Floating ingredients is a simple bartending technique used to create stunning drinks. It's how you make layered shots like the B-52 or add a colorful float to cocktails. To do it successfully, it's essential to know the density of liquors, and a specific gravity chart will help you understand the order you need to pour the ingredients.
The History of Layered Drinks
Around the turn of the 20th century, beautiful pousse-cafés were created all over the world, especially in Europe. The layered drinks of spirits and syrups could get quite extravagant. At times, drinkers would be treated to a pousse glass filled with 10 or more carefully layered ingredients. The trend was a passing fancy and pousse-cafés are rarely seen today.
The 1960s and '70s brought the technique back to life in the form of colorful layered shooters like the B-52. These fun, vivid shots remain a hit at parties and they are a fun way to show off your bartending skills.
A number of cocktails are also layered. For instance, it's used to add a decadent, eye-catching layer on top of a drink or combine beers of different densities in drinks like the black and tan. This is also a common method when flaming drinks.
How Specific Gravity Forms Drink Layers
The key to creating perfectly layered drinks is to pay attention to how heavy each ingredient is in relation to the other elements. Lighter ingredients will float on top of heavier liquids, and the density of each liquid is measured by its specific gravity.
To get the specific gravity, liquids are compared to the density of water, which has a specific gravity of 1.0. The amount of sugar or alcohol in an ingredient determines its density.
To create a layered drink, you need to build the liquids in the order of their weight: heaviest ingredient on the bottom, building up to the lightest ingredient on top. As a rule of thumb, the greater the difference in specific gravities between two layers, the easier it is to keep them from mixing into one another.
- Grenadine contains no alcohol, but it is a very thick, sugary syrup, which is why it sinks when added to a tequila sunrise.
- Both alcohol content and sugar play a role in liqueurs. A low-sugar, high-proof liqueur will float on top of a high-sugar, low-proof liqueur (e.g., crèmes and some schnapps). Orange liqueurs are a perfect example of how this changes within a category: Cointreau and Grand Marnier are 80-proof, so they are significantly lighter than the average triple sec or blue curaçao (typically 60 proof and much sweeter).
- The 80-proof base distilled spirits (e.g., gin, whiskey, etc.) don't have sugar additives and are lighter than water (specific gravity around 0.95), so they are poured on top of liqueurs.
- High-proof rum, whiskey, and other liquors are even lighter. For instance, 151-proof rum often floats on top of drinks like the flaming Dr. Pepper so it can be lit on fire.
You can use these tips and the specific gravity chart to create your own custom shots and pousse-cafés. Most of all, have fun playing with all of the color and flavor combinations that are possible!
- Layered drinks are poured over the back of a bar spoon to restrict the flow so the ingredients will float instead of mix together.
- Dairy cream is generally lighter than liquors and mixed drinks, so it's often floated on top of beverages, such as Irish coffee. Heavy cream is preferred, though any cream with a milk fat above 30 percent will work. Lightly whipping or shaking cream adds air, which helps it float.
The Specific Gravity of Common Liquors
The chart includes the most popular liquors used in layered drinks, along with general specific gravity measurements. They're listed from lightest to heaviest as you work down the list.
It's important to note that different brands of the same liquor style will likely vary; it could be a slight difference or a very significant one. For instance, most coffee liqueurs are lighter than Kahlúa. A drink may work with one brand, but switching to another may not produce distinct layers.
If you are interested in a more extensive list, one of the best charts available is in Gary "Gaz" Regan's "The Joy of Mixology." He lists several flavors from famous liqueur producers in the book, including Hiram Walker, Marie Brizard, and DuBouchett.
