Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Unified Theory of Sweet-and-Sour Cocktails

People often ask me, "Slim what's the meaning of life?" to which "I respond, I have no idea, but I will tell you my Unified Theory of Sweet-and-Sour Cocktails, which is almost as good and maybe even better." Are you ready? Behold the Grand Unified Ratio!
2 part booze

¾ parts sweet

¾ parts sour
Amazing, isn't it? Isn't it? Right...? Well, how about a little more detail.

So the world of cocktails is a quirky and heterogeneous place full of idiosyncratic measures, arcane terms, fanciful names, strange histories, regional quirks, emphatic dogmas, and ephemeral trends, but amidst this swirling multi-liquored and -hued booze-cacophony, there are some unifying themes. One of them: many, many, many drinks are composed of something boozy (which is to say, the liquor), something sweet (simple syrup or a sweet liqeur, apertif, or other mixer), and something sour (usually lemon juice or lime juice).* Examples:
  • Whiskey sour—bourbon, simple syrup, lemon juice
  • Gin gimlet—gin, simple syrup, lime juice
  • Vodka gimlet—vodka, simple syrup, lime juice
  • Margarita—tequila, cointreau or triple-sec, lime juice
  • Tom Collins—gin, simple syrup, lemon juice (plus soda water)
And so on and so on. (Really, take any combination of a liquor, a sweet, and a sour, and somebody's probably already mixed it up and given it a name.) And generally, these tripartite components can be combined in the something very close to the aforementioned Grand Unified Ratio to make a damn fine drink. Beautiful, non?

But parts? you say, what parts? (Parts is parts.) Now I shall reveal Slim's Secrets of Scalability:
1 drink: For a single cocktail, the part in question is one ounce, so by my reckoning our Grand Unified Cocktail works out to 2 oz booze, ¾ oz sweet, and ¾ oz sour. E.g. to make a sublime whiskey sour, combine 2 oz bourbon, ¾ oz simple syrup, and ¾ oz lemon juice in a rocks glass filled with ice, dump it all in a cocktail shaker, shake the bejeezus out of it, return the contents to the rocks glass, garnish with a slice of orange and a cherry, and serve. To make a sublime gin gimlet, combine 2 oz gin, ¾ oz simple syrup, and ¾ oz lime juice in a cocktail shaker full of ice, stir until frost forms on the outside, and strain the contents into a chilled up glass.

8 drinks: But what if we want to make drinks for a lot of people? (Or a lot of drinks for a few people?) Pitcher time!** To make a batch of eight (what I think of as a half-pitcher) use one cup as the part (1 cup = 8 oz; math, baby!), so that works out to: 2 cups booze, ¾ cups sweet, ¾ cups sour. Combine the ingredients in a pitcher without ice (ice in the pitcher will melt during the party and result in a diluted drink); then prepare each individual cocktail by pouring out one drink's worth (3½ oz, if you're measuring) of the mixture into the rocks glass/shaker/etc. and proceed as you normally would for a single drink.

16 drinks: To get a right good party going, concoct sixteen drinks (a full pitcher) using two cups as the part (2 cups = 16 oz; math, baby!), which multiplies out to: 4 cups booze, 1½ cups sweet, 1½ cups sour. (Yes, I realize that using two cups as one part might seem a bit confusing, but hey, what's a cocktail party without a bit of esoteric math?)
Voila! So just one last factor to discuss, the Rules of Deviation. Perhaps you're asking, how can this one ratio account for all of the complex variables of real-world drinkery? The answer is: it can't. The Grand Unified Ratio can and should be adjusted to account for two specific factors:
Variations in the particular ingredients: The above ratio assumes the "sweet" we're using is standard half-and-half simple syrup.*** But maybe the sweet you're using isn't as sweet. (That's a weird sentence.) Use more. If it's sweeter, use less. The first time you mix a particular combination, you'll have to experiment, but next time, you'll know what adjustments to make and be all set. (Note: I rarely vary anything but the sweet. Generally, booze is booze, and sour is sour.)

Personal preference: The above ratio yields a nicely balanced "middle of the road" drink (though what I call "middle of the road" is drier than what you'll find at most bars, which usually use nasty over-sweet pre-concocted mixers). But My Lady prefers a drier drink ("dry" in mixological parlance usually just means "less sweet"****), so I'll reduce to a ½ oz sweet for her. And I have guests of long acquaintance who I know like a sweet drink: I'll adjust to 1 oz or more of sweet for them.
And so there it is, the Unified Theory of Sweet-and-Sour Cocktails! It really is rather lovely, isn't it? (And just in time for the holidays.) Happy mixing!

