Whether you want to create layered shots like the B-52 or top a cocktail with a colorful float, it's important to know the density of the liquors you're pouring. Floating ingredients is a simple bartending technique that's used to create stunning drinks. In order to do it successfully, a specific gravity chart will help you understand the order in which you should 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. People enjoyed these captivating layers of spirits and syrups in their everyday lives.
The layered drinks 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-cafes are rarely seen today.
The 1960s and '70s brought the technique back to life in the form of colorful layered shooters like the Irish flag and B-52. These fun, vivid shots remain a hit at parties and they are a fun way to show off your advanced bartending skills.
Beyond shot drinks, a number of cocktails are also layered. Sometimes, as in the Easter Bunny, it's to add a decadent and eye-catching layer on top. In other instances, high-proof rum is floated so it can be lit on fire, or beers of different densities are layered in drinks like the black and tan.
How to Layer Drinks Using Specific Gravity
The key to creating perfectly layered drinks is to pay attention to how heavy each ingredient is compared to the other ingredients. The weight of each liquid is measured by its specific gravity.
In the drink world, the density of water (with a specific gravity of 1.0) is compared to the liquid being measured to get its specific gravity.
- For instance, a thick syrup like grenadine is very heavy and has a specific gravity of 1.18. That is why grenadine sinks when added to a tequila sunrise.
- Likewise, most of the base distilled spirits that contain no sugar (e.g., gin, whiskey, etc.) are lighter than water and have a specific gravity somewhere around 0.95. This allows high-proof rums to float on top of drinks like the flaming Dr. Pepper when you want to light it on fire.
In order to create a layered drink, the heavier ingredient needs to be added to the glass first. More liquids are added in the order of their weight, with the lightest ingredient on top.
- The best layered drinks are poured over the back of a barspoon 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 drinks, including the Irish coffee and candy corn shot. Heavy cream is preferred, though any cream with a milk fat above 30 percent will generally work. Sometimes it's helpful to lightly whip or shake the cream to add air so it floats better.
Specific Gravity Chart for Popular Liquors
General measurements are used for the specific gravity of various liquors and those are listed in the chart. This list includes common distilled spirits that are used in layered drinks. They are in order from lightest to heaviest as you work down the list.
Keep in mind that brands of the same style of liquor may vary in their specific gravity. For instance, most coffee liqueurs are lighter than Kahlua, which is the most popular brand of that flavor. While a drink may work with one brand, switching to another brand may not produce the same distinct layers.
|151-Proof Rum||0.94||Light Amber||Often used as the top ingredient to float on flaming drinks.|
|Plymouth Gin||0.94||Clear||Specifically, 82.4 proof; higher proof is lighter.|
|Rum||0.94||Clear or Amber||Will vary slightly by brand, style, and proof.|
|Tequila||0.94||Clear or Amber||Silver tequilas are slightly lighter than gold tequilas because of the additives in the gold style.|
|Whiskey||0.94||Amber||Includes most whiskies, but will vary based on brand, style, and proof.|
|Southern Comfort||0.97||Pale Orange|
|Vodka||0.97||Clear||Will vary by brand, but this is typical for 80-proof vodka.|
|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.|
|Cinnamon Schnapps||1.04||Clear or Red||May vary by brand.|
|Cherry Liqueur||1.04||Red||Does not include maraschino (see below).|
|Coconut Rum||1.04||Clear||Specifically Malibu Coconut Rum; others may differ slightly.|
|Cointreau||1.04||Clear||Considerably lighter than other triple secs. The higher proof makes a big difference.|
|Irish Mist||1.04||Light Amber|
|Peach Liqueur||1.04||Dark Amber||May vary by brand; 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||May vary 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 will be similar, but may vary.|
|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, particularly those that are sweetened liqueurs. Eau de vie (unsweetened flavored brandy) will be about the same as brandy (see above).|
|Limoncello||1.06||Yellow||Will vary greatly by brand, some may be considerably heavier.|
|Peach Schnapps||1.06||Pale Orange||Higher proof peach schnapps (90+) will be lighter (approximately 1.04) than this, which is standard for a 30-proof schnapps.|
|Yellow Chartreuse||1.06||Yellow||Green Chartreuse is much lighter (see above).|
|Bénédictine||1.07||Pale Amber||B&B (bottled brandy and Benedictine) is 1.02.|
|Amaretto Di Saronno||1.08||Dark Amber||Other brands of amaretto will vary and most are heavier, typically around 1.11.|
|Orange Curaçao||1.08||Orange||May vary by brand and proof.|
|Root Beer Schnapps||1.08||Brown||Will vary by brand, this is typical for 30-proof. Higher proof schnapps will be lighter.|
|Apricot Liqueur||1.09||Bright Amber to Orange||May vary by brand and proof.|
|Sambuca||1.09||Varies||May vary by brand. Sambuca comes in many colors, including black, green, red, gold, and white (clear, the most common).|
|Tia Maria||1.09||Brown||Lighter than most coffee liqueurs, especially Kahlua (see below).|
|Triple Sec||1.09||Clear||May vary by brand and proof; Cointreau is much lighter (see above).|
|Blackberry Liqueur||1.10||Dark Purple||May vary by brand.|
|Blue Curaçao||1.10||Blue||May vary by brand.|
|Maraschino Liqueur||1.10||Clear||May vary by brand.|
|Banana Liqueur||1.12||Yellow||May vary 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. May vary by brand.|
|Strawberry Liqueur||1.12||Bright Red||May vary by brand.|
|Parfait Amour||1.13||Violet||May vary by brand.|
|Coffee Liqueur||1.14||Brown||Includes most brands; Kahlua 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. May vary by brand.|
|Crème de Almond||1.16||Amber||May vary by brand.|
|Crème de Noyaux||1.16||Bright Red||May vary by brand.|
|Anisette||1.17||Clear||May vary by brand.|
|Crème de Banane||1.18||Bright Yellow||May vary by brand.|
|Crème de Cassis||1.18||Dark Purple/Red||May vary by brand.|
|Grenadine||1.18||Bright Red||Homemade grenadine may be lighter.|
|Butterscotch Schnapps||1.22||Golden Brown||May vary by brand.|
Tips for Layering Drinks
If you are interested in specifics, one of the best charts available is in Gary Regan's "The Joy of Mixology" book. In it, he lists specific flavors from most of the popular liqueur producers, including Hiram Walker, Marie Brizard, and DuBouchett.
Here are a few general rules to get you started:
- The more sugar a liquor has, the heavier it will be. Syrups and heavy liqueurs (including crèmes and schnapps) are considerably heavier than whiskey, rum, and vodka, which contain no sugar additives.
- The higher the proof, the lighter the liquor is. This is a generalization, but orange liqueurs are a good example. Notice that in the chart, the 80-proof Cointreau and Grand Marnier liqueurs are considerably lighter than the average triple sec or blue curaçao (typically 60 proof). The same can be said for high-proof cinnamon, peach, and peppermint schnapps.
- Choose layers with a big difference between them. As a rule of thumb, the greater the difference in specific gravities between two layers, the easier it is to keep those layers from mixing into one another.
Use these tips to create your own custom shots and pousse-cafes. Most of all, have fun playing with the color and flavor combinations that are available!