Water Content & Tiki

Giuseppe Gonzalez

[Editor's Note: What follows is a verbatim copy from a PKNY blog post that doesn't seem to be around anymore. It's a look at how Giuseppe and his team wanted to make a true frozen daiquiri, and it led to this treatise on dilution in cocktails. It's a long read, but worth it. Enjoy!]


Introduction

When we first decided to open PKNY, we had to familiarize ourselves with all kinds of drinks, ingredients, equipment and techniques that, quite honestly, we had never made at any of our bars regularly. Certain philosophies were transferable and, for those, the transition was seamless. Many, however, were not. Some examples include: creating a proper house “spec” for the frozen Daiquiri, using purees vs. fresh fruit for a drink and what kind of glassware differentiates a particular style of drink. These tasks were arduous and time-consuming. They remain still. Earlier in the year, we were struggling to open the bar and time started to become a major concern. Our focus had to be shifted as we were approaching the opening and we still had not achieved the harmony we deemed necessary.

The major hurdle at the time with respect to the menu was interpreting a old recipe and creating a new one with our “classic” philosophy. We had limited information. Very few bars have the produce and/or equipment to make what we were endeavoring to create. There was no way to visit competing bars, work our way through drinks or witness their “take” on a drink comprehensively. In other words, we had no real “baseline” from which to develop a style or standard for many of the cocktails. Considering we were married to menu concept where we wanted guests to ask questions, interact with the staff, and have hand crafted drinks, we started to have a better picture of how ambitious opening a Tiki bar was becoming. The Omakase-style experience requires a lot of commitment, experience and explanation. New York City can be unforgiving. We did not want to come in and play it safe with a menu that had some carefully selected classic and signature cocktails. We wanted Tiki to be taken seriously. We believed it could be done. We did not want to make a small number of drinks and call it a day. We wanted to be able to make them all. Oh yea, we also wanted to make them all perfectly.

Hence, it was decided to head on through with a “FUCK IT” attitude, work through every drink we considered significant, and pray that we developed enough experience where we wouldn’t struggle daily with our goal. We knew that there were people out there waiting to experience the beauty of classic Tropical-style cocktail craftsmanship. Needless to say, there were a lot of mistakes. Wrong glassware. Wrong ice. Wrong produce. Wrong ratio of ingredients. WRONG FUCKING COCKTAIL PERIOD. (You get the point.) We hoped the obstacles would start to diminish, the answers would present themselves more readily, and things would start becoming easier. And you know what? That is exactly what happened.

This journey into the faux-Polynesian would affect how we saw our craft. However, we never knew to what degree it would change our perception on cocktail preparation as a whole. The questions we asked ourselves went from being very broad to minutely specific. Eventually, it all came back to a problem every cocktail bartender has had at the beginning of their career: What is the proper dilution/water content for a drink? How much water is too much/too little?

The question initially sounds simple but it is not. Philosophies on proper dilutions continue to differentiate bars and bartenders all around the world. They have affected shaking styles, stirring techniques, bar equipment and ice preparation. This article is an attempt to discuss what we have learned and challenge some of those pre-concepts that we hold dearly. We ask that you use your imagination and bear with us. Tiki cocktails had slipped into a place where people were afraid to associate themselves with it due to a stigma of kitsch. We wanted to follow that tradition but bring back the dignity these cocktails rightly deserved. This would have to be a working philosophy/dogma and applicable to any kind of bartender you want to be or any kind of drink you want to make. Let’s begin.

The Dilution Problem

So our initial problems began when we first decided to incorporate blended/frozen cocktails. We were excited. We decided, quite easily, to bring them into our repertoire because the initial fears of blenders by cocktail bartenders seemed unfounded. The perception that they diminished a bar’s reputation was silly to us. We knew we would were not going to make the “boat” drinks that used artificially ingredients, canned juice and inferior spirits that had diminished the reputation of the great frozen concoctions of the past. We also wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great Cuban bartenders of the 1930‘s who were among the first to adopt the blender as a vital piece of drink making. To illustrate, the great “Papa Doble,” a cocktail named after one of America’s great ex-patriates Ernest Hemingway, is actually a frozen drink. He writes in “Islands in the Stream,”

“This frozen daiquiri, so well beaten as it is, looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots.”

