When you pour a drink, 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. However, if something goes wrong—you accidentally pour too much lime juice, for instance—you need to make adjustments to bring the drink's flavor back into balance. While you may not give it a second thought, the order that you pour a cocktail's ingredients is something to consider.
The Order of the Pour
The instructions for most cocktail recipes are straightforward, stating 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. Is it the spirits or the mixers?
Everyone who mixes drinks—professionals and amateurs alike—has their own personal style and preference. There is no set "rule" for pour order in the bartending world, and few bartending guides touch the subject. There are two general theories and a few basic guidelines that can help you out.
There's no need to stress too much about this topic because your cocktail will taste the same. However, there are sound arguments for each approach, and one may work better for certain cocktails or scenarios.
Always First, Always Last
Two styles of drinks require certain ingredients to be added first and last: muddled cocktails and those with sparkling beverages.
- When muddling a cocktail, you will always combine the muddled ingredients first. For instance, when making a mojito, you'll add the sugar, mint, and a splash of club soda to the glass, muddle, then add the lime, rum, and more soda.
- In most cocktails that include soda, sparkling wine, or any carbonated "topper," that ingredient is added last to ensure the drinker enjoys the most effervescent cocktail. The mimosa is a great example: After pouring the orange liqueur and orange juice, Champagne tops it off, and the bubbles help mix the drink.
Scenario 1: Cheapest Leads
The "cheapest leads" theory is one approach to mixing noncarbonated cocktails. It's a bit old-school and 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're not wasting the liquor, which is the most expensive ingredient.
The main issue with this method is when you accidentally overpour the spirit. You will either have to add a mixer to balance the drink's flavor or end up serving a "burnt" cocktail that is too strong.
"Cheapest leads" is a good approach for sour drinks, such as the whiskey sour, margarita, and sidecar. Dale DeGroff (aka "King Cocktail") has a preferred pour order for this style of drink:
- Dash (enhancers)
DeGroff's theory is that you pour the sweet and sour first (using a jigger for precise measurement) to obtain a balance between the two strongest elements. 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 the "dash" of flavor enhancers, such as bitters, to personalize the drink.
Furthermore, DeGroff strongly suggests using a clear mixing glass instead of the shaker tin when free-pouring. 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 pull it off consistently.
A sanitary way to test a cocktail's taste and balance is to use a straw: Dip one end of the straw into the drink and place a finger on the other end to suck up a small amount of liquid. Drop this on your tongue to test the flavor.
Scenario 2: Spirits First
The "spirits first" approach is far more common today, and it's how most bartenders build cocktails. You start with the spirit, then add liqueurs, mixers, and enhancers:
- Strong (base ingredient)
- Enhancers (dashes)
- Mixers (sweets, sours, juices, etc.)
- Toppers (sodas and sparkling mixers)
Starting with the spirit allows you to gauge and adapt the drink to the liquor pour 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 juice 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 it will cost if something goes wrong.