10 Tips on How to Make a Great Cocktail

Invent your own drink with this essential guide from bar star Vincenzo Marianella

Barman Vincenzo Marianella has been crafting palate-thrilling cocktails in L.A. since before Seven Grand was even a twinkle in Cedd Moses’ eye. At Michelin-starred Providence in 2006 he created a cocktail program that matched the high-quality dishes. And in 2009 he opened Copa d’Oro in Santa Monica which kickstarted that whole farmers market mixology craze.

He’s even responsible for some of the best bartenders in L.A., trainining Zahra Bates (Cole’s) and Joseph Brooke (Mixology 101) and also runs his own cocktail consultation company, MyMixology. But you’ll probably recognize him more for his unforgettable cocktails like the “Jalisco Flower” and L.A. Magazine’s Best Summer Cocktail of 2005, “Rhode Island Red.”

This week I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from Vincenzo in how to invent my own modern classics. Here are his tricks of the trade.

❶ At farmers markets, the early bird gets the best ingredients. The market-savvy pretty much knows this already but Vincenzo brought up a good point: “The thing is you need to get there kind of early because they have beautiful products but especially right now it’s under the sun for six hours.” Unfortunately for Vincenzo, his favorite farmers markets are on Sundays. And after working late on Saturday nights, it’s difficult for him to get to. Fortunately he has other markets he favors like Culver City on Tuesdays and Santa Monica on Saturdays.

❷ The weak will inherit the cocktail. “How to combine spirits? Similar spirits, you need to use an ounce each. If you want to combine different flavor profile spirits, I always recommend an ounce and a half of the weakest and an half-ounce of the strongest. I’m not talking strong or weak on the ABV, I’m talking about flavor profile. So gin with mezcal, it’s an ounce and a half of gin, half-ounce of mezcal. If you do reverse, the gin will disappear. The smokiness of the mezcal will take the spirit away. When the spirits are similar like bourbon and dark rum, I recommend an ounce each. They blend very well together.”

❸ When all else fails, build on classic cocktails. Like Comme Ca’s Sam Ross pointed out in his cocktail class, all classic cocktails share basic components, making it easy to switch out the base spirit, sweetening agent, citrus, etc. to create different drinks. Like a whiskey sour, if you change one ingredient, like replacing the whiskey with Citron vodka, you get a Lemon Drop cocktail. “It might not be a classic but it’s still very popular.” When you change out the vodka for gin and lime for lemon, you now have a Gimlet. Rum instead of gin and you have a Daiquiri.

❹ With good quality liqueur, you’ll still need to use sugar. Vincenzo uses three-quarter of an ounce liqueur with a quarter of an ounce simple syrup because good quality liqueurs, according to him, don’t add enough sugar. “It’s like cooking sauce. All the flavors are there: the tomato, the basil, the celery, the carrots, the onion. But something’s missing. You throw in a pinch of salt and here all the flavors come together. That’s what a quarter or less of simple syrup does for a cocktail.”

❺ When creating sours, always use lemon for the brown spirits and lime for the white spirits. “It’s not a written rule but if you play safe, you play well.”

Easy on the juice. When adding juice as a flavoring agent to your cocktail recipe, use no more than three-quarters of an ounce. A full ounce is too much. “It can even be orange juice even though you have citrus [agent] here.”

❼ To save time, free pour spirits, jigger soda and everything else. If you’re throwing a big party and have taken it upon yourself to make all the drinks, you can save time by learning how to free pour spirits instead of jiggering everything. For his high-volume bar Vincenzo has trained his bartenders to free pour spirits when making cocktails. “I saved one movement, which means I saved 10 seconds which means I saved 10 minutes in an hour, 100 minutes in 10 hours, which means I sold $1,000 more and the customers will be happy.” Most bartenders out there who use jiggers to measure spirits don’t fill it up to the line and that throws off the balance of the cocktail.

❽ Only shake sour-style cocktails, those with citrus. “1) Because the density of the citrus and the syrup needs more strength to mix together and 2) because they’re meant to be drunk while they’re still alive, still bubbly.” Those bubbles don’t work with stirred drinks, like Manhattans. “It’s like creating an air hockey table on your palate and your booze goes down quickly. A stirred cocktail is supposed to be strong and flavorful.”

Don’t forget to garnish. It’s important not just for visual presentation, but for aroma. “First we judge a cocktail with our eyes and second is with our nose. You bring the glass to your nose and naturally you just take a breath.” Try expressing a lemon peel over a glass of plain water. It improves it 100 percent.  

Balance, balance, balance. To make a balanced cocktail, use two ounces of a base spirit, three-quarters of sour and an ounce of sweet if simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water) or three-quarter if rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar and water). “With this formula here, we’ve been making cocktails for four and a half years and I recall only one bad review on Yelp and we have more than 500 reviews.” Vincenzo also uses two ounces of spirit instead of the usual one and a half that most bars and restaurants use. “If you use an ounce and a half with these proportions, it will be too weak.” For stirred drinks, his formula is 2 ounces base spirit (can be broken down into two spirits), 1 ounce of flavoring agent (can be up to three ingredients), 3 to 4 dashes of bitters.

Here’s an example of Vincenzo’s formula put to use:

Santa Monica Gimlet by Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro

3/4 oz fresh cold press cucumber and celery juice (75% cucumber juice, 25% celery, pinch of salt: makes 12 oz of juice)
2 oz Ford Gin
3/4 oz St Germain
3/4 oz Fresh lime juice
1/4 oz Simple syrup (1 cup sugar, 1 cup water)

1) Combine all ingredients in a shaker filled with ice and shake.

2) Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cucumber slice.