If Hemingway drank frozen Daiquiri variations, we wanted to make them.

We began our journey in blended cocktails with making what is the mother of all rum cocktails: the Daiquiri. A simple task we felt; an obvious no-brainer. We were so wrong. However, let me preface this with the following: Initially, one of the concerns we were trying to tackle, with respect to opening a Tiki bar, was to stay away from sugary cocktails. Obviously, Tiki drinks had the reputation of being overly sweet, hence, in our minds, unbalanced. We just assumed that bars were producing these drinks for their clientele simply due to demand. There is very limited historical information on frozen drinks – let alone a cocktail book dedicated to them. We started with recipes we had been using for years and felt confident would work. (Let me say the recipes were chosen primarily because of personal experience and/or pedigree of the bar/bartender. Any value judgements we derived are strictly with respect to frozen drinks.)

Our initial test recipe for the classic Daiquiri is the oldest recipe we knew on the Daiquiri: Constantino Ribalaigua’s “La Floridita” in Cuba (quite possibly the World’s most famous Daiquiri bar):

2 oz white rum
1/2 oz lime
1 tsp granulated sugar
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Ribalaigua 1935)

This cocktail was not sweet but strong. It was the most rum-forward and is actually quite interesting when made with aged Rum (Old Fashioned-style). However, it lacked the acidic component that was vital to it even being considered a viable classic Daiquiri. Shaken the recipe was good. Frozen, though, it was roughly undrinkable. It also was short for the glass we had chosen. A more substantial recipe would also need to be devised.

We proceeded on, trying Milk & Honey’s recipe:

2 oz white rum
1 oz lime
3/4 oz. simple syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Milk & Honey 2000)

Saying our recipe did not “cooperate” with us would be euphemistic. This was also somewhat undrinkable. In all honesty, their Daiquiri, when shaken, is hands-down on of our favorites. In literal “years” of consuming Milk & Honey Daiquiris, I’ve never ecountered an “OK” one. They were always perfect (a term I do not use lightly). Yet, when frozen, it had none of the characteristics that made me love this drink. It was unrecognizable. Two major problems were identified. First, the drink tasted watery and overly tart. There was no positive distinction. The drink tasted like acidic alcohol. (The Cosmopolitan, for some reason, comes to mind). Secondly, it could have been vodka, gin or silver rum. We actually experimented with all three, and couldn’t tell them apart consistently. The drink was so cold that it was devoid of any of the aromatic attributes that distinguishes rum from other spirits.

We proceeded to follow a recipe used at Pegu Club, another amazing bar where I have been blessed with amazing Daiquiris:

2 oz. white rum
3/4 oz. lime
3/4 oz. simple syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Pegu Club 2005)

Results were similar, but still not sufficient. The drink was still watery, but there was definitely worthy character present. However, we recognized almost immediately, after multiple attempts, that the frozen texture in this cocktail was improved significantly and was more consistent than our previous attempts- smoother in texture. The flavors were coming together more harmonious. Still, in our opinion, not a great drink. It needed more work

We, unintentionally, realized we were going chronologically forward with recipes. Hence, we proceeded to go backward in cocktail time. We proceeded with what we personally call the “Degroff Ratio” (Dale Degroff’s ratio for Sours-style drinks, like the Daiquiri, in his seminal “Craft of the Cocktail”):

1 1/2 oz. white rum
3/4 oz. lime
1 oz. simple syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Degroff 2002)

Not perfect, but when compared to all of our previous attempts, but the overall winner thus far. We knew we were getting closer. Consistency was there. The texture was perfect. The acidity was clean. However, the balance was slightly off. It needed to be sweeter. Significantly sweeter.

