Mixing or creating a tasty cocktail is comparable to cooking a delicious meal. You need to pair different flavors that work together, find the right balance of tastes, and layer flavors to create complex drinks (or meals) with deep flavor profiles.
The more time you spend mixing and drinking cocktails, the better you will understand how certain combinations work. A common example is the interplay of sweet and sour in Daisy cocktails like the Margarita or classic Sour cocktails.
When creating a new cocktail recipe, it's astounding how much the addition of one ingredient can alter the taste of another. Some enhance, some cover, and others complement. And then, using too many will often create an undrinkable concoction.
That's why understanding the different tastes in a cocktail is vital. Pairing the wrong ingredients or using unsuitable ratios can seriously harm the balance of your drinks. So getting the "math of flavors" right is of utmost importance.
The key to getting things right is to identify which kind of flavors you're working with. Then you also need knowledge about how to use it to either enhance, complement, or contrast other flavors.
The 6 Different Tastes in Drinks
When talking about food, you can find plenty of information about the seven different tastes that can be perceived by your taste buds: sweet, sour, bitter, umami, salty, astringent (dryness; as in red wine or black tea), and perceived temperature (like spice being hot).
But cocktails are a slightly different thing. Commonly, there are six different flavors or tastes in cocktails. These are:
Bitter: A taste that comes from the presence of bases. In cocktail recipes, bitter notes are often added using ingredients like Amaro liqueurs, coffee & espresso, dark chocolate, black or green tea, and cocktail bitters.
Boozy: A characteristic note of flavors associated with highly alcoholic ingredients. It can taste sharp, harsh, and sometimes almost burning.
Salty: Perceived flavor of sodium chloride. It gets added using kosher salt, sea salt, saline solutions, or other salty ingredients.
Sour: A tangy flavor caused by acidic ingredients. The most common sources are citrus juices, vinegar, and other acidic ingredients like yogurt.
Spicy: Is associated with perceived hotness. Spicy flavors are usually imparted by using chili or ingredients infused with chili peppers.
Sweet: Flavor caused to the presence of (fruit) sugars. These tastes come in when adding fresh fruit or sweeteners like simple syrup or liqueur.
To help you understand which flavors are most prominent in a cocktail, we display flavor charts in our cocktail recipes. These charts show how Bitter, Boozy, Salty, Sour, Spicy, and Sweet a drink is.
That can help you identify patterns of drinks you like. Ultimately, this can also help you understand what kind of flavors you need to create your very own recipes for tasty cocktails.
The ways Flavors interact in Cocktail Recipes
After the theory, let's go through some examples of how different flavors and tastes can work together. For this, we look at the three different ways flavors can interact separately.
Complement or Enhance
When combining two flavors complementing each other, we can emphasize their tastes. Going back to comparing it with cooking, look at how salt can make flavors more pronounced.
In cocktails, adding a pinch of salt to drinks works similarly. As a rule of thumb for tastes that enhance each other, remember:
- Salty complements Sweet
- Salty complements Sour
Take, for instance, the Margarita. The salt rim on a Margarita is not only decoration. The idea is to get a bit of salt with every sip, which ultimately emphasizes the sweet and sour flavors in the cocktail.
Contrast or Balance
By contrasting or balancing flavors, you combine two tastes that counteract. Through this, you can get a balanced drink where two or more ingredients even themselves out a little.
An example here is the interplay of sweet and sour which is the base for every sour cocktail. But there are more ways you can implement contrasting flavors. Here's a quick guide on how you balance flavors:
- Sweet balances Bitter, Sour, and Spicy
- Sour balances Sweet and Spicy
- Bitter balances Sweet and Salty
- Salty balances Bitter
- Spicy balances Sweet and Sour
Sour cocktails are based on this principle. An even better example of putting contrasting flavors into one drink would be the Spicy Fifty. A concoction of Sweet, Sour, and Spicy that is perfectly balanced.
Cutting through flavors is the most difficult to comprehend. By cutting through flavors, one component takes away from another one. Mint is an ingredient often used for this.
Mint can cut through sweetness and strong boozy flavors, like in the Mint Julep. A boozy and sweet cocktail that only works thanks to the addition of mint.
More tips on flavor profiles for cocktails
Learning how to apply this theory is a piece of work. But to make it a bit easier, here are some tips you should follow:
- Make notes: Write down your thoughts about the recipe before making it. That helps to understand what actually works and what doesn't.
- Make minor adjustments: If everything worked out as planned, fine. But in most cases, it's not that straightforward. Find out what is off and try to correct it with small adjustments.
- Try again with less or more dilution: Dilution in cocktails is a severely underestimated topic. Just a bit more or less water from ice can make a huge difference. If your drink turned out too boozy, try to shake or stir it a bit longer. It was too watery? Then reduce the time you shake or stir.
- Optimize the recipe and try again: Getting a perfect balance might take a while. But don't give up. You will get there, and all the hassle will have been worth it. The best sign that you created a well-balanced cocktail is that you want to go back for more.
I hope this guide helps you understand how the different flavors in mixed drinks work. If you created a new cocktail and think you found the perfect balance, let me know in the comments, and I will give it a go.