Renowned bartender and (P)our founder Alex Kratena on drink creation, writing recipes and when culinary technology can help or hinder your drinks
The language of cocktails
When people ask me how to gain an understanding of cocktails I sometimes struggle to express myself so I like to explain it in the same way as language.
Language consists of two things, it’s the lexicon and the grammar. Lexicon is the words and grammar is the different ways of combining them together. Think of your ingredients as the words and the techniques as all the different ways of combining them together. The more techniques you understand the more interesting drinks you can create, just as the more grammar you understand the more flowery language you can speak.
It’s important when you work with drinks or ingredients to be able to talk about them, with yourself and your colleagues. If you can articulate and talk about the ingredients and different produce you are working with it helps you to tackle things from a more interesting perspective.
If you can ask yourself this one question you will end up with an amazing drink: what is the purpose, character and shape of the ingredient? I’m not talking about the real geometric shape or character – I’m not asking if parsley is a nice guy. But it’s about being able to articulate about your produce. Parsley is green, it’s vegetal, it’s very aromatic. All these words already give me an indication about what I’m going to do with parsley, how I’m going to use it and how much of it I’m going to put in the drink. Things like aroma and flavour intensity are things that make or break a drink. If you are working with wine or beer the aromas tell you what happened during the production process, but in cocktails you have many more options about what the aroma can say.
How I write recipes
When I start to write a recipe I always consider three main elements to it. At the bottom, or the foundation, is the base note. That’s what gives the body to the drink and it gives you structure to build up on. On top of that I build accents which make the drink more interesting. Above that is the top notes, the things which probably hit your palate first and disappear quickly – but that’s what makes them so interesting.
Obviously with just three things drinks wouldn’t be very interesting so you need fillers which often you don’t recognise in the drink but it would make a huge difference if you took them out.
Remember if you have too many similar ingredients you need something to contrast them. If you have a lot of contrasting ingredients you need something to unify them. Heavy flavours need lifting, light flavours which are about to wander off need to be grounded.
There is a lot of variables in this process – a great big scale. Am I creating one drink, a cocktail menu or a whole beverage programme from scratch? Am I working as a team or as an individual? Where am I from? Where do I live? All of these things will affect the way you make drinks. Your health. Your personality. I think grumpy introverted people shouldn’t be working as bartenders. What about finance? I learnt the hard way about financing things after I left my previous job. All these things cost money.
One of the reasons I quit my last job was because I couldn’t stand to be writing a cocktail menu at 5am anymore with a cleaner hoovering under my chair. A nice environment creates a completely different vibe.
The evolution of existing recipes is always the easiest way to start. You can do this by substituting, inverting or deleting an ingredient. These are the easiest principles of working with drinks.
The other thing we should all be worried about is tendencies and trends. We shouldn’t be following them – they are good for journalists because that’s what editors want, but the reality is if you follow them you are going to do a different style of bartending every six months depending on what’s in fashion. And you are going to do exactly the same style as everybody else.
How many ingredients is too many?
A few years ago I was teaching a class in Italy and one of the attendees was annoyed at me for putting seven ingredients in a drink. He believed a cocktail should never have more than five. I asked him, how do you make a Manhattan? He said whiskey of choice, be it bourbon or rye, vermouth, bitters, garnish with zest or cherry and stirred with ice. But is that five or six or 37 ingredients? It depends on the perspective.
For me, as a bartender, vermouth is a starting point but if you look at the vermouth from the perspective of the wine maker it’s years of hard work, in the vineyard and in the cellar and into that vermouth goes 47 ingredients.
What I’m saying here is it’s not important how many ingredients you see from your perspective going into that Manhattan, the important thing is when we go into a bar and order a round of Manhattans we expect them on the table in four to five minutes. Don’t worry about numbers when it comes to ingredients.
Equipment and techniques
One ingredient can be expressed in many different ways with many different techniques and it’s really up to you as a bartender to make that call – how am I going to tackle this, how am I going to express the flavours I want to be working with?
It’s amazing to have all the equipment but sometimes you don’t need it because some of the techniques are simple and sometimes, for me personally, it is more interesting to experience the ingredient in the raw form rather than processed.
Equipment: pros and cons
|Rotary evaporator||Distils and captures volatile components selectively at controlled temperature and pressure||Captures volatile aromatics
Reduces without heat
Processes large batches
|Oil distillation||Distils essential oils to create concentrated flavourings||Captures volatile aromatics at a fraction of the cost||Expensive
Insoluble in water
|Sonic prep homogeniser||Emits ultrasonic sound waves to extract, infuse, homogenise, emulsify, suspend, de-gas||Captures volatile aromatics
Preserves colours, aromas and nutrients
Doesn’t rapid age
|Smoking gun||Produces cold smoke for infusions or finishing||Cheap||Little control of amount of smoke|
|Centrifuge||Applies centrifugal force to its contents, to separate fluids of different densities or liquids from solids||Clarify liquids
Pull emulsions apart
|Sous vide||Allows cooking and infusing in pouch or jar at accurately regulated temperature||Enhanced flavours
Accurate temperature control
Reduced labour and beverage cost
|Freeze concentration||Forms crystals of pure ice that force particles and substances to concentrate||Impressive
|Limited degree of concentration
|Natural essences||Chemical concoction that has been concentrated beyond level present in nature||Must be diluted
Fantastic flavour opportunities
|Many are not food grade
Can be lethal