Hence, we proceeded with a similar frozen cocktail recipe made with rich demerara sugar syrup (2 part demerara to 1 water):

1 1/2 oz. white rum
3/4 oz. lime
1 oz. rich demerara syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(PKNY 2010)

No contest, the best one we had created. It boasted all of the elements that reminded us of the classic shaken Daiquiri but with a beautiful frozen texture we wanted. It worked. We found it. A few days of hard work had paid off. The recipe is not like anything we would have intuitively come up with but it worked. However, we were not happy about it.

Herein begins the crux of our problem. We hated admitting it. We did not want to do it. However, we encountered a major fucking obstacle. Philosophically, we had no desire to ever make any kind of drink that called for more than one ounce of simple syrup. We had never needed to before. There are very few reputable classic cocktails that call for almost equal parts of spirit component to sweet. We started out believing we were going to make less “sugary” drinks and now found ourselves having a discussion entertaining the thought of actually having to make the most sugary drinks of our careers. We began to believe that we had made some kind of error in our process somewhere and decided to remake everything. Same results. At the time, this was quite disheartening. And, things got worse.

After a few days, and a great deal of discussion with various colleagues, we realized there was another issue. The frozen cocktail usually calls for roughly 6-8 ounces of ice. Being a blended cocktail, frozen drinks have a very high water content. We determined that not only were we making the most sugary drinks of our careers, but also the most diluted. Attempts to add less ice or pre-chilled ingredients ended in quite unsatisfactory results. We found a solution that stood contrary to everything we held in esteem for years. Controlled water content, “balanced” sweetness, limited ice – all out the window.

We attempted for a while to could control the water content and go back to safer, more familiar pastures. The issues were primarily with respect to mis-en-place. Initially, we froze the lime and sugar into 1.5 oz cubes but then we were struggling with the freshness of our juice. It did directly assuage the water content issue, but who wants a drink made with pre-made cubes of frozen “limeade?” How do we assure freshness? It’s not like we could taste ice cubes to make sure they are still good. However, during the StarChefs International Chefs Congress, Chef Johnny Iuzzini actually presented a pretty clever solution. The water content of any frozen drink can actually be easily fixed to any level you prefer using liquid nitrogen, combined with constant agitation, to freeze cocktails. The textures are almost like pudding-like. The results were quite delicious.

Sadly, we had to abandon the idea of freezing cocktails this way. Primarily, because PKNY is a small, narrow space with limited air circulation. Personal nightmares of the bar being filled with high concentrations nitrogen gas and suffocating our staff and guests made me err on the side of caution. One or two LN-frozen drinks on a random weekday would be more than safe. On Friday, however, when we are easily making close to 200 frozen drinks in a small space that is packed all night, the variables become much less predictable. More importantly, we weren’t about to abandon the blender behind the bar because we were failing to understand the underlying mechanisms of making proper frozen drinks with it. We were not going to quit. That would have been cowardly. We are considering some kind of combination of techniques using smaller amounts of LN to start a pre-chilling of the cocktail combined with use of crushed ice in a blender. Seems like the combination of the two would work quite well.

However, I have significantly digressed. We knew we were stuck with cocktails that had high water content. After some thought, it all kind of made sense. We accepted what was happening and began to embrace it. We recognized, through the help of Dave Arnold and his website cookingissues.com, that the crushed ice we were using for the cocktail experiments, due to amount of higher amounts of water trapped on the surface than the typically larger ice we were used to using, begins diluting the drink right away. After this initial dilution, the chilling power remains about the same than that of larger ice. However, it was leading to higher amounts of dilution, combined with the fact that the blender was increasing the surface area of the ice every second of initial use. In order to achieve the textural components we were looking for, we discovered that the liquid needed to reach an equilibrate temperature. When it’s reached this equilibrium, that is when actual “ice blending” not “ice melting” occurred. The faster it did this, the better the results when making frozen drinks. The textural components were something we had to seriously consider now. It had become just as important as the water content level and temperature with respect to classic cocktails.

