How to Create Layered Cocktails and Shots

A Steady Hand and Slow Pour Produces Stunning Drinks

Bartender using a barspoon to make a drink.
Andy___Gin/ Getty Images

To create layered cocktails and shots, you will need to learn a basic bartending technique. Floating liquid ingredients on top of one another is easy to do if you know why it works. With practice and a few tips to get you started, anyone can master this skill.

Types of Layered Drinks

Layered drinks have been popular for well over a century. In the 19th century, the pousse café (meaning "coffee push") was the ultimate after-dinner drink and sweet companion for coffee. A rainbow in a glass, these drinks included from anywhere from three to eight or more colorful layers of various flavored liqueurs—at one time, someone apparently pulled off a 34-layer drink. It's an amazing sight that requires planning and a lot of patience to pull off.

While pousse cafés have largely fallen out of favor, the same floating technique is still widely used by bartenders. Today, the float is most often used to:

Specific Gravity

As you will see, the technique is easy. The trick is to layer ingredients according to their specific gravity. This means that the heaviest ingredients go on the bottom, and each layer is built up so the lightest liquid is on top. The greater the density difference between two layers, the more defined the separation.

The catch is that the density can vary between liquor brands and styles. For instance, one brand of triple sec may not float on top of a coffee liqueur as well as another orange liqueur, such as Cointreau. Density is determined by sugar and alcohol content, so while they're both triple secs, there are distinct differences:

  • Cointreau is 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof) and has a specific gravity of 1.04.
  • Other triple secs contain more sugar, are generally 30 percent ABV, and have a specific gravity of around 1.09.

If one liquor combination isn't working out, try pouring in another order. There will also be times when the liquor you want to be the top layer slips underneath the liquor that's already in the glass. In many cases, it will still form a nice layer. Due to all the variables, experimentation is required, even if you have a recipe to follow.

Fun Fact

Grenadine is one of the heaviest liquids used in the bar. It almost always sinks to the bottom of a glass, even when it is the last ingredient poured. Grenadine's density is what makes drinks like the tequila sunrise possible.

How to Float Liquor in a Drink

Floating alcohol or any liquid ingredient is not difficult and it is a great bartending technique to learn. Take your time and pay attention to how it feels when you get the perfect layer, then try to repeat that. It may take a few drinks to get it, but the blunders are just as enjoyable to drink.

  1. Begin with the heaviest ingredient at the bottom of the glass. Recipes should recommend the order of the pour:

    • In a layered shot like the butterball, the first layer is butterscotch schnapps because it is heavier than Irish cream.
    • For mixed drinks that are topped with liquor, mix the base drink, then add the top layer. For instance, mix the vodka, orange juice, and ice of a Harvey Wallbanger before floating Galliano on top.
  2. Hold a bar spoon upside down over the drink, resting the spoon's tip on the inner edge of the glass, just above the previous layer.

    While you can use any spoon, the bowl of a bar spoon is thinner than the average dinner spoon. It should fit inside most glasses, including shot glasses. The long handle also helps with balance and keeps your hand steady.

  3. Slowly pour the liquor over the back of the spoon and on top of the drink. Move the spoon up as the glass fills.

    This works because the spoon slows down the pour and disperses the top liquid. If your layers seem to be mixing, give them a minute. As the turbulence settles, your layers should become more defined.

  4. If your recipe requires multiple layers, repeat steps 2 and 3.

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Superman Shot.

The Spruce / S&C Design Studios

New York Sour Cocktail
New York Sour.

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Black and Tan.

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Flaming Dr. Pepper.

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Black Widow.

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Floating Tips

Practice really is the best way to get a feel for creating clean layers. It can be a challenge at first, but it gets easier over time. To start, give a few simple layered cocktails a try, such as the Irish coffee or white Russian. Both use a cream float, which is one of the easiest ingredients to work with.

  • To keep the layering effect, do not stir the drink and keep agitation to a minimum while moving the glass.
  • A chilled glass often works best. If your drink does not include ice (such as shots), it's best to chill the ingredients before pouring.
  • A speed pourer can help slow down the pour.
  • Pouring from a full bottle of liquor is more difficult because it's heavy and the liquid has a lot of force behind it. If needed, transfer some liquor to another container while you pour.
  • Everyone has their own technique. Some bartenders put the spoon's tip just under the first layer, which can help the new liquid stay on top. Play with spoon positioning as you practice.
  • You can also layer drinks with a food-safe syringe. It's not as professional or flashy, but it is easier. Be sure to choose one with a larger hole.