All About Flavor
Understanding Cocktail Flavor Profiles
When it comes down to it, building a great cocktail profile is just like cooking. The goal is to get a range of flavors working together in harmony to create something interesting and unique flavored cocktails. We use words like depth and complexity a lot when speaking about well-made recipes because they are never just one note. They have layers of flavors brought together in different ratios to strike that ever-desired balance.
We like to breakout flavors—in cooking and cocktails— into five categories: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty.
Together, these differing cocktail profiles work to enhance one another or balance each other out. If you want more of a particular flavor category, you can enhance it with a complementary one. Conversely, if one flavor becomes overpowering, you can add a contradictory one to even the scales a bit.
So how do you know which ingredients work best together? This guide explores each category one by one, showcasing just how bartenders (yourself included) can use these differing cocktail flavors to perfect their drinks.
Adding a bit of sweet can help counteract sour, bitter and spice.
Bring the sweet with: liqueurs, sugar, syrups, honey, molasses, jams, or flavored sodas
In a whiskey sour, the sourness from the lemon juice is balanced the sweetness of the simple syrup.
Adding sour enhances saltiness and balances out spicy and sweet flavors.
Add some sour with: Citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, etc.), vinegar, cider, tomato juice, pickled vegetables
In the Bee’s Knees cocktail, the rich and sweet honey syrup is perfectly complemented by the tart and vibrant lemon juice.
Adding a touch of bitter balances sweet and salty.
For a bit more bitter add: coffee, cocoa (not the sweetened kind), grapefruit , hops or, of course, bitters
One of the oldest tricks in the book, the sugar (typically in the form of simple syrup these days) in an old fashioned plays perfectly with the complex flavors of the aromatic bitters.
For those who like spice, it’s a flavor that plays very nicely with sour or sweet.
Spice it up with: hot sauces, wasabi, horseradish, fresh ginger, jalapeños, habaneros, chili peppers (great for garnishing too!)
Spice can often be seen used as a bonus flavor added at the front of the sour-based cocktails we know and love. Spicy margarita. Spicy paloma. You know the drill. It’s also a no-brainer addition to a bloody mary.
Salty flavors added to cocktails enhance sweetness and counterbalance bitterness.
Feeling salty? Add: kosher or sea salt, saline solution, olive brine, soy, tomato juice or anchovy paste
Salt rims on favorites like margaritas and palomas are a simple and fun place to start, a pinch of salt in Paloma (versus just a rim with it) will bring out more grapefruit notes. Dirty Martinis are also a crowd-pleaser as the olive juice adds the perfect salty component.
MIX IT UP
Hopefully these cocktail flavor profiles have given you a better understanding of the recipes you know and love, showing just why the flavors work so well together. They’re a great tool if you want to start experimenting on your own, as well. The next great cocktail is out there just waiting to be crafted.