Five Tips for Improvising Great Cocktails

Ready to try your hand at inventing your own drinks? Just remember these handy rules of thumb.

As you begin building a bar and exploring the world of cocktails, at some point you will find yourself in one of two situations. Either you will be filled with the desire to create beverages of your own, or you’ll end up wanting to make a drink but not having any recipes handy. In both cases, you’re going to have to improvise, and there are a few simple practices you can follow that will help ensure that what ends up in your glass wouldn’t be better-off poured down the sink.

Here are five tips that will help you craft cocktails that amuse and delight, even if you don’t have any books on hand.

1. Stick to the Basics

This seems like it should be self-evident, but take it from someone who has dumped more than one experiment down the drain: sometimes it’s easy to get carried away, especially if there’s a lot of bottles on the bar. First and foremost, I recommend avoiding crazy mixers. Liqueurs like Curaçao and Maraschino will mix with nearly anything. The same goes for basic citrus juices like lemon and orange (cranberry’s pretty versatile, too).

It’s when you get into the Fernet Brancas and passion fruit juices of the world that things can take a rapid turn for the worse. Every mixer has its use – for example, the Toronto cocktail uses Fernet Branca, and it’s delicious – but especially when you’re starting out, playing it safe means you’ll waste fewer ingredients on undrinkable concoctions.

Oh, and a sub-tip: avoid most soda. If it’s not seltzer, tonic, cola or lemon-lime, it probably shouldn’t go in your drink, and even those last two are highly dependent on the other ingredients.

2. Remember the Sour Formula

I’d like to take credit for this one, but I can’t. The sour has been around for far longer than I’ve been alive, and there’s a reason it’s lasted as long as it has. The combination of sweet, sour, and a base liquor makes a damn fine drink, and one which can be quickly and easily adapted to taste by adjusting the ingredients. Dale DeGroff, celebrated mixologist and one of the more famous bartenders out there, describes the sour formula thusly:

Follow the formula below for all your sweet-and-sour drinks – Collins, Fizz, Margarita – and they will please 95 percent of the people; for the 5 percent that require a sweeter drink, just keep a bottle of simple syrup handy and add as necessary.

Dale DeGroff
The Craft of the Cocktail
Clarkson Potter, 2002

He goes on to give us the formula:

  • 1½  to 2 ounces base liquor
  • ¾ ounces Sour Ingredient
  • 1 ounce Sweet Ingredient

Commit it to memory now, and save yourself a lot of time later. You can jazz up a sour drink by adding bitters, muddling fresh fruit into it, or adding a dash or two of a flavored liqueur. With such a solid base to start on, it’s a lot harder to screw things up.

3. Bitters Are Your Friend

It’s tough to think of a better bang-for-your buck proposition in the world of cocktails than buying a new bottle of bitters. Even at their most expensive, they represent an investment of a few cents per drink, and they can have an impact of amazing proportions on any given cocktail.

Do the drinks you’re improvising feel flat, boring, or one-note? I’ll bet a healthy dash of bitters will liven them right up. Don’t be afraid to try different types and see what works.

Fun experiment: make up a cocktail without any bitters, strain it into three small glasses, and then stir a different type of bitters into each glass (make sure to rinse the stirrer between them to avoid flavor contamination). You’ll be amazed at how much a drink’s character can change just by swapping out such a minute amount of an ingredient.

4. Stay Stocked

If all you have left on your bar is a bottle of gin, and all you have left in your fridge is a bottle of lemon juice, guess what: it doesn’t matter how many bitters you’ve collected, your drinks are still going to taste like gin and lemon juice. Staying stocked with a few base liquors, a few kinds of juices, and a vermouth or two will dramatically widen your options when it comes to improvising a drink. Even if you enjoy cocktails quite frequently, like I do, you can keep your bar stocked for a very reasonable monthly rate. Need help? Check out my guide to building a bar on a budget, right here on Primer.

5. Talk to Your Guests

This obviously only applies if you’re building drinks for other imbibers than yourself, but really the rule behind it applies even if you’re making your evening drink. If you don’t know what people like, or what they’re hoping for, it becomes dramatically more difficult to improvise a drink they’ll enjoy.

Even if you get a “surprise me” or the more honest version of that, “I have no idea,” when you ask what they’d like, you can still plumb a little deeper with a few simple questions. Summer or winter? Light or heavy? Sweet, sour, or stiff? The more you know, the better-prepared you are when you step up to the bar, kitchen counter, or wherever it is you do your cocktailing.
And if they refuse to answer any of those questions? Well, give them a vodka sour with a dash of Angostura bitters. That’s about the least-threatening cocktail I can think of!

Christopher Buecheler

Christopher Buecheler is a novelist, a web developer, an award-winning amateur mixologist, a brewer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an NBA enthusiast. He lives a semi-nomadic life with his wife and two cats, currently residing in Providence, RI. You can learn more at his website,