What is a cocktail recipe?

Most food writers, recipe developers, and cookbook authors will agree that a recipe contains a few basic elements:

1. The full list of ingredients.

2. The advised proportions for said ingredients.

3. Instructions for combining and preparing the ingredients, including cooking instructions and suggested tools to use.

4. Instructions for presenting and serving the finished product, i.e. “ladle into a bowl,” or “garnish with mint sprigs.”

If I’d been hired to create a recipe (food or drink), and omitted any of the above elements, I’d be fired, and deservedly so. Anyone who has tried to successfully make a recipe with any of the above elements missing will also likely agree that all of these are critical elements — and the leading reasons that otherwise good recipes fail is because the instructions are unclear, incomplete, or key ingredients have been omitted.

It puzzles me that lately, when I’ve requested drink recipes from PR pros representing bars or restaurants, what I’ve received has been a description hurriedly skimmed from an online menu. For example (and I’m deliberately excising the name of the bar and the drink’s name, since it’s not the bar’s fault), the following to my request for a punch recipe:

Pisco, Lemon-grass Syrup, Fresh Lime Juice, Ginger Juice, and egg white. Dusted with Chai Green Tea and Angostura Bitters

This is not a recipe.

I suppose I could take this as a compliment, a suggestion that surely, I’m such an insider I’ll know how to piece this list together into a cocktail recipe.

No. Not even close. There’s a big difference between 1 ounce and 1 1/2 ounces of spirit, shaken or stirred or something else altogether. Do the first two ingredients need to be combined together first before the third is added? What of those ingredients commonly omitted from menu descriptions, but critical to a successful finished dish? In the food world, you’ll rarely see olive oil or seasonings listed on the menu, for example; in the drink world, that often applies to acid/citrus and sweeteners. In this case, lime is specified, but this is not always the case. Is that simple syrup a 1:1 or 1:2 sugar to water ratio? What type of sugar is used? And a common thorn in the side of drink recipe writers (and followers) is those custom-made ingredients, such as “house-made” bitters, tinctures, etc. Tell me how to make ginger juice and lemongrass syrup.

That doesn’t mean that every drink recipe has to be standardized to the point of boring. The earliest cocktail receipt writers were masters of descriptive language. More recently, I love Dave Wondrich’s drink descriptions, in which drinks are shaken “viciously” rather than merely shaken. It’s no coincidence that Wondrich has probably logged more time immersed in early drink recipes than any other living writer. But even the oldest and floweriest recipes still contained all the needed elements for a reader to successfully replicate the drinks. For example, consider the following, from Jerry Thomas:

Glasgow Punch

(From a recipe in the possession of Dr. Shelton Mackenzie.)

Melt lump-sugar in cold water, with the juice of a couple of lemons, passed through a fine hair-strainer. This is sherbet, and must be well mingled. Then add old Jamaica rum—one part of rum to five of sherbet. Cut a couple of limes in two, and run each section rapidly around the edge of the jug or bowl, and gently squeezing in some of the delicate acid. This done, the punch is made. Imbibe.

Is this a recipe? YES. It’s not the format we commonly use today, but it tells the reader about the ingredients, how much to use, and how to prepare and serve it (jug or bowl). And extra points to Mr. Thomas for giving credit to Dr. Shelton Mackenzie, rather than simply stealing the recipe, as so many would-be recipe writers do today.

Now here’s a second, more modern, and unorthodox format, a tweeted recipe. The source here is the Mixoloseum, an online chat board populated by amateur and professional cocktail geeks, who invariably know more about cocktails than I do. Okay, this punch recipe required two tweets, which I’m conflating, but still, it shows what can be accomplished in a streamlined format:

New Zealand Rum Punch: 1oz Coruba, 1oz Oronoco, 1oz grapefruit juice, 1oz Don’s Spices, .5oz lime juice, shake with ice and dump into a pint glass, top with soda water, garnish with a lime spiral (@cocktailnerd

Is this a recipe? YES.  Ingredients and proportions? check, check. Suggested prep? check. Presentation? check. And all in 140 characters or less (times two).

