A cocktail’s golden ratio


When I dipped into my email bag this week, I found many of you had questions about cocktails. So let’s look at some cocktail jargon to help you when you order or mix one up yourself.

Why are cocktail ingredients sometimes referenced as “parts” and sometimes as more specific units of measurement, like ounces or tablespoons?

Usually this is just a function of the mixologist, cocktail book, or bartender — some use specific units of measurement based on the recipes and serving sizes they are most accustomed to, while others reflexively adhere to fundamental ratios and proportions. A “part” can be any type of measurement, after all. Crafting cocktails is still, fundamentally, a subjective endeavor since tastes differ — but thinking in terms of ratios makes it easier, all things being equal, for scaling up or down, or for being creative.

Consider, for example, a margarita cocktail. My base formula for this is 8 parts tequila, aka the “base” alcohol, to 3 parts triple sec, the “sweet” element, to 3 parts fresh lime juice, the “sour” element.


For a single serving, let’s call each part ¼ ounce. So the recipe becomes 2 ounces of tequila and ¾ ounce each of triple sec and fresh lime juice. Let’s say you wanted to make a pitcher of margaritas instead of one drink at a time, you would simply make each “part” equal to a larger unit of measure, say, ¼ cup or even ½ cup. Either way, your concoction would have the same ratio of base alcohol (tequila) to sweet (triple sec) to sour (lime juice), and so the essential balance of the drink would remain uniform.

As a margarita is in the category of cocktails known as the “sour,” this same basic formula—8:3:3 ratio of base-booze to sweet to sour—would theoretically serve you well for other “sour” cocktails, such as the daiquiri, the mojito, the sidecar, the whiskey sour, the aviation, the cosmopolitan, the kamikaze and many others. As you tinker, you may find your palate is partial to a different ratio, such as the popular 2:1:1 ratio for “sours,” or the even more popular 6:4:3.


What does it mean to order a drink “neat,” “straight,” “up” or “on the rocks”?

A “neat” drink means you want a single spirit or liqueur poured straight into your glass unadorned and unadulterated. Ordering a drink “straight” or “straight up” or simply “up,” in this context, means an alcoholic drink — single spirit or cocktail — that is shaken or stirred with ice and then strained and served without the ice. “On the rocks” will get you a single spirit or cocktail poured over ice in a lowball glass.


What is a chaser?

A chaser is a mild drink consumed following a shot or a neat measure of liquor. Sometimes this is a glass of water, often ordered as “water back,” sometimes this is a beer, often ordered as “beer back,” but it can just as easily be soda or even pickle brine.

The term is thought to derive from the French term chasse, which translates to “[it] chases.” The term has been in use in English since the early 19th century, and it is widely thought to have originated with the practice of taking a sip of liquor to counter the harsh aftertaste of coffee or tobacco.

What’s good this week?

I’m enjoying the weather with a gin and tonic: 2 ounces of London dry gin (like Beefeater), 4 ounces of tonic water (if the tonic runs sweet, cut it 1:1 with seltzer), 2-3 large cubes of ice. Stir briefly and add a fresh lime wedge for garnish. Lemon will work in a pinch too. Give it a twist if you want. L’chaim!

Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].

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