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Learn how to balance the flavors in a cocktail

habañero vodka

When mixologists come up with cocktail recipes, they don't just rush in there willy-nilly with bottles ablazin'. They start with a central principle of tasting, which is that you get the most delicious result by balancing the main flavors -- sweet, sour, savory, bitter, possibly umami -- and aromas. This is unfortunately also the way that junk-food makers can pack more sugar that you might think possible into their heinous warez -- by adding a lot of sour and/or salty flavor, they trick your brain into not noticing the sickening unidimensional sweetness of the high-fructose corn syrup.

I recently was forced to balance a cocktail, because one of my kitchen experiments went a little bit sideways. I decided to try making habañero-infused vodka without giving too much thought to what I might do with it. Needless to say, the result was interesting and yet basically undrinkable for those of us who are not inclined to do shots of dangerous substances just for fun. But it turned into one of the easiest ways to demonstrate how to balance the flavors of a cocktail: the difference was quite dramatic because the original booze was so problematic.

Step one: gather your materials. You will need Problematic Booze, simple syrup for sweetness, a sour agent (I used limes because they were on sale at the Mexican market), some bitters maybe. And one other thing -- your cocktails probably won't have too much savory or umami, but they have a corresponding other "flavor": dilution. So you need ice and a couple of potential mixers -- I chose ginger beer on the notion that I'd be going in a Moscow Mule direction, and Perrier because I usually have bubbly water on hand.

Step two: get to know your Problematic Booze. Pour a shot glass of the stuff into a glass, and give it a big sniff and then a sip. Sit with the flavor for a while. In the case of my habañero vodka, there was a yummy savory fruity odor -- sort of like a red bell pepper during Carnival -- plus the burn of cheap vodka.

Step three: add sweet, sour, maybe bitter, and dilution in turn with judicious tasting. Don't be afraid to try different combinations. There are classical ideas about the proportions which you can learn on a real mixology website, but I'm a fan of experimentation because you never know. I like my cocktails a LOT less sweet than the classical balance, for instance -- but here the sweetness was critical to convincing my palate to accept the chile. In this particular test, I learned that the ginger beer just never did much for me with the habañero flavor -- which surprised me because the combo of Jamaican jerk chicken with habañero and ginger beer has done a lot for me otherwise! But as a cocktail, the dilution of Perrier was more important than the added flavor/sweetness of the ginger beer.

Step four: when you find a combo you like, WRITE IT DOWN. You might be the very first person to have a good recipe for habañero cocktails!

Step five: now you can experiment with more unusual ingredients. I happen to have made some salty-sour preserved Meyer lemons earlier this summer that might go well with mint and Problematic Booze...

ps For those who wonder, I used 2 chopped habañeros steeped in less than a fifth of cheap vodka for 3 days.

Stashed in: Alcohol!, Awesome, RTFM!, Tequila, Alcohol, Reference, Vodka!, Real Talk, Cocktails

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This is excellent, especially the reminder to WRITE IT DOWN.

I'm not quite sure how you decide which materials to use. Is it just whatever is seasonal?

There are a few very basic ingredients that you'll find in every bar -- limes, lemons, simple syrup, fruit juices, Angostura bitters, soda water, etc. -- and then you go from there. A lot of the more oddball ingredients in fancy cocktails, interestingly enough, don't have the much of a "season"... I think because many cocktails were invented in tropical regions!

Cocktails invented in tropical regions explain all the tropical ingredients. 

Also, what makes the Problematic Booze problematic?

Undrinkably strong and assertive. My point in this article is that by balancing the OTHER flavors you will make it delicious and delightful... and by using such an undrinkable base to start out with, you'll see the effect of flavor-balancing very clearly. You know how they say if you're going to paint, you should start off with really big canvases so you can see your mistakes more glaringly? Same principle.

That makes sense. Your technique turns an undrinkable base into something delightful to drink.

My new favorite--the only reason I tried it was because of this post.

Blood & Smoke—a blood orange and ancho chili-spiced margarita made with Del Maguey “Vida” Mezcal, El Jimador Silver Tequila, Ancho Reyes, Monin Blood Orange, house-made citrus agave and aromatic bitters poured into a salt-rimmed glass

Whoa, that's very cool Bolcer! Was it yummy? :)

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