So once again, I’ll present the response I received to my request for a drink recipe:

Pisco, Lemon-grass Syrup, Fresh Lime Juice, Ginger Juice, and egg white. Dusted with Chai Green Tea and Angostura Bitters

and I’ll ask:  Is this a recipe?

I”d love to hear your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “What is a cocktail recipe?

  1. It’s a Description.
    I can’t imagine its utility in this context, unless they are being deliberately obscure.
    Since you can’t copyright a recipe, perhaps they are following the old Tiki masters’ practice of jealously guarding recipes to protect them!

    … or the PR person was too lazy to contact their client, or too impatient for them to get back with them and just copied it from their copy of the menu.

  2. Doug, that’s a really good point that you can’t copyright a recipe. …although I highly doubt that was the rationale in this case.

    • You may not be able to copyright a recipe but we all know the case of the Dark & Stormy, which is a copyrighted cocktail name — the next closest thing. (In other words, Gosling’s rum is saying, ‘use this recipe all you want in bars, but if you do, you must use our rum if you want to call it a Dark & Stormy.’) I don’t know if a bartender or a bar has ever attempted that.

      I think you’re running into PR stupidity. It’s my guess that this person isn’t thinking about how you want to use the information, so they’re just telling you what’s in the drink. I’m guessing their job is to promote the bar with the public and the general press, and that they’re not used to dealing with insiders and they don’t know the business. Otherwise, they probably would have been clear: ‘sorry, the bar is guarding that recipe for now, but I’d be happy to tell you the ingredients.’

      In my day job, I deal with fashion PR. It’s bad. Really bad. Untargeted pitches are just the beginning. The worst is the representatives of big companies, retailers and fashion brands, who see themselves not as ambassadors and facilitators, but as gatekeepers.

      Back to recipes, I’ve had fun trying to reverse engineer things I’ve had in bars, and I’ve had some success — at least to my palate. But if I’m writing about that, I make it clear that this is not their recipe, but mine based on their ingredients and what I tasted when they made it. That said, a lot of bartenders seem happy to talk about drinks in depth as long as they have the time. They’re often excited to chat with someone who appreciates their work.

      • FWIW, the Dark n’ Stormy is Trademarked, not Copyrighted, but you have how its protection works right, as far as I have been able to learn. I cringe a little every time I see one on a menu with something other than Goslings, and I wonder when the wrong lawyer will walk into that watering hole….

        The other famous such drink is the Bacardi Cocktail. The original court decision where that name was protected is worth reading for a good chuckle. If you want a better version that you can’t call a Bacardi Cocktail, try my The Infringement™….

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response, C&C!

    I don’t want to paint all PRs with the same brush, but I have to say that this has reinforced my belief that it’s always best to start with the primary source. I should always reach out to bars and bartenders first for recipes, and PR-sourced recipes much much later, if at all.

    But what burns me is that I always thought the concept of “recipe” was not open to much interpretation, regardless of who becomes the conduit for the recipe. I wish this had been the only example of crossed wires — but sadly, it’s not.

  4. I don’t write about a drink unless I have the recipe. And I don’t write about something I wouldn’t recommend others trying (sometimes with caveats like it was a novel drink worth documenting but needs some touching up).

    If people want a restaurant, bar, bartender, product, or vague concept promoted, they need to be paying someone to do so.

  5. I think it is a bit excessive to cringe when a Dark ‘n’ Stormy is listed in a bar without Goslings as the rum. Bundaberg Rum in Australia for instance has a pre-mixed product called ‘Dark and Stormy’ which they have sold for many years without litigation. I am fairly sure that the drink is actually only trademarked in Bermuda and the US and as such holds no weight outside of those countries anyway. The trademarking was more aimed at preventing other rum companies from piggy backing on what Goslings sees as its own marketing strategy.

    The NYT discusses the issue in a 2009 article.


  6. Kara, I think it’s simply that people don’t pay attention. I’ve had the same problem with many bartenders, even when I’ve been very specific about asking for measurements and exact preparation. Of course, then there are the times I’m told, “We’re not allowed to divulge recipes.” OK, then I’ll just sit at the bar and watch how the cocktail is made….duh!

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