Now, we were beginning to understand what was happening. We were learning how to make consistently good quality frozen drinks and our understanding helped us comprehend on how to always do it. There was no more guessing on the recipe. No fortune teller was necessary where our blender was concerned. The high water content we had determined was vital to the textural component we wanted. We could consistently replicate it because of our newfound understanding of the processes that were going on the second we began to build any frozen cocktail. So now we are left with one remaining problem:

Why EXACTLY do these drinks need to be so sweeter and more diluted?

How do I begin? I really have no idea. Let me start, I guess, by saying this is a question that has perplexed me my entire career. Cocktail bartenders talk about the “ideal dilution” of a drink and typically those values are closer to figures that mirror the smallest amount of water content we can have. Larger amounts of water in cocktails carry a stigma of being poor quality (and on the vast majority of cocktails, rightfully so). Consistently creating cocktails with smaller amounts of water usually represent and require control, technique and skill. However, what is that “ideal” amount? Is it a fixed? Is it variable? Can we determine a fixed number and standardize the proper dilution in ALL of our cocktails? (Too many fucking questions I know.)

Dave Arnold, food and cocktail genius, along with a panel of some the country’s best bartenders had already tried to determine a preferred measure of dilution. No general consensus was reached. After experiencing first-hand our frozen Daiquiri dilemma, we began to think that perhaps a different approach was needed. Trends we noticed were somewhat obvious although very debatable. However, that did not detract us from coming up with a few theories. A few of them are leaps of faith. However, even if they were incorrect, they can still be used as working tools on how to approach a classic recipe that is not working for you. Consider this is merely a thought experiment. At the end of the day, you have to just trust in what you think is good and hope that it translates into the glass.

Let’s take another look at each of these recipes individually, examine what’s happening and see what trends emerge. Keep in mind that these classic chronicled recipes do not include fixed measures of water. The “correct” water content has always been an assumed value left to the judgement and discretion of an experienced bartender. As many of us have grown in our careers, we realized that the drinks that had a higher proportion of sweetness needed to be diluted more. Hence, we finally get to the fucking point of everything I have written so far:

Since recipes vary, with respect to proportions of their inherent ingredients, it should not be a ridiculous assumption to consider the amount of water that each recipe should have would need to vary also.

So how do we demonstrate that? Well, you have already seen the recipes we chose to help us determine the “PKNY Frozen Daiquiri.” When working through this initial “frozen” conundrum, we primarily chose recipes that we knew quite well were delicious when shaken. Although initially the frozen results did not mirror their shaken counterparts, albeit disheartening, this was not unexpected anymore. These recipes are not lone representations of a specific bartender’s style. Bartenders rarely work in a vacuum (especially when working through a classic recipe). So when choosing a recipe, like Audrey Saunder’s Pegu Club Daiquiri, we know that this particular Daiquiri – its ratios, varying spirits, shaking styles, dilution, etc. – have been exhaustively tested and determined, through a plethora of the world’s most talented bartenders, to represent the best Daiquiri possible. I personally know that a classic recipe at Pegu Club is sometimes prepared dozens upon dozens of times, in unimaginably different ways, to determine what is the working spec for that particular cocktail. Sasha Petraske and Dale DeGroff also employ similar methods of meticulousness. You can also add upon that the number of times their drinks have been made for guests and you end up with a working recipe that has served satisfactorily countless numbers of people. Why do I mention this? Because from this point forward, for purely “scientific” purposes, I will work under the assumption that each recipe used is the MOST balanced representation of the Daiquiri. How can EACH of these drinks be the best representation of the Daiquiri? They are so radically different. The answer is lies somewhere in understanding the history of the cocktail, the bartender creating the recipe, and dilution.

