When you're pouring a cocktail, what's the first ingredient that goes into the glass? Many people are inclined to lead with the liquor because it's the most important ingredient. But if something goes wrong—you accidentally pour too much lime juice, for instance—you may have just wasted a shot of booze (and money). While you may not give it a second thought, the order that you pour a cocktail's ingredients is definitely something to consider.
The Order of the Pour
The instructions for most cocktail recipes are very simple. They typically state something like: "Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice." That's extremely vague and doesn't indicate what should go into the shaker first, the spirits or the mixers.
It's not an easy question to answer and there is no set "rule" in the bartending world. Few bartending guides will touch the subject, either. Instead, there are two general approaches and a few basic guidelines that can help you out.
Whether you start with the liquor or the mixers, your cocktail will taste the same, so there's no need to stress too much about it. However, there are sound arguments for each approach and one may work better for certain cocktails or scenarios. It's also important to remember that everyone who mixes drinks—professionals and amateurs alike—has their own personal style and preference.
Always First, Always Last
There are two types of drinks that require certain ingredients to be added first and last: muddled drinks and those with sparkling beverages.
When muddling a cocktail, you will always combine the muddled ingredients in the bottom of your cocktail shaker or glass first. After muddling, the remaining ingredients are added. For instance, when making a mojito, you'll add the sugar, mint, and a splash of club soda to the glass, muddle them, then add the lime and rum.
In the majority of cocktails that include soda, sparkling wine, or any similar "topper," that ingredient is added last to ensure the drinker enjoys the most effervescent cocktail. All of the other ingredients create a base for the drink. For example, the mimosa begins by pouring orange liqueur and orange juice. Champagne is then poured finish it off and the bubbles help mix the drink.
Scenario 1: Cheapest Leads
The "cheapest leads" theory is one possible approach to mixing cocktails. It's a little old-school and is based on a cost-conscious bar manager's train of thought. If something goes bad in the pour—you add too much cranberry juice or crack a sour egg—you are not wasting your most expensive ingredient, the liquor.
There are two main problems with this:
- If you accidentally overpour the spirit, you will either have to add a mixer to bring the drink back into balance or end up serving a "burnt" cocktail that is too strong.
- This theory obviously does not work with any drink topped with a sparkling beverage. Would you pour the tonic water before the gin for a gin and tonic? No, it does not make sense.
Sour drinks, such as the whiskey sour, margarita, and sidecar, are one instance where the "cheapest leads" approach prevails. Dale DeGroff (aka "King Cocktail") has a rule of thumb for building this style of drink and follows this pour order:
- Dash (enhancers)
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" or the flavor enhancers, such as bitters, to personalize the drink.
Furthermore, DeGroff strongly suggests that if you are free pouring to use a clear mixing glass instead of the shaker tin. This allows you to see how much you have poured. Experienced bartenders can eyeball this with surprising accuracy, though it takes years of practice to consistently pull it off.
A sanitary way to test a cocktail's taste and balance is to use a straw. Place a finger on one end as you dip the other end into the drink. This will suck up a small amount of liquid which you can then drop on your tongue to test the flavor.
Scenario 2: Spirits First
The "spirits first" approach is far more common today. It's how most bartenders build cocktails. You start with the spirit then add liqueurs, mixers, and enhancers on top of it.
- Strong (your base ingredient)
- Enhancers (dashes)
- Mixers (sweets, sours, juices, etc.)
- Toppers (sodas, Champagne, and other sparkling mixers)
The advantage to this is that you can adjust the ratio based on how large or small you poured the liquor, which is the foundation of your cocktail.
Starting with the spirit allows you to gauge and adapt the drink to miss pours and individual taste. For instance, if you overpour the scotch in a Rob Roy you can easily balance it out with a little more sweet vermouth. Likewise, if someone wants a "light" cosmopolitan, you can underpour the vodka and add more cranberry or orange liqueur to compensate for the volume.
Again, there are exceptions to this style of pouring. Often in martinis, it's preferred to finish it up with a dash or two of bitters or another enhancer because it is an "enhancement." 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.
It's Your Call
Essentially, when it comes to "the order of the pour," there is no correct answer. Always remember that nothing is set in stone in the bar and as you pour more cocktails, you'll learn to adapt and use your best judgment. It is up to you to gauge your own style with two factors: how to obtain what the drinker likes and how much is it going to cost if something goes wrong.