Cocktail Mathematics: Creating New Drinks Through Simple Substitution


“Dark, aged rums and brandy work well when swapped for whiskey in drinks such as a Manhattan.”


[Flickr: Brother O’Mara]

If much of cooking belongs to the arts, and baking to the sciences, the craft of mixing drinks has a strong tie to mathematics.

A while back I wrote about a basic formula for creating bespoke cocktails, put forward by Esquire drinks correspondent David Wondrich; in last weekend’s San Francisco Chronicle, Gary Regan addressed another aspect of the equation, the substitution of different ingredients in drinks and the necessity of keeping all things equal.

Swapping out bourbon for rum in a drink or substituting one liqueur for another might seem an obvious way to expand one’s mixological repertoire, but Regan relates an experience that demonstrated such moves aren’t always all that obvious: upon being asked to prepare a classic Sidecar (typically made with brandy, lemon juice and Cointreau) but asked to make it with bourbon, a Kentucky bartender mixed a remarkably tart and nigh-undrinkable cocktail of bourbon, brandy and lemon juice.

be sure to swap equals for equals

As Regan notes, the bartender didn’t understand the core concept of ingredient substitution: be sure to swap equals for equals—a base spirit such as bourbon for one such as brandy, or a sweetened liqueur such as the herbal Chartreuse for another such as Cointreau. “You might have to adjust proportions a little, but it’s an easy way to make yourself something new,” Regan writes.

Some base spirits are better suited than others to simple substitution: dark, aged rums and brandy work well when swapped for whiskey in drinks such as a Manhattan, and likewise substituting cognac for a medium-bodied rum in a punch or tiki-style drink will still convey the same mellow character but will contribute an extra dimension of flavor.

Likewise, it’s easy to put a unique spin on a tried-and-true drink by switching out one sweetening liqueur for another—for example, replacing maraschino liqueur with St. Germain in a classic Last Word, or bumping a Sidecar in the direction of a Champs Elysees by swapping green Chartreuse for the orange-flavored Cointreau.

Rum-based Manhattans and acquavit-fueled Bloody Marys are tasty variations on the originals, and aren’t that hard to come by. Do you have your favorite twists on particular drinks, made by simply switching one ingredient for another?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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