Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cocktails: A Taxonomy for the Perplexed

Cocktails are delicious works of art, but like other arts they have a vocabulary all their own and often inconsistently applied.  Bartenders presumably understand this vocabulary from the inside, by intensive memorization and experimentation, but many of us would just like to better understand how various drinks are related, as an aid to memory or discovery.  I don't claim any expertise in this area and I won't cite any sources, as this is just my overlay on Wikipedia, and not intended to convey precision or universality, but I will define my terms as I go, and I will attempt not to claim any more precision than I can offer.

First, a word on varieties of ethanol for human consumption.  If the base substance to be fermented has more than 10% simple sugars, then it is a must and can be directly fermented, yielding wine.  If the base substance has less than 10% simple sugars, then its carbohydrates must be converted to simple sugars by malting (germinating) and/or mashing (cooking) before yeast can grow.  Yeast dies at roughly a 15% alcohol concentration (30 proof), so higher values must be achieved by distillation after fermentation.  The flavor of the resultant fluid is dependent on the original fermented mixture, any flavors added after fermentation and before distillation, and any flavors added after distillation.  If the original mixture was a must, and is thus a wine once fermented, the distilled product is a brandy.  If the original mixture was a mash, then the fermented product is, broadly speaking, whisky.  So all distilled alcohols are either brandies or whiskeys.  Their more specific names are the result of particular ingredients, flavorings, process details, brands, or regional appellations.  Many of these are strictly governed by law and custom, and as with other taxa governed by law and custom, idiosyncrasy is the rule.  Recipes are generally trade secrets and ingredients unlisted, so for labels without strict government regulation, taxa are generally more evocative than explanatory.

Vodka is whisky "in the Russian style," perhaps at one time connoting some potatoes in the mash, but now basically means whisky made cheaply, which is to say first distilled to a very high proof and/or heavily filtered (meaning the quality of the mash is less relevant, since the distillate is nearly pure alcohol with almost no flavor) and then bottled with very little aging, so that flavoring agents must be dissolved directly into the alcohol rather than slowly leached.  Southern Comfort is basically traditional American vodka.  More traditional whiskeys are distilled to a lower percentage, allowing residual flavors from the mash, and aged which allows flavors to leach into the whisky from the wood and previous contents (usually wine) of the barrel, and some of the whisky (the "angel's share") evaporates each year, lessening the amount of water added at bottling.  Naturally the losses, inventory costs, and demand invariance of this process add substantially to the costs.  Gin is from this perspective halfway between traditional whisky and vodka in that the flavoring agents (traditionally juniper with other botanicals) are added after fermentation but before distillation.  This process yields a cheaper product than traditional whiskeys, because cheaper mash can be used and aging avoided, but it requires more accurate distillation control than vodkas because the aromatics must be distilled with the ethanol.  Bourbon is whisky with a mostly-corn mash, and tequila is basically whisky with a mostly-agave mash.

Rum is distillate of fermented molasses, which is boiled down sugar cane.  It's nearer to brandy in that sugar cane contains sufficient sugar to ferment directly, so the cooking is just for the physical concentration of the sugar, but this does lend a taste partly reminiscent of a mash.

A liqueur is a distillate produced by any of the above methods with a much sweeter and fruitier than alcoholic flavor.  There may be no brightline between orange vodka and triple sec, but the latter traditionally carries fruit flavors from fermentation and distillation as well as infusion, and is thicker and sweeter.  Bitters, meanwhile, are similar in process to liqueurs, but with bitter and botanical (often gentian) rather than sweet and fruity in flavor.  Vermouth is both a liqueur and a bitter.  Liqueurs, bitters, and vermouth can all be drunk neat as semi-medicinal digestifs, but are more popular in cocktails.  Juices are relatively newer additions to mass-market cocktails due to their need for refrigeration; traditional non-alcoholic sweeteners are simple syrup (just reduced sugar water, with a high enough sugar content to slow spoilage) and grenadine (reduced pomegranate syrup).  Shaking is a way to chill drinks quickly without watering them down or mechanical refrigeration, and is necessary for incorporation of thick or poorly soluble mixers, but is often frowned on for more expensive distillates because it introduces air bubbles which sharpen their alcoholic flavor (called "bruising").

So just what is a cocktail?  Originally, a blend of at least one distilled alcohol, at least one bitters, and at least one other ingredient, in contrast to a shot (neat), rocks/lowball (alcohol with just ice or water), or a highball (alcohol with soda water).  The original cocktail is now called, without irony, the old fashioned, a blend of whisky, bitters, and simple syrup.    As a modifier of mixed drinks, as of wines, dry is simply opposed to sweet.  Beyond the old fashioned, the most classic cocktails are the Martini, of gin and vermouth, and the Manhattan, of whiskey (usually rye) and vermouth.  These already raise a definitional problem, in that they are drinks of two ingredients, but remember that vermouth is both a liqueur and a bitter.  The Negroni is a Manhattan with bitters beyond the vermouth.  Substitution of the primary distillate is typically indicated by preface (e.g. vodka martini) whereas substitution of a liqueur (triple sec is the most common) and bitters for the vermouth results in a new cocktail, of which there are innumerable varieties, e.g. the Brooklyn, with whisky, vermouth, cherry liqueur and bitters. Grenadine is also frequently indicated as a sweetener, especially for tropical-themed drinks.  If mint is used as the "bitter" botanical, the drink is a julep.  Use of a cream or cream liqueur as the sweetener makes an especially large difference to the flavor and texture of the drink, and is sometimes combined with coffee as the bitter flavor, as in a White Russian, Black Russian, Mudslide, etc.  A cocktail with egg in addition to the cream is an egg nog.