Initially, we started with Constanino’s recipe because it was the oldest spec and he is the only bartender in the bunch that actually used a working blender behind his bar daily. For all intents and purposes, the frozen Daiquiri in our estimation was HIS drink. To help validate this wacky assumption, we have determined the amount of spirit, without the addition of water, for the following recipes:

1935 Floridita: 66.6% spirit
Pegu Club: 57% spirit
Milk and Honey: 54% spirit
Degroff: 47% spirit

The 1935 Floridita Daiquiri appears to come in the highest in alcohol. It appears to be an anomaly. At initial inspection, the drink has a flavor profile that is strong and dry. We personally found it slightly unbalanced. Experience with similar cocktails leads us to think that we might need a significant push towards less dilution and more sweetness. We also might be led to believe that this was perhaps his intent. Many might also assume that the palates of previous generations differ significantly from our own present day flavor preferences. However, we are skeptics. As skeptics, we would argue that Constantino’s recipe is not an anomaly. Although it appears to be a departure from our own present taste we are missing a few key pieces of information. Let’s take into account a few things. First, where we used silver rum, La Floridita most likely used Bacardi Gold rum, which had added sugar for coloring, being sweeter. Also, I am tempted to guess that the ABV of 1935 Bacardi was not at 40%. I am not sure of this. The 80 proof requirement is strictly American standard that I can’t imagine the Cubans adhering to in 1935. Havana Club comes in at 37.5 percent alcohol all around the world, except the United States. If they were to become available to us, they would have to up their proof, just like the Mexicans have to do with their Tequilas (which also float around the same 37.5 percent). So considering the rum he used in his recipe is both sweeter and lower in proof, we can also assume that the strong, rum-forward drink that we initially prepared, is not a representation of what Constantino had in mind. The dilution of his Daiquiri can possibly fall within the same parameters we are following presently. However, I am just guessing here. That’s a debate for another time. If the written recipe we have on record is not a clear representation of what we would hoped to expect, how do we figure out what is?

Let’s go on to compare drinks. In particular, the Pegu Club Daiquiri and Floridita’s Daiquiri:

2 oz. white rum
1/2 oz. lime
1 tsp. granulated sugar
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Ribalaigua 1935)


2 oz. white rum
3/4 oz. lime
3/4 oz. simple syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnsh with a lime wheel
(Pegu Club 2005)

Now let’s look at the them a bit differently. Let’s have the recipes demonstrate the amount of alcohol by actually showing the breakdown of water to alcohol in spirit:

.75 oz. alcohol
1.25 oz. water in spirit
1/2 oz. lime
1 tsp. granulated sugar
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Ribalaigua 1935 using spirit 37.5% ABV)


.8 oz. white rum
1.2 oz. water in spirit
3/4 oz. lime
3/4 oz. simple syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Pegu Club 2005 using spirit 40% ABV)

Constantino’s recipe, at first, appeared to be strongest cocktail of the bunch from the four we had chosen. His recipe contained 66% spirit, as opposed to Pegu’s 57% spirit . However, when adjusting for the probable spirits that he actually called for, we notice something quite extraordinary. Constantino’s drink come in about at 25% actual alcohol and Pegu’s come in at 23%. They also have roughly identical amounts of sweetness and acidity. They are virtually identical. It is most likely that these cocktails had roughly the same percentage of dilution.

Before I continue, maybe it’s the inner cocktail geek in me, but let me say when I see two recipes created by two of the greatest bars in historical existence approximately 70 years apart from one another, both independent of the other, one of which I know has been tested repeatedly by bartenders around the globe, and, for some unknown reason, they both come in at about the same alcohol level, my inner cocktail geek goes, “What the hell?” The amounts of acidity and sweetness are also eerily similar. It makes me wonder about pre-conceived beliefs I had before about approaching older cocktail recipes, the palate of previous generations and, in this case, about balance. So here we have clear demonstration of past and present coming together to show us the following:

Certain classic recipes should be considered as correctly stated. Our understanding of balance is not much different, if at all, than bartenders from yesteryear.

