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Mixology Tip: Customizing Cocktails for Guests

When you’re serving cocktails to guests, there are some easy ways to tweak each drink so it’s just the way each guest likes it. This mixology tip is a great way to impress your guests with your bartending skills, and it starts by asking questions.

Three cocktails on bar top

Mixology Tip: Creating customized cocktails

Ask your guests how they like the cocktail you’re about to pour them. Now, not everyone spends a lot of time thinking about how they like their drinks, so you want to ask specific questions.

You don’t have to ask all of these questions every single time. Some make more sense with certain cocktails than others. Think about what “hits” you with each cocktail when you make it the way the recipe calls for: is it really sweet or dry? Is it unusually strong or weak? And then ask the questions that will help you make the drink the way each guest wants.

1. Do you like your cocktails more sweet or more dry?

This is an easy question for most people, and also an easy way to tailor their cocktails. All you need to do is tweak the ingredients ratio: that is, use a little more or less of the ingredients that make it more sweet or more dry, according to what your guests like.

I like cocktails on the dry side, so if you’re making Amaretto Sours for everyone, which is a sweet cocktail, you might use a little less amaretto, or a little more lemon juice. You would definitely leave off the sugar rim.

On the other hand, if you’re making Moscow Mules, which are not particularly sweet, you’d make mine by the standard recipe. But if other guests prefer their cocktails sweeter, you could use a little more ginger beer or a little less lime juice.

It’s good to experiment a little at home with your own cocktails, seeing how they turn out when you tweak ingredients.

2. This cocktail is pretty strong/on the weaker side. Is that good?

Some cocktails have nothing but a low proof liqueur or two, while others call for up to five ounces of hard liquors. If you’re making a cocktail that’s notably strong or weak, you can ask guests what they prefer. But how do you tweak it?

Tweaking the ratios. Going back to Question #1, you can usually tweak the ratios. To weaken a drink, you can just use smaller amounts of the hard liquors it calls for. The Zombie is notoriously strong, calling for 4.5 ounces of various rums, plus an ounce of apricot brandy. You can cut the rum in half and add more pineapple and papaya juice, and still have a great tasting, and still fairly strong, drink.

Shake longer or serve over ice. Another way to weaken a drink is to shake it with a lot of ice, and shake it for a long time. That lets the ice melt and water down the drink further. You can also pour most cocktails over ice. Believe it or not, it’s also acceptable to water down cocktails if your water has a great (lack of) flavor and it’s what the guest wants. Try natural spring water or filtered tap. Watering down is really the only way to weaken a notoriously strong martini for someone who’s curious but intimidated by the drink.

Adding vodka. The Mimosa, on the other hand, was designed to be low proof. You could make it a tiny bit stronger by adding more champagne or more triple sec. Both of those options will change the flavor profile slightly, but not they can work. However, another option is to simply add an ounce of a very smooth vodka. Quality vodka won’t change the flavor profile, and won’t add a lot of “fumes” to the drink. Just a half-ounce to an ounce brings up the proof of most drinks to the typical strength of a cocktail

3. Adding “secret” ingredients that change the flavor

One of my favorite things to do at home is to add just one ingredient to a cocktail and see how that changes it. Yes, technically, that means you’re probably making another cocktail entirely, but most guests love it when you ask, “Have you ever had a [cocktail] with [secret ingredient]?”

If a cocktail has an edge a guest doesn’t like – something too intense that needs to be mellowed – adding even a half-ounce of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur will usually tame it and enhance the flavors nicely. If a cocktail is too mellow, adding a dash or two of bitters can fix that – even after you’ve served the drink, they can be added in with a stir. Lime juice can also add tartness to a drink that’s too sweet.

Adding ginger ale, Sprite or cola can both sweeten and weaken a drink, and they’re also great for “correcting” a flavor a guest isn’t enjoying.

I like to taste every ingredient in my bar on its own. Even items like celery bitters, which are not made to be tasted on their own (and you’ll know why if you try it), I’ll at least put a few drops on my tongue to get a sense of what it’s like. The more familiar you are with individual ingredients, the better you can predict what will change if you add more or less of each one.

Making another cocktail entirely

Sometimes a particular cocktail can’t be customized to a guest’s tastes. For example, if a guest hates mint, there’s probably no way to make a creme de menthe or julep cocktail work for them. Grapefruit juice is another ingredient some people just can’t stand (and some people can’t have grapefruit juice because of medications they’re on). Sometimes you just have to suggest an alternative cocktail. When you’re making big batch cocktails for a party, it’s always a good idea to have an alternative ready, something that’s very different from the other one. You don’t need to make a second pitcher – just have a couple of quick, easy cocktails ready to suggest in case someone can’t enjoy your featured big batch.

The benefits of customizing

The best thing about tweaking drinks is that it makes guests feel special. You’re asking them questions, getting them to engage with you about what they like. And then you’re providing it. The cocktail you’re serving them may be different from all the others in the room. You may also find guests trying each other’s cocktails and debating about which one is the best. That makes for a very memorable get-together.

Notes for next time

If any of your guests rave about how much they loved their cocktail, take a moment to write down how you tweaked it and who they are, because they’ll probably request it next time. Or ask you for the recipe so they can make it at home.