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A Bartender’s Secret Formula to Create Countless Cocktails at Home

Bartending, from the outside, can seem incredibly complicated. With a dizzying array of cocktail names and corresponding recipes to memorize, obscure-sounding ingredients, infusions, equipment and formulations that vary down to the teaspoon, it’s not surprising that most people prefer to leave mixed drinks to the professionals.

What many bartenders won’t tell you? Most of it is nonsense.

Once you get past the overwhelming shock caused by the vast number of cocktails out there, you’ll quickly recognize the similarities between them. The main hurdle to becoming a professional bartender isn’t a finely trained palate or perfecting your dry shake, it’s memorizing which ridiculous new name applies to each cocktail when just one tiny ingredient is changed.

The difference between a daiquiri and a “rum gimlet?” The names, and little else.

While there are many subcategories of cocktails, the two primary umbrellas are spirits-forward drinks and sours.

Spirits-forward drinks are generally those that lack fruit juice and noticeable citric acid (martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Negroni), while sours are those that incorporate lemon or lime juice (margarita, gimlet, daiquiri, whiskey sour, French 75, Last Word, Southside, mojito). As a rule of thumb, drinks made primarily with spirits are stirred, while sours are shaken.

Here, we’re going to teach you a simple beginner-bartender formula that will enable you make a drink in the sour family, no matter what ingredients you have on hand.

Illustration of a selection of jiggers in various shapes and sizes
Jiggers come in a variety of shapes and sizes / Getty

The 2-1-1 Cocktail Formula

Jiggers are small, usually double-sided metal cups used to measure spirits, and they come in various sizes. The most ubiquitous and versatile is the 2-ounce/1-ounce variety. Other common variations include 1½-ounce/¾-ounce, and 1-ounce/½-ounce.

The important thing to note is that for most all-purpose jiggers, one side will generally be twice the volume as its opposite side. This means that no matter which size you have on hand, your drink will still be perfectly balanced as the proportions remain the same.

The golden formula for an easy sour cocktail breaks down like this:

  • 2 ounces spirit
  • 1 ounce sweet
  • 1 ounce sour

The spirit is your hard liquor, like vodka, whiskey, rum, gin or Tequila.

The sweet element is often simple syrup, an equal mix of water and sugar. However, options for sweet ingredients can also include an endless array of other syrups and liqueurs, such as grenadine, triple sec, falernum, honey syrup (equal parts honey and water), agave syrup, maraschino liqueur, limoncello, amaretto or anything else with a predominantly sugary taste.

The sour element is almost always lemon or lime juice, preferably fresh. Pre-bottled lemon and lime juice can be used in a pinch, but will noticeably alter the balance and flavor of the drink.

Over a cocktail shaker filled with ice (or other sealable container that can act as one, like a Thermos), fill the 2-ounce side of the jigger with your liquor. Hold it as close to the rim as possible, so you can tilt in the liquid without spilling. Flip the jigger over the 1-ounce side and repeat with your simple syrup or other sweet element. Finally, still using the 1-ounce side, add your lemon or lime juice.

Shake for 15–20 seconds, strain into a glass and enjoy.

Cocktails you’ve just learned

Using this basic ratio, you’ve now learned how to create simple versions of an array of classic cocktails. Here’s a short list of options now available to you, in 2-1-1 proportions:

Daiquiri: rum, simple syrup, lime

Whiskey Sour: whiskey, simple syrup, lemon

Gin Sour: gin, simple syrup, lemon

Gimlet: gin, simple syrup, lime

Lemon Drop: vodka, simple syrup, lemon

Margarita: Tequila, triple sec, lime

Sidecar: brandy, triple sec, lemon

Kamikaze: vodka, triple sec, lime

Gold Rush: whiskey, honey syrup, lemon

Bee’s Knees: gin, honey syrup, lemon

However, don’t feel limited to established recipes. Feel free to use what ingredients you have.

Bottle of ginger liqueur left over from a party taking up space alongside a bottle of whiskey? Try it instead of simple syrup in a whiskey sour. Thirsty for a margarita, but don’t have a bottle of triple sec on hand? Try agave syrup, or just substitute simple syrup using the same proportions. Have a bottle of apple brandy going unused? Switch it in place of the gin in a Bee’s Knees for a delicious honeyed apple-lemon combination.

Likewise, these building blocks will allow you to make other tweaks that will open up a whole new tier of cocktails. Fan of French 75s? It’s just a gin sour with sparkling wine on top. Tom Collins? Same deal: gin sour/French 75, but sparkling water instead of sparkling wine. Mojito? Daiquiri with mint and seltzer.

A final note

To head off any inevitable criticism, the 2-1-1 formula is by no means perfect, nor will every combination work as well as others. When experimenting, you’ll still have to use a bit of common sense on what flavors fit best together, particularly if you use sweet ingredients with their own strong flavors, as opposed to a neutral simple syrup.

Likewise, some liqueurs may have different sugar levels than others, and you might need to adjust the amount of sour used to balance it. Many cocktail bars also prefer to use 1½ ounces-¾ ounce-¾ ounce as their baseline. The proportions are the same, however, and some of us are just thirstier than others.

Consider this a springboard for experimentation. Tailor pour amounts to your tastes. Increase or reduce ingredients based on if you prefer a sweeter, sour, or more alcohol-heavy drink. The key, like walking home from a bar at the end of the night, is balance.