Is There a Certain Order for Pouring Cocktail Ingredients?

Pouring cocktail out of shaker into glass
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Cocktail recipes are usually very simple. It usually states "Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice." However, is there a certain order in which each ingredient should be poured? We don't tell you that, but there are a few general practices as to whether the spirit or a mixer should go first and, while the "rules" follow the usual vague guidelines most bar techniques do there are good reasons for each. It is up to the bartender to determine the right order of the pour for each cocktail or for their environment.

Oddly enough, this is one of the more important questions in bartending, yet it is rarely addressed in bartending guides. Within my library, the question of "order of the pour" is only addressed a few times. I think the reason is that the order in which cocktail ingredients are poured into the mix is dependent on the drink and on the bartender's style. These few scenarios should help explain the pros and cons of the pour order. There is no rule set in stone but there is a (okay a few) customary procedure and there are always exceptions to each.

  • Scenario 1: Cheapest LeadsThis theory is a little more old school and is based on cost-conscious bar manager's train of though. If something goes bad in the pour - say too much cranberry or a sour egg - you are not wasting your most expensive ingredient, the liquor.
    There are two main problems with this:
    1. If you accidentally overpour the spirit you will either have to add a mixer to bring it back into balance or end up serving a "burnt" cocktail that is too strong.
    2. This theory obviously does not work with any drink topped with a sparkling beverage (i.e. soda, Champagne, etc.). Would you pour tonic then the gin for a Gin and Tonic or ginger ale then the whiskey for a Highball? No, it does not make sense.
    Here is one instance where the "cheapest leads" theory prevails: the sour drinks. At Tales of the Cocktail in 2009, I sat in on a "Go Fresh" seminar with Tony Abou-Ganim and Dale DeGroff. During this, DeGroff was explaining the procedure for building a sour drink and his rule of thumb is to follow this pour order:
    1. Sour
    2. Sweet
    3. Dash (enhancers)
    4. Strong
    5. Ice
    DeGroff's theory is that in sour drinks you pour your sweet and sour first (using a jigger for precise measurement) to obtain a balance between the two strongest elements of the finished drink. He says, "Those two ingredients set the stage for a cocktail, after that it's just how strong you want it." Further adaptation comes from that "dash," which are the flavor enhancers, such as bitters, to personalize the drink. Furthermore, DeGroff strongly suggests that if you are free pouring you use the clear mixing glass instead of the shaker tin while pouring so you can see how much you have poured.
  • Scenario 2: Spirits FirstThis practice is more common today, and it's how I build the majority of my cocktails. You start with the spirit then add liqueurs, mixers, and enhancers on top of it. The advantage to this is that you can gauge your ratios based on how large or small you poured the liquor, which is the base, the foundation, of your cocktail.
    If you overpour the Scotch for a Rob Roy you can easily balance it out with a little more sweet vermouth and have a nice drink that may produce some waste but is still well formed. Likewise, if your customer wants a "light" Cosmo, underpour the vodka and add more cranberry or orange liqueur to compensate for the volume. Starting with the spirit allows you to gauge and adapt the drink to miss pours and to individual's tastes.
    1. Strong (your base ingredient)
    2. Enhancers (dashes)
    3. Mixers (sweets, sours, juices, etc.)
    4. Toppers (sodas, champagne, and other sparkling mixers)
    Again, there are exceptions to this style of pouring. Often in "Martinis" I prefer to enhance it at the end with a dash or two of bitters or other enhancer (i.e. cherry juice in a Manhattan) because it is an "enhancement." Take a sipping straw, plug on end after placing the other end into a drink so you can suck up a tiny bit of the liquid. Drop this into your mouth and see how much or little of a "special touch" it may need (the straw allows you to sample without being unsanitary, just be sure to toss the straw every time) and allows you to add anything necessary.
    Also, if Champagne is your base, such as it is for a Buck's Fizz, you will obviously leave that for the end to retain the fizz. However, in a Screwdriver, you will always pour the vodka first. And, if the drink you are making requires a bit of muddling then you will obviously build on top of that muddled base, but the same order applies otherwise.

    As I stated at the beginning, nothing is set in stone in the bar and you need to learn to adapt and use your best judgment. There is no strict order of the pour for cocktails but it is up to you to gauge your own style with the two bottom lines: what the drinker likes and how you can obtain that, and how much is it going to cost if something goes bad.