Originally published for Eater.com
One of the most frequent questions people ask me in regard to being a craft bartender is, "Where do you find inspiration to come up with new drinks?" Usually this question comes from journalists or aspiring talents within the food and beverage industry, and I often find that they feel as though my answers are disappointing. Not from lack of specifics, but rather because they are looking for a shortcut or silver bullet that simply does not exist. When discussing or analyzing the act of original drink creation, we are actually dissecting the creative process itself which, although mysterious in many ways, can still be better understood when studied as a nuts and bolts concept rather than a supernatural force. While I am confident that these guidelines will be helpful to many aspiring bartenders out there, I hope that they will find them useful in other areas of live as well.
1) Don't be a Wuss
The act of creation takes courage, which is why so many of us either never do it at all or choose only to do so in private. By courage, I do not mean the sort of bravery that is required to jump out of an airplane or to participate in extreme sports. Instead, I mean the kind that is actually much more rare: where you make yourself vulnerable and open to the criticism of other people. You need to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to like every single one of your drinks and that is completely okay. Not everyone is going to like this article, but that should not preclude me from writing it. Approach your cocktails in the same manner. Do not let fear of judgment hinder your creativity.
2) Death to Perfectionism
One of the most important steps when kicking things off is to silence your inner critic. There will be plenty of time to nitpick and fine-tune your recipes further along in the process, but at the initial stage it is just about creating a rough draft that has potential. Perfectionism can often kill creativity, which can be dangerous, especially when the goal is primarily to brainstorm. Aside from laziness, perfectionism is one of the top reasons why creative people do not put out more work. Every drink needs mindful consideration to get it precisely the way you want it to be, but if you don't let anyone try it even for feedback until it is "perfect," then it might be a good idea to put that impulse in check before it keeps you from reaching your true potential.
3) Master the Classics
Not only should you be making a lot of classic cocktails, but you should also be thinking about them and try to analyze why they work. Why is the Manhattan such a successful drink? What are the components involved that have allowed it to stand the test of time? What role does the vermouth play? What service does the whiskey perform and how do those relate to one another? If you want to create the next Manhattan, you need to understand why the original Manhattan was such a hit in the first place. Also, do not limit yourself to a specific style and era. In fact, try to expand your repertoire so that it eventually spans everything from Tiki to pre-prohibition to cocktails from the 1980s. Inspiration is so rarely straightforward, so do not be surprised to find that an elaborate tropical cocktail from the 1960s is what inspires you to create a stirred amaro drink with only three ingredients.
4) Know Your Ingredients
Since the quality of your drinks will only be limited by your understanding of their components, it is of the utmost importance that you do your best to learn what each ingredient contributes. Although both citruses, lime and orange each add a completely different element to the final product. Likewise, Tanqueray & Hendrick’s are both wonderful gins, but each offers their own strengths when mixed into a drink. Every ingredient behind the bar is like a different color with which to paint. The better you learn how to manipulate these shades onto the canvas, the happier your guests will be with what is in their glass.
5) Always Taste
A huge part of creating and evaluating your own cocktails begins with being able to taste objectively and understand not only why a drink is flawed, but also what changes it needs to make progress. Tasting spirits and cocktails is one way to help build your palate memory, but that is just a start. Get into the habit of analyzing everything you put in your mouth, such as food, soda pop, and even chewing gum. This will also help to create a Rolodex of great flavor combinations in your mind, which you can utilize in future endeavors.
6) Do Not Wait to Feel Creative
Always understand that your creative talents are at your disposal and not the other way around. Your creativity is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more powerful it becomes. Learn what makes you feel productive and tap into it. Let’s say you are on a deadline and have to come up with a cocktail for an event the next day, but you're stumped. Instead of complaining about lack of inspiration, feed the creative parts of your brain by flipping through an old cocktail guide or cookbook and see what flavors inspire you. By doing this, you will find that these minor lapses of imagination will eventually become shorter and more contained.
7) Create Many Drinks
For every original cocktail of mine that ever makes it onto a menu or into a magazine article, there are dozens that will never see the light of day. Maybe it was a riff on a classic or something that was inspired by something I ate, but either way, it did not have the legs to make it on its own. This is normal and all part of the creative process. The only way it is a loss is if you do not learn anything from these experiments. Some of them can be tweaked and tuned into a better drink down the road, while others are merely potholes on the path to improvement. Just like Stephen King says that you have to "write a lot" to create something worth reading, expect to create many cocktails before you come up with something worth drinking.
8) Find Someone Who Has an Opinion You Respect
One of the most important steps toward building a creative work environment is the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with others. Sometimes simply being able to chat with a peer about a recipe is exactly what's needed to help formulate a drink. However, be very selective of who you ask for feedback regarding your cocktail because, unfortunately, many people’s palates are simply neither trained nor hardwired to objectively look at a work in progress. If their only feedback after taking a sip is "this sucks" or "this is amazing" than you have probably chosen the wrong person, so be leery of taking any of their input seriously.
9) Ask the Right Questions
When you are confident in the drink and ready to present it to a fellow bartender or cocktail enthusiast, be sure to ask questions that will get you helpful pointers. I recommend staying away from loaded statements such as "give me your honest opinion." Asking someone to be honest can carry too much moral baggage. Instead, ask for candid feedback. Another helpful tactic is to not only ask them what they like about the drink, but also what they do not like about it. This tends to work well because it is easier for most people to be frank when they feel their input is balanced. Both sides should be mindful of their tone however because, although the critic should always remain constructive, the creator must not be thin skinned.
10) Be Methodical
I have witnessed far too many bartenders out there struggling to create original drinks because their process of creation is built on happy accidents rather than deliberate effort. I do not recommend any serious bartenders to work in this manner because it usually results in frustration due to inconsistent results. Instead, be diligent in your methods by taking notes as the drink evolves and keep in mind where your successes and failures lie at each stage. Doing so will increase your odds of victory when creating drinks in the future, as you will eventually have a database of endless flavor combinations that you can draw upon when stumped. Most importantly, always jot down the recipe when you are finally happy with where the drink ends up. The last thing you want to do is spend a night tweaking one of your creations, only to have forgotten the recipe when you need it for a menu four weeks later.