Every cocktail journey starts with a single sip, and beginning to create your own cocktails from scratch can seen intimidating. But with a little knowledge of some great places to find cocktail inspiration, you’ll be well on your way to mastering mixology at home. One of the most frequent questions I get from other cocktail enthusiasts, is where to find inspiration for new cocktails. Inspiration from cocktails comes from many sources, and I’m going to share my 8 favorite sources of new cocktails and flavor experiments (in no particular order).
The Flavor Bible
Perhaps my most trusted resource for cocktail inspiration is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page. It’s a reference book of all the major cooking ingredients, from vegetables to fruits to spices, with everything in between. For each item it lists between 30 to 100 possible flavor combinations, highlighting those that are classic syncretic combinations.
The book includes sweet, savory, and spicy combinations, and recently a vegetarian version was published. Its spice list and flavor list is even more comprehensive in terms of ingredients and flavors. It’s called The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, by Karen Page.
I love a decadent, rich dessert – especially one that includes intriguing and unusual spices and flavors. While my preference for creating cocktails based on a great dessert is always to have tasted the dessert first, I also look up dessert menus for restaurants I’ve heard of just to see what creative combinations they are using.
Sweet flavors are often the first flavors we experiments with when starting to design our own cocktails. And dessert menus are the ultimate cheat sheet to cocktail flavors that go well together. (I’m talking about you, tiramisu).
Our most intense memories can often be smell-based. It could be the smell of baked apples in a grandmother’s kitchen, the way an aunt always had fresh oatmeal cookies when you visited, or the smell of fresh bread baking in your childhood bakery.
These smells often have overwhelmingly positive memories associated with them, and it’s easy to parse out the specific layers of scent that combine. Think of that oatmeal cookie: a touch of cinnamon, vanilla, butter and perhaps nutmeg. Now think of a cocktail modeled on that flavor: a rum with the flavor of raisins, or an Irish whisky with a sweet, malty oatmeal scent.
I’ve found inspiration in chocolate turtle brownies from vacation, chocolate bread pudding and tiramisu from great family dinners in Chicago, baked apples and spiced apple butter, and fresh peach milkshakes. Think about foods and flavors that are a source of comfort and fond memories for you and build from there.
Culinary and Adventures
What amazing meals have you had that have changed your life? Have you sat down at a restaurant (even a humble one) for a salad with a particular vinaigrette that you kept thinking about? Or a sauce on an amazing entrée that you told everyone about the next day at work?
Those flavor combinations that you can’t stop thinking about are the ones you want to delve into. Find out more about the meal. Ask the server or chef for a little more information on the spices, ingredients, and methods of preparing something. I once had a nordic pastry called a semla with rye, cardamom, rose, almond and sweet cream. I had recreated it in a cocktail within 24 hours.
Remember that you can create your own infusions for spirits – and for syrups – and create your own bitters to recreate some of those interesting flavor combinations. Just being aware as you eat and drink will give you more cocktail inspiration than you’ll know what to do with.
Great Cocktail Books
There are so many amazing cocktail books – and more are being added every day. Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold, Cocktail Codex by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald, and David Kaplan and The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morganthaler and Martha Holmberg are all standards I started with. Imbibe by David Wondrich walks you through the history of many classic cocktails, and includes methods to recreate some of those early (and very differently balanced) drinks.
Death & Company is a wonderful book filled with modern classics and meticulously created and balanced cocktails from the eponymous bar. Just browsing through the book makes my cocktail spidey sense start tingling.
And you can go back to the classics, The Ideal Bartender, by Tom Bullock, the first cocktail book written by a Black American, or back even further to Jerry Thomas’s The Bar-Tender’s Guide. This site has a wonderful collection of great vintage cocktail books you can browse through online: EUVS Vintage Cocktail Books.
Cocktail Inspiration at Great Cocktail Bars
No list of cocktail inspiration would be complete without taking you into the top craft cocktail bars in your area. Seek out talented bartenders, mixologists and craft cocktail venues.
The one rule I have when ordering at a bar is it has to be a cocktail that I would never make at home. This means anything with unusual ingredients, complicated methods or unusual processes are always the ones I steer toward. Challenge yourself to try flavors and ingredients you’ve never had.
And always ask a great mixologist or bartender where their favorite place is to go for an unusual or intriguing craft cocktail.
Creations of Other Cocktail Enthusiasts
Finally, I love to browse the feed of home bar enthusiasts and Facebook groups of the cocktail-obsessed for cocktail inspiration. We’re a special breed, and knowing what trends people are seeing, what experiments have worked (and which were a resounding flop) is great information for any cocktail lover.
Instagram, especially, has a thriving cocktail enthusiast scene. Often I get introduced to and intrigued with flavors from other feeds. As always, the trends start in New York or on the west coast and move inland from the largest metro areas.
Some of my favorite feeds in no particular order: @beautifulbooze, @thebitterfairy, @thecocktailsnob_, @theamateurmixologist, @moodymixologist, @liqculture, @thecocktail.blog, @forthecocktailculture, @tipsywithtyreek and so many more.
Sometimes the Ingredients Speak for Themselves
There are times when I want a cocktail but I’m less worried about recreating a flavor experience I’ve had before. At times I’m looking through bottles of spirits, syrups, bitters, and juices to find a combination I haven’t tried before.
I may take a classic cocktail and swap out the base spirit for something radically different. I may take a flavor to the extreme above all other flavors in a cocktail to see how ingredients interact.
Occasionally I’ll play cocktail roulette. I close my eyes, pull an ingredient from the fridge, pantry or bar, then build a cocktail around that element. It’s always a fun game to see if I can great a tasty cocktail based on a random choice. That cocktail based on beets in red wine vinaigrette was once of the best cocktails I’ve ever put together.
Open Yourself Up to New Experiences
In conclusion, just trying new things, experience smell and taste thoughtfully to push yourself out of your comfort zone will inspire your next cocktails. And following along with me on my journey doesn’t hurt either.
I always give you all the juicy details.