Sounds like an obvious assumption to make. It really is not. When opening old cocktail manuals, I personally have been faced with having to adjust recipes to what I thought were my personal tastes. However, I was not recognizing that I perhaps do not have a clear understanding of the historical context of the drink and it affecting my ability to replicate the bartender’s intended balance. Perhaps, the older recipe is closer to my own style than it would first appear. I cannot help but recall the number of times I have had to adjust a recipe because it was either too boozy, sweet, tart or not boozy, sweet or tart enough. Imagine a scenario where you had to keep the ratios fixed and all you could change were the ingredients. In that same scenario, you would have to adjust things that are much tougher to control, like the proof of your spirit, the sweetness of your syrup, and the acidity of your citrus. This was somewhat easy to demonstrate with a drink that is approximately 70 years old and the differences are apparent and adjustable. How about a drink recipe that is 10 years old?

Let’s look at Dale’s Daiquiri:

1 1/2 oz. white rum
3/4 oz. lime
1 oz. simple syrup
Shake and Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel
(Degroff 2002)

Once again, we see a recipe that “appears” to be dramatically different from the others. Although the recipe states 2002, it most likely invented in the early nineties (which I only mention because pre-dates it to Milk and Honey’s recipe). It also appears to be the sweetest and weakest in alcohol content. How is it that this recipe came to be one of the most well-known and recognizable recipes for the Daiquiri?

Let’s consider the following train of thought. We conceptually can (and have) argued that the palates of generations past has been significantly driven to be sweeter. For example, a great majority of people would say Jerry Thomas cocktails, if exact specifications are followed have a tendency to be sweet, therefore, unbalanced. This is obviously a personal opinion, but with respect to the other recipes we have noted, this is a fact. Given that these cocktail recipes are over a century old, we could assume that this was his intent. That intent could have been personal or could have been to suit the needs of his clientele. This may have been the case and it’s an incredibly valid argument to think so. However, after seeing after similarity between PC’s and Floridita’s Daiquiri, could we also make the alternate assumption that we are not fully exploring the possibility that these drinks are also being prepared incorrectly? The difference between Dale’s Daiquiri and Milk & Honey’s is less than a decade. Both historically accurate and served to thousands upon thousands of people. Can we really assume that the palates of bartenders and guests alike have made a move towards a drier style Daiquiri? It’s a bit nonsensical.

The simple answer is no. We should always assume that concept of “balance” is the same now as it was 100 years ago (even if it is not the case). If we make it our way, and it doesn’t taste good, we are probably missing some vital piece of information. The most obvious omission in all cocktail recipes is the amount of water. Although we can argue that dilution and balance are a matter of style, craft and personal taste, perhaps we should also consider the possibility that balance appears to be a more universal quality then we had previously thought.

Historically, we know the major shift in cocktail preparation from the early nineties to the present has been the shift on the surface area of ice. Dale was using ice that was higher in surface area, machine ice, as compared to Milk & Honey’s low surface area ice, block ice. Not trying to be too scientific, we know that the amount of dilution these kinds of ice bring into drinks are significantly different. The greater the surface area of your ice, the greater the amount of surface water also, but not always, leads to a greater initial dilution. We have been arguing the differences in temperature larger ice brings into cocktails for years. That is not what I am talking about and that debate can continue. It is pretty safe to assume that larger ice melts more slowly then smaller ice. If you shake the same drink with different kinds of ice for the same period of time, the drink made with more surface water on its ice is usually more diluted than the cocktail made with less surface water. You prepare Dale’s Daiquiri with the style of ice he had available to him at the time and you end up with a drink that is INCREDIBLY balanced. Damn near perfect. (On a side note, Degroff Ratios incredibly helpful with preparing shaken cocktails with drier sweeteners ie, Sidecars and Frisos).