|Specific Gravity Chart for Popular Liquors|
|151-Proof Rum||0.94||Light Amber||Often used as the top ingredient when flaming drinks.|
|Plymouth Gin||0.94||Clear||Specifically, 82.4 proof; Navy Strength (114 proof) is lighter at 0.91.|
|Rum||0.94||Clear or Amber||Varies slightly by brand, style, and proof.|
|Tequila||0.94||Clear or Amber||Silver and aged tequilas are slightly lighter than gold tequilas.|
|Whiskey||0.94||Amber||Includes most whiskies, but will vary based on brand, style, and proof.|
|Southern Comfort||0.97||Pale Orange||The average; 100-proof is lighter, lower-proof may be heavier.|
|Vodka||0.97||Clear||Varies by brand; typical for 80-proof vodka. Flavored vodkas may be heavier.|
|Green Chartreuse||1.01||Green||Yellow Chartreuse is much heavier (see below).|
|Grand Marnier||1.03||Pale Orange||Bottled at 80 proof, it's lighter than most orange liqueurs.|
|Brandy||1.04||Amber||Fruit brandies are heavier (see below).|
|Cinnamon Schnapps||1.04||Clear or Red||Varies by brand and proof.|
|Cherry Liqueur||1.04||Red||Varies by brand; does not include maraschino (see below).|
|Coconut Rum||1.04||Clear||Specifically, Malibu Coconut Rum; most flavored rum falls in this range.|
|Cointreau||1.04||Clear||Considerably lighter than other triple secs.|
|Irish Mist||1.04||Light Amber|
|Peach Liqueur||1.04||Dark Amber||Does not include peach schnapps (see below).|
|Peppermint Schnapps||1.04||Clear||90+ proof is lighter (approximately 1.02); 30 proof is heavier (approximately 1.07).|
|Sloe Gin||1.04||Dark Red||Varies by brand. Homemade sloe gin will vary as well.|
|Amarula||1.05||Creamy, Light Brown|
|Baileys Irish Cream||1.05||Creamy, Light Brown||Other Irish creams are similar.|
|Midori Melon Liqueur||1.05||Green||Other melon liqueurs may vary. Marie Brizard Watermelon is the same density, but red in color.|
|Rock and Rye||1.05||Amber||Varies by brand; Hiram Walker is 1.09. Homemade rock and rye will vary greatly.|
|Fruit Brandy||1.06||Varies||Includes most apricot (amber), blackberry (dark purple), cherry (dark red), and peach (amber) brandies that are sweetened liqueurs. Eau de vie (unsweetened flavored brandy) is similar to brandy (see above).|
|Limoncello||1.06||Yellow||Varies greatly by brand; some are much heavier.|
|Peach Schnapps||1.06||Pale Orange||Specifically, 30-proof; higher proof (90+) is lighter (approximately 1.04).|
|Yellow Chartreuse||1.06||Yellow||Green Chartreuse is much lighter (see above).|
|Bénédictine||1.07||Pale Amber||B&B (bottled brandy and Bénédictine) is 1.02.|
|Amaretto Di Saronno||1.08||Dark Amber||Most other brands of amaretto are heavier, typically around 1.11.|
|Frangelico||1.08||Pale Amber||Other nut liqueurs may be similar.|
|Orange Curaçao||1.08||Orange||Varies by brand and proof.|
|Root Beer Schnapps||1.08||Brown||Typical for 30-proof; higher proof is lighter.|
|Apricot Liqueur||1.09||Bright Amber to Orange||Varies by brand and proof.|
|Sambuca||1.09||Varies||Varies by brand. Sambuca comes in many colors: black, green, red, gold, and white (or clear, the most common).|
|Tia Maria||1.09||Brown||Lighter than most coffee liqueurs, especially Kahlúa (see below).|
|Triple Sec||1.09||Clear||Varies by brand and proof; Cointreau is much lighter (see above).|
|Blackberry Liqueur||1.10||Dark Purple||Varies by brand.|
|Blue Curaçao||1.10||Blue||Varies by brand.|
|Maraschino Liqueur||1.10||Clear||Varies by brand.|
|Banana Liqueur||1.12||Yellow||Varies by brand. Most (including schnapps) are between this and crème de banane (see below).|
|Crème de Menthe||1.12||Green or Clear||White crème de menthe is clear. Varies by brand.|
|Strawberry Liqueur||1.12||Bright Red||Varies by brand.|
|Chambord||1.13||Dark Red/Purple||Other raspberry liqueurs may be similar.|
|Parfait Amour||1.13||Violet||Varies by brand.|
|Coffee Liqueur||1.14||Brown||Includes most brands; Kahlúa is heavier (see below) and Tia Maria is lighter (see above).|
|Crème de Cacao||1.14||Brown or Clear||White crème de cacao is clear. Varies by brand.|
|Kahlúa||1.16||Dark Brown||Among the heaviest coffee liqueurs.|
|Crème de Almond||1.16||Amber||Varies by brand.|
|Crème de Noyaux||1.16||Bright Red||Varies by brand.|
|Anisette||1.17||Clear||Varies by brand.|
|Crème de Banane||1.18||Bright Yellow||Varies by brand.|
|Crème de Cassis||1.18||Dark Purple/Red||Varies by brand.|
|Grenadine||1.18||Bright Red||Homemade grenadine may be lighter.|
|Butterscotch Schnapps||1.22||Golden Brown||Varies by brand.|