Questions? Comments? Refutations?

* And then there is a whole addendum of what I'll call Embellished Sweet-and-Sour Cocktails, which take this basic trinity and add fourth and perhaps fifth elements.

** A word of caution: Before making a whole big pitcher of drinks, it's a really good idea to make a single drink with the intended proportions to see if you like it or if it requires tweaking. And it's a good idea to have a bit extra of everything on hand for a final fine-tuning of the batch. That way, you aren't frantically dashing off to the store five minutes before guests arrive to buy more booze or limes or whatever it is that you need to make the evening's beverage palatable. (Plus, you get to sip on your trial-run bevvy while whisking around doing last minute host-type things.)

*** I've described my method for making simple syrup before, but it's worth repeating: "Combine equal parts sugar and boiling water in a sealable container (a rinsed-out wine bottle with a cork does nicely). Close and shake vigorously until the sugar is completely dissolved. (It's not a bad idea to wrap the container in a kitchen towel first so you don't burn your hands. You'll need them later to hold that delicious drink you're making.) Use as much as you need. Refrigerate the rest for later; it will last a long time."

**** Usually, though not always. In the case of martinis, it means less vermouth. (Like I said: "arcane terms".)


  1. Anonymous9:48 PM

    Easy simple syrup:

    Put sugar and water into sturdy glass container, e.g. A Pyrex container or an old jar. Do not fill more than 1/3 full. (When it boils it spits.) Stir well. Microwave until it bubbles for a minute or so. It will be real syrup and therefore EXTREMELY hot, so let it cool well.

    You can make small amounts readily this way. Keeps for weeks in fridge.

  2. Mary T6:57 AM

    I like you so much, Slim. xo

  3. Monsier or Madame Anonymous: Good tip. I make a lot of cocktails, so it makes sense for me to make a big batch, but not everyone needs three quarters of a liter of simple syrup sitting in their fridge. And on the occasions where I'm mid-mix and realize I've run out of simple syrup, I'll be quite happy to have your trick up my sleeve.

    Mary T.: Aw, shucks.

  4. Your account is a step or two away from a truly unified theory of all cocktails. May I suggest one element missing is the fourth flavor-- Bitter? Most cocktails have a bitter factor, contributed by a twist, or 'bitters' themselves, or a bitter apertif, or a bitter flavor already embedded in one of the other elements (the tonic in a G & T, or the ginger beer in a Dark and Stormy, for example, are both bitter and sweet).

    There are cocktails that lack one or more of the four elements. But they are probably degenerations of four-flavored paradigms, either historical or imaginary.

    We could then arrange cocktails according to how many of their elements were alcoholic. A grade one (Gimlet), grade two (Margarita), grade three (Negroni), or even grade four cocktail?

  5. Dammit, Matt, now I'm not going to sleep tonight but will instead be awake to into the wee hours imagining Venn diagrams of the various essential beverage categories and combinations.

  6. It seems a Cocktail Conkotor is possible consisting of 4 spinning pointers . Spin each pointer and create the cocktail indicated.

  7. Invaluable information for mixers and drinkers alike. @Matt I'm confused, wouldn't that "twist of" be just more of the sour factor vs bitter? There are bitter oranges though. Hmm. BTW, Angostura has come out with an orange bitters that has yet to go nationwide. I even wrote them about it over a year ago. They responded and said it should be available soon. You have to get pushy, I guess.

  8. Marco,

    I think citrus juice is sour, but citrus zest is bitter. One cannot be used in place of the other.

    But it is true that if a drink has a lot of bitter, it won't have a ton of sour, and vice versa. Also, older drinks tend to use bitter more heavily, and often have no sour at all (Sazerac, really old school Martini).

    One more note: I can't think of an alcoholic sour. If there isn't one, then the grade four cocktail (see above) is a merely theoretical model, impossible to achieve in this world.

  9. Ok, thanks, Matt. Now I know what you mean. Maybe some research needs to be done on a sour alcohol. Good thesis material for an alchemist. Hey, what was theoretical a few decades ago...