The Balancing Act
As we wind down 2021 and ring in the new year, it is time to discuss the single most important concept in crafting a cocktail and that is balance. Balance is that elusive point where all the ingredients harmonize, and the result is so much more than the mere sum of its parts. Have you ever tasted a cocktail where that first sip is pure magic? Layers of flavor play off each other. The cocktail sings. That is the symphony of balance.
We have discussed the two primary techniques in making a cocktail, shaking and stirring. Now, let us dive a little deeper. This is where the art of balance comes in. Learning this art is a lifelong process (in so many more ways than one). This knowledge is also a key in adjusting cocktails to your specific tastes. Luckily, there are some shortcuts to achieving balance in cocktails, at least. Namely, learning the components of taste, understanding how to use flavor pairings, and leveraging classic cocktail templates. A cocktail becomes a classic precisely because it is well-balanced. Each of its components is in tune, with exquisite results.
Using a classic cocktail template and swapping in some seasonal ingredients is a great way to come up with a unique cocktail that is well-balanced. What is more classic for New Year than a champagne cocktail and the queen of champagne cocktails is undoubtedly the French 75. Its contemporary recipe includes champagne, gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup.
We live amidst amazing abundance. The seasonal ingredients in Montecito and the surrounding area are almost unparalleled. Lately, as I have been walking my dog, I have seen lavender in bloom and plump grapefruit ready to be juiced. What better way to celebrate the New Year than with a local version of the French 75, using these beautiful ingredients.
As you probably know, there are five basic tastes that we can perceive. They are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. The first four are instrumental in crafting balanced cocktails and umami, that indescribable element of savoriness, is more limited in its cocktail application. Sweet balances sour. For example, when you add sour ingredients, like lime juice, they are balanced with simple syrup (sweet).
Likewise, bitter can balance sweet. This balance behaves slightly differently. You often still taste the sweetness and the bitterness, but they don’t feel out of balance. There are also many bitter or bittersweet ingredients for mixing. Cocktail bitters deliver concentrated bitterness and layers of flavor. Tonic water is a great example of bittersweet; the bitter quinine is balanced by a bit of sugar, and you still taste both components.
Salt is perhaps a less utilized component, but it enhances sweetness, balances bitterness, and can make flavors pop. You do not need a lot. A few drops of saline solution or a quick pinch of salt can work wonders in a cocktail, particularly when using bitter ingredients.
Flavor pairing deserves an entire discussion to itself. Until then, there are a couple of things that come to mind with the ingredients I’ve selected. The first thing I think of with grapefruit is a Paloma, which is a beautiful cocktail that pairs grapefruit and tequila. Let’s swap out the gin for tequila. I also love the combination of lavender and honey, so I want to try that as a sweetener.
To put the concept of balance into practice, let’s walk through this example, taking the classic French 75 template and subbing in our ingredients. I have chosen to use tequila, grapefruit juice, honey simple syrup, and lavender bitters to bring in that lovely floral element. These are shaken with ice, strained into a glass, and then topped off with champagne. The result is good but slightly out of balance towards sweet for my tastes. In my mind, this is because grapefruit is a little sweeter and less sour than lemon juice. There is also a little more bitter finish with the grapefruit and lavender bitters. I would drink this version, but it is not yet singing.
My two main options to change the balance are to reduce the sweet ingredients or increase the sour. To ensure we do not lose flavor, I want to add a touch more grapefruit juice. Likewise, the light bitter note is not an issue but adding just a pinch of salt to the shaking tin might help reduce that just slightly. Shaking up the new version, I love the result and am now happily sipping away. Time to mark this one down!
Montecito Stroll (aka Lavender Grapefruit 75)
1 1/2 oz reposado tequila (for a smoky variation try an equal split 3/4 oz tequila and 3/4 oz mezcal)
1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
3/4 oz honey simple syrup (1 part honey, 1 part water)
2 dashes lavender bitters
Pinch of salt
Top with 2 – 3 oz of champagne
Garnish: Twist of grapefruit and lavender blossom.
Add all the ingredients except the champagne and the garnish to a shaking tin. Add ice to the shaker and shake until chilled and diluted, about 10 – 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled champagne flute, top with champagne, and express the twist of grapefruit over the drink. Garnish with the twist and lavender blossom.
Happy New Year
One final note: I am so happy to be sharing this little corner of Montecito with you. I am incredibly thankful for being able to connect with new people and discuss something that I love. I hope you are beginning to as well. So, cheers to new friends and new adventures, to laughing and learning, all over a shared sip! Now, let’s mix up that cocktail! •MJ