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.