The biggest challenge to mixing drinks and creating original ones is balance. This is what makes one Manhattan better than another or one drink a classic and the other forgettable. In the big picture, this means choosing the best products and matching presentation to flavour. In the more technical sense, this means finding equilibrium between each ingredient to maintain a balance of flavours. By looking at the science behind taste we can learn better ways to balance flavour and some tricks to making better cocktails.
Traditionally the cocktail is an aperitif to be enjoyed before a meal to whet the appetite. Yes, there are also digestifs, but these should be balanced in a similar way. The ‘classic’ era from which most bartenders find inspiration had a focus on dry, spirit-forward drinks. The more developed a palate is, the more it will crave this dryness as it enables more clarification and intensity of flavour. The goal to mixing drinks is to negotiate between each flavour component to achieve this overall dryness and stimulate the palate. What this feels like in the mouth is a slight tingling on the back of the tongue, activating the saliva glands. Too much sweetness will have an opposite effect, muting the palate and coating the tongue, which not only suppresses the appetite but also dulls flavour. There is also the issue of sweet drinks generally containing too much sugar, of which nobody's diet needs more.
To understand how to balance better, we must first understand how taste works. There are thousands of taste buds on your tongue and even some in other parts of the mouth and throat, all containing up to a hundred taste receptor cells. These chemically interact with any substance in the mouth and send a signal to the brain that is translated into taste. For example, sourness is a chemical recognition of hydrogen ions present in acidic substances like lemon juice. Biologically humans evolved to seek out energy-rich foods and avoid poison, which is why sweet tastes so good and bitter is aversive.
Taste can be separated into basic categories: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. Texture, aroma, temperature, and alcohol concentration also play key roles, as do appearance and psychology, but we will focus just on taste reception. These categories can be separated into two groups:
Group A: Sweet Savory (Umami) Viscous
Group B: Sour (Acidity) Bitter Proof [DRY]
[Salty is not included here because it acts more as a flavour enhancer by intensifying most flavours. Salt in the form of minerals is present in small amounts in mineral water, and some drinks like the Bloody Mary or the Margarita can actually contain salt.]
Each type of flavour in Group A is proportional to one another. For example, increasing viscosity will increase the perceived sweetness of a drink, so using a thicker liqueur or adding egg white will achieve a similar result to adding more sugar. Likewise, flavour types in Group B are proportional, so increasing sourness will increase the perceived bitterness or using a higher-proof spirit will increase perceived sourness, and so on.
Group A and Group B are inversely proportional to one another, meaning they have opposite effects on taste. For example, increasing the amount of sugar will reduce sourness, while increasing bitter components will reduce sweetness. The goal overall is to balance between the groups to achieve dryness by leaning slightly towards Group B. Too much of Group A and your drink will be cloying and flat, but too much of Group B will be harsh and certain ingredients will dominate.
A few notes on each component:
Sweet: this can be represented by simple syrup, a liqueur, or a wine. Keep in mind that some liqueurs are sweeter than others and you may be required to balance accordingly. Liqueurs also have varying proofs and viscosities, and in the case of amaro, varying bitterness.
Savory: while it doesn't make many appearances, it can still play a part in drinks. The Bloody Mary, Red Snapper, and Caesar are the obvious examples because of the addition of spices, sauces, and seasoning salts, but a lesser known example is celery bitters. Some of the herbal components to the Bitter Truth Celery Bitters specifically have a savory element.
Viscosity: the addition of egg makes the biggest difference, but liqueur viscosity and simple or gum syrup will also play roles. Adding egg white has many effects on a drink, but probably the most important is increasing the perceived sweetness, which allows you to add less sugar than you might otherwise need.
Sour: this can also be described as acidity, as the sour component in drinks is citrus juice, and it is citric acid in the juice that causes the sour taste response on the tongue. Carbonic acid is another form of acidity used in drinks in the form of soda water and sparkling wine and can also be used to balance sweetness. For example, a French 75 should be made a little sweeter before the addition of the dry sparkling wine.
Bitter: perhaps the most interesting of flavour responses, this is literally an on/off switch. While intensity can vary, there are not the nuances to bitter that there are to sour or sweet. This response is one we evolved biologically to protect us from poison, as many bitter substances in nature are dangerous. For this reason, bitterness is entirely an acquired taste and can be more intense for some people than others. Bitter ingredients should be used with judgment as a bartender and balanced accordingly. While some of the best and most interesting drinks have some degree of bitterness, not all drinkers will be able to taste any flavour beyond the harsh response on the tongue.
Proof: this is often an overlooked factor in balancing cocktails. The higher-proof the spirit, the more the flavour will cut through other ingredients, and more importantly, the drier the drink will be as it will increase sour and bitter perception while decreasing sweet. For this reason, using spirits over 80 proof is always desirable when mixing cocktails. In the formative years of bartending most spirits were 100 proof or even higher. As previously mentioned, the drier the drink the more flavour it will offer, so using 100 proof instead of 80 proof whiskey in your Manhattan will make a noticeable difference. If your drink won’t balance properly and you have all the components you want, try using a higher proof base.
There are numerous other factors affecting the taste of drinks, from how cold they are to how pretty they are to how visibly enjoyable they are to the people around you. Biology also affects taste, with specific gender, age, and body type all determining how taste is perceived. There are also specific chemical flavour compounds that increase the perception of sweetness, such as lychee, caramel, or banana, and others that decrease it, like angelica and juniper. With such an overwhelming number of factors, the best place to start is to balance basic flavours properly beginning with an understanding of taste group interaction. Happy mixing!
To learn more about taste, visit the "science" section of www.andonemorefortheroad.com or check out Darcy O'Neil's slide show on the science of taste at www.artofdrink.com
Read more from Cocktails.