Duh? Why does this matter? It matters because certain cocktails recipes need higher dilution. Frozen drinks, for example, have an incredibly high amount of surface water. If we had taken into account the phenomenon were witnessing now, it only makes sense that frozen drinks would NEED to resemble drinks that parallel similar values of surface water when prepared. We end up with a somewhat simple explanation on trends we have seen in historical manuals and styles of bartenders. If we were to evaluate what we have seen and tasted: the best Daiquiri made with ‘90s machine ice would have to be Dale’s. The best Daiquiri recipe made with Kold Draft would have to be Pegu’s. The best Daiquiri made with block ice would have to be Milk & Honey’s. The recipes themselves demonstrate a shift from sweeter, less alcoholic to drier, more alcoholic. This shift is not due to a change in our clientele’s palate, but due to the style of ice being used. Dilution and ice size explain everything. I could be wrong but what the hell.

Conclusions

What does any of this prove? Nothing. Range and balance change from bartender to bartender. There is no correct amount of water in drinks. In the end, people are going to do have an opinion and style. David Embury cocktails, author of one of the greatest cocktail manuals ever written, “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, has cocktail recipe ratios that seem to need to need a different approach (I will leave it at that). However, we could make the following observations:

1. Balance appears to be a universal quality than we had previously expected.

We saw examples of this with the remarkable similarities between Pegu Club’s and La Floridita’s Daiquiri. Also, when you take dilution into account and style of ice being used, the trend from sweeter to drier becomes pretty self-explanatory. Adding sweetener to a cocktail that is higher dilution, becomes vital to achieving balance.

2. The amount of dilution in cocktails, although rarely stated in a recipe, is not an intuitive amount.

Had we initially looked at all of our recipes and seen exact amounts of water, we could have avoided all the unnecessary headache we went through. Without knowing those amounts, we just assumed they were all the same. Now we know that intended dilution, is something we should try to state in all of our drinks if we want them correctly represented. Daiquiris are a somewhat simplistic representation of this and can be debated. Let’s look at a less debatable example: The PKNY interpretation (with the help of Jeff Berry of course!) of the 1934 Zombie Punch.

1 1/2 oz Smith & Cross
1 1/2 oz Ron del Barrilito 3 star
1 oz Lemon Heart 151
1 dash Angostura bitters
1/2 oz Donn’s mix #2
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz Zombie mix**
Build into a tiki mug. Top with crushed ice.
Garnish with a mint sprig
_
Don’s Mix #2: 2 parts Grapefruit: 1 part cinnamon bark syrup
** Zombie Mix: 4 falernum: 2 grenadine: 1 absinthe
(Donn Beach 1934-Berry)_

We have a single cocktail that calls for 4 oz. of spirit and approximately 1 oz. each of citrus and sweetener (which is also alcoholic). Its like no other cocktail I have ever seen. How do we even begin to know what the proper dilution of it is? Initially, we gave it a very high dilution because of how spiritous it was. We served them “balanced” and thought that the high dilution was neccesary. However, our philosophy has changed and presently we made the decision to not do that anymore. We don’t even swizzle it or bring it to as cold as possible. We literally add crushed ice and let it be. We know it does not make sense. Why offer guests a less harmonious cocktail?

Its simple. It comes after our first few weeks being open and seeing people guzzle these down UNPREPARED for the amount of alcohol they were actually consuming. Now, our approach is treat the Zombie like “rite of passage” and let it evolve in the glass. The complexity at low dilution stands out more and flavor and strength of the rums really stick out. More importantly, we wanted the guest to feel the cocktail was almost like a difficult “journey.” It begins spiritous/aromatic and finishes into something completely more balanced and complex. That first sip makes you respect it. It slows you down. At low dilution, all of those beautiful flavors inside the rums stick out. It makes you take notice IMMEDIATELY that what you have is to be savored and strong. It’s almost a “gut check.” At higher dilutions, towards the end of consumption, you could almost imagine yourself drinking 3 of these and not getting completely inebriated. Everything else comes into play. The progressive melting of ice brings more and more to the palate. The recipe previously stated doesn’t show my personal intent. If someone were to try and replicate that, the recipe would have to state it.

