Published on April 10th, 2013 | by Dipsology


Balancing cocktails according to Lucinda Sterling


Last week, I sat down with Lucinda Sterling, Managing Partner at Middle Branch, to talk about the importance of balance in cocktails, and common patron misconceptions.  Here’s what she has to say about it:

Not too sweet

As cocktail patrons, we’ve heard this one often enough: someone comes into a bar and asks for something that’s “not too sweet.”  But usually, what they actually mean is that they want something balanced.

The concept of sweetness in cocktails has evolved over the years with the advent of refrigeration and modern transportation systems. In the old days sugar & sweetness were a result of ingredients being preserved so they would last longer on the shelf, and cocktails evolved in part as a result of the availability of ingredients.

Additionally, some spirits tasted terrible, a result of poor quality base ingredients and distilling methods.

Today, however, the idea that a cocktail has to be sweet or strong is obsolete. Spirits don’t have to be covered up by sugary flavors, and we can get almost anything we want fresh (as Lucinda points out, not “local fresh”, but fresh). So now crafting a cocktail is about flavor, mouthfeel, fresh fruit juices. Nothing has to be “too sweet” if you don’t want it to be.

The balancing act

“When you add water to a base spirit, you bring out characteristics that were in the spirit before distillation,” says Lucinda. With gin, you can bring out the juniper or coriander or lemon notes, for example. The same is true when you mix a spirit with citrus. Too much water or acid though distorts the balance, so you have to make sure you use these ingredients in the correct proportions to attain the desired level of sweetness.

Important clarification: Sweetness means that it’s not bitter or salty, not necessarily sugary.

Common misconceptions

Despite all this, people still consistently request something that’s “not too sweet”.  Other common confusions, according to Lucinda, are tart vs bitter, and fruity vs sugary.

booze & garnish

Pro tip: ordering a “fruity” drink at Middle Branch or any other Sasha bar will NOT result in something saccharine like an Appletini. Tons of delicious (and gender neutral) drinks contain fruit juices, like the Blood & Sand, made with scotch, orange juice, Cherry Heering & sweet vermouth; or the Gentleman’s Buck with bourbon, lime, ginger, orange juice & angostura, topped with club soda. I also recently had an Ash Wednesday at Attaboy with gin, cream & blackberries that tasted like heaven. (For recipes check out the Bartender’s Choice App.)

Strong is another often misused term that can refer to the quantity of alcohol, flavor profile, or even the spirit’s proof.

A Martini (at least according to my recipe) contains 2 oz gin and 1 oz dry vermouth. That’s about the same amount of alcohol as an Ash Wednesday, but you’ll definitely taste the gin more in the martini. And if you make either drink with an overproof proof gin it may not taste that much stronger, but you’ll still be getting more alcohol.  A better way to think about the concept is whether a drink is spirit forward  -like a Martini or a Manhattan – or more refreshing – like a Gentleman’s Buck.  (This is part of the reasoning behind Pouring Ribbons’ drink matrix where they rate their cocktails on a scale of spirituous to refreshing and comforting to adventurous.)

The practical side

the lounge at Middle Branch

If you’re interested in testing out some of these various drink profiles, we suggest you head on over to Middle Branch and allow their expert staff to walk you through it.  Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start – Lucinda says that it makes her job easier.  And if you don’t like what you get, you can always send it back, free of charge.

Just make sure to go early, though. “We’re packed from 6pm to midnight every night,” Lucinda tells me — which means you should get there as close to 5pm, when they open, as possible, to snag a seat in the upstairs lounge area. Sunday and Monday nights are also the slowest, which we think is an excellent reason to get your week off on the right foot.

There is live jazz most evenings, and food is coming soon. There may also be some cocktail education in the works with yours truly — stay tuned for more details on that score!  You can also see our full Middle Branch profile for more info.


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