening agent, souring agent, or base spirit together. As long as you still follow the overall ratio, it will still work (for example, 0.5oz lemon and 0.25oz lime, or 0.5oz of two different liqueurs). Try adding a dash of complimentary bitters, such as celery bitters with gin, or aromatic bitters with dark rum. You can even get really creative and use orange, grapefruit, amaro, or home-made flavoured syrups as sweeteners, or vinegar and shrubs for acidity. You will start to notice changes in dryness due to varying sweetness in the liqueurs, varying proofs in your spirits, and varying acidity in your citrus (for example, lime is more acidic than lemon). You’ll start making minor adjustments and come up with your own signature drinks while developing your palate.
The possibilities are endless and that’s the fun of making drinks. Learn a little history, understand the role of ingredients in a drink, and memorize only some basic structures and you won’t have to memorize pages and pages of ratios and recipes.