Classic recipes leave a lot to the discretion of bartenders. This is not something you can anticipate. A lot of what we see is a personal take of experience has taught us, the choosing quality of your ingredients and what they want their guests to perceive.

3. Certain classic recipes should be considered as correctly stated. Our understanding of balance is not much different, if at all, than bartenders from yesteryear.

If we treated the recipes like formulas and kept the ratios fixed, a lot of what we have seen would have become apparent sooner. Adjusting ratios is SIGNIFICANTLY easier than controlling proof or acidity. However, after working through several classics that appear to be sweet, we just need to make the appropriate dilution adjustments. Certain classic cocktails need a “healthy plant” approach. In other words, the drinks appear to need more or less water come alive.

4. Since recipes vary, with respect to proportions of their inherent ingredients, it should not also be a ridiculous assumption to assume the amount of water that each recipe should have would need to vary also.

What does this mean? Let me illustrate. Let’s say we are making 3 Daiquiris.

Daiquiri #1: Havana Club (37.5% abv)
Daiquiri #2: Smith and Cross (57% abv)
Daiquiri #3: Lemonhart Overproof Demerara (75.5% abv)

The significant variable we are noting here is proof. Can we honestly argue that the same recipe AND the same dilution would offer the same balanced cocktail? No. There needs to be some kind of adjustment. You could make them all the same (and that would be cool) but to say that they are equally balanced would be incorrect. We all know that anyone that orders a 151-Daiquiri is expecting something strong. However, if I am using a recipe I know brings harmony at one proof, I should not assume it does at others. In case you are wondering, PKNY uses (shaking on block ice):

Daiquiri #1: Denizen or Starr (We do not have HC at the bar so do not ask): 2 oz., 1 oz. .75 oz.
Daiquiri #2: Smith and Cross: 2 oz., .75 oz. .75 oz.,
Daiquiri #3: Lemonhart Overproof Demerara: 1 1/2 oz., .75 oz. .75 oz.

But, this is just a matter of opinion. Honestly, for example, I have not tasted a “Smith and Cross” Daiquiri I never thought was awesome. It works at pretty much at any range previously stated.

5. The surface area of your ice is not a good indicator of the quality of your cocktail.

Through our discussion we have demonstrated that the kind of ice you use appears to directly determine the ratio of your ingredients in particular cocktails. Certain drinks needs higher dilution. Larger ice does not facilitate that. However, it’s an easier example to imagine a situation where you are using incredibly high surface area ice a.k.a shitty (for example, working a private event or ice machine breaks down). Do you continue using the same recipe for that ice even though you know the drinks are going to be a bit more watered? No. Great drinks can be made using any style ice if you make the appropriate adjustments and change certain techniques. Ingredients do not make the bartender.


In the end, after discussing this with Joe Schwartz, one of the proprietors of Little Branch in New York City, he encapsulates everything perfectly when he states, “I don’t think you can create an across the board target ABV. An Old Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri/Sour, and Fizz/Collins/Rickey, Gin & Tonic represent, in my mind, at least 4 different ABV categories. If you calculate the water content in an egg white, we might be up to 6-7. Add Juleps, Mojitos, and drinks with more, odd or varied modifiers, and their individual water contents, and we have and endless number of permutations of what might be considered “ideal” water content. Maybe ranges for these fairly regular families of drinks could be agreed upon, or perhaps better still a spectrum of ABV showing ranges where different drink classes might fall with other well knowns and oddballs peppered. I suspect, however, they all over the place.” If we also take into account the kind of ice used and differentiating proofs, then those permutations could possibly be infinite.

We hope this exercise in our failures and successes was helpful to you. If you feel you just read 14 pages on dilution and got gipped, do not worry. I am hoping what my grandfather used to say is true, “It sometimes takes a lifetime to understand one thing.” Make the drinks and try it for yourself. Word.

Yours in Service,

Giuseppe