A mixed drink made with sour instead of bitter flavors is, equally straightforwardly, a sour.  Traditional sours, beyond the obvious whiskey sour, include the sidecar (brandy), margarita (tequila), daiquiri (rum), last word (gin), jack rose (apple brandy), and kamikaze (vodka).  If you layer rather than mix your sour, that's a -Sunrise.  Makers of sours frequently choose citrus liqueurs in replacement, addition, or partial replacement of the citrus and simple syrup, especially in drinks where a strong citrus element is desired without watering down, with triple sec being the most common.  Creams and cream liqueurs can't normally be used in sours (because they'll curdle) but the alcohol and acid can "cook" an egg white if properly prepared, which is sometimes used to give a creamy texture and dairy flavor.  The egg without the sour is a flip, which has gone out of fashion over health concerns.  Sours sometimes have bitters as well, as in Planter's Punch (dark rum daiquiri with bitters).  A punch, technically speaking, is just a large-scale sour, which can mean anything with over two shots of liquor, sometimes with the mixer scaled up as well.

A fizz is the marriage of a highball and a sour (i.e. a sour with soda water).  The most famous is the Tom Collins (gin fizz).  A Tom Collins with egg is a Ramos (which takes ten minutes to make properly), and with champagne instead of the soda water it's a French 75.  A whiskey fizz is a hari kari, and a rum julep fizz is a mojito.  A fizz with multiple liquours is a -Tea; a fizz without any sweet to counterbalance the sour is a rickey.

In time, a highball came to mean any straightforward drink of alcohol and one substantial mixer, served in something nearly a water glass (to accentuate the vertical bubbling and/or accommodate the volume of the weak mixer), whereas a cocktail came to be any drink of three or more ingredients, served in a conical glass (more appropriate in volume to the stronger drink and said to prevent de-emulsification).  Whether a sour was a highball or a cocktail depended on whether it was made in a cheap bar (from pre-made mixer, and weak) or an expensive one (by combining fresh citrus juice and simple syrup, and in lower proportion to the alcohol).  This system probably makes a good deal of sense for pricing purposes given the obvious contrasts in ingredients and bartender time, but does little to classify flavor profiles.

With further development, highballs came to be understood as any drink served in a highball glass (including drinks like Planter's Punch and Long Island Iced Tea that are strong and complex), and cocktails as those suited to a cocktail glass, even if you're just calling gin on the rocks a Martini.  From the perspective of the recipient, the glass is perhaps a clearer indicator than the ingredients (do people who order vodka martinis extra dry even realize they're just getting chilled vodka?), but it's obviously even less helpful as an aid to memory or discovery of mixed drinks you like.  Even more confusingly, the Martini at some point lent its name to the cocktail glass, becoming a Martini glass (and thus anything mixed into it as a -tini) and the Tom Collins at some point lent its name to the highball glass, such that any carbonated highball can be a -Collins.  Margaritas are generally served in coupe glasses (invented for cheap sparkling wine) because they offer a more generous rim for salting, and so now any mixed drink served in a broad rather than tall or conical glass is a -rita.  Even the shot, as a single pour, has been redefined by its glass, such that a mixed drink in a shot glass (like a B52) is a shooter.  Old Fashioneds, because they were invented before the cocktail glass, are frequently served in lowball/rocks glasses, which are now often called Old Fashioned glasses.  In short, it's useful to know the names of various pieces of glassware (though beware those who insist on more differentiation than actually exists) and it's useful to categorize mixed drinks, but be careful not to confuse the overlapping terminology.

With the advent of refrigeration, affordable juice cocktails came into style, served as -tini's to foodies, frozen -rita's in chains, and premixed highballs in cheap bars.  They provide strong flavors which cover poor alcohol (or the taste of alcohol at all for those less accustomed) and simplify mixing by providing acid, sugar, and flavor in a single ingredient.  These include the Cosmopolitan (vodka sour with cranberry juice), Screwdriver (vodka sour with orange juice)(and indeed any alcohol mixed with orange juice as a -Driver), Singapore Sling (gin sour with pineapple juice), Bronx (Manhattan with orange juice), Queens (Manhattan with pineapple juice), strawberry daiquiri, pina colada (daiquiri with pineapple juice and cream of coconut), and Bloody Mary (vodka sour with tomato juice and pepper bitters).  Stronger drinks use liqueurs in partial replacement of the juice (and citrus to avoid over-sweetening).

Let me know in the comments if you think I've mis-stated anything or didn't cover a topic you'd like to read about.

UPDATE:  It's also worth checking out tips for how to order a drink, and what various drinks mean socially (warning:  not-PG) in addition to their flavor profile.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose you can say the industrial revolution came to the production of beer and spirits in large quantity early.