Mixed Drinks – The Simple Solution
All cocktails are mixed drinks, but not all mixed drinks are cocktails. There is no hard and fast definition to the term mixed drink. Most industry professionals agree that a mixed drink contains two total ingredients. However, those two ingredients are not required to contain alcohol. By this definition you can consider both a Shirley Temple and a gin martini as a mixed drink.
A Shirley Temple isn’t a cocktail but is a gin martini a cocktail by definition? In 1806 Harry Croswell defined a cocktail as “spirit, sugar, water, and bitters.” A typical gin martini is gin and vermouth so it does not fit the base definition of a cocktail. Nonetheless, a gin martini made with an orange peel and a dash of citrus bitters quickly moves it into cocktail territory (sugar notwithstanding).
A cocktail creation with very little effort or creativity, in my opinion, is the definition of mixed drink and the Cuba Libre is one such example. It’s a great drink, but a Cuba Libre is not a cocktail… it’s a mixed drink.
What is a Highball?
All highballs are mixed drinks, but not all mixed drinks are highballs. A highball has a more standard definition that aligns closely with that of a mixed drink. The highball is a single ingredient plus a core spirit or liqueur. A highball is usually served in a highball glass with ice and often in a ratio of 1.5 ounces of spirit to 5.5 ounces of juice/mixer.
A well designed highball connects the flavor of a base mixer (usually a juice) with the core spirit. For instance, gin and grape juice pairs well as does Midori melon liqueur and apple juice. You can pair pomegranate juice well with Mezcal as well. Connecting flavors is extremely important when working with two ingredients in a highball.
A very popular highball? The screwdriver of course! It’s tough to fail to pair a neutral spirit with a juice.
What is a Cocktail?
Broadly speaking, a cocktail is a complicated mixed drink that usually contains three or more ingredients. Harry Croswell may have defined the original “cock-tail”, but Jerry Thomas perfected the design by publishing recipes with acidity. Jerry Thomas perfected the cocktail over sixty years after the original definition. A quality cocktail contains spirit, sugar, acidity (sour), and bitters.
David Embury published The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks in 1948 and his definition of cocktail was slightly different than those observed prior. David believed a craft cocktail will contain a 75% base (rum, whiskey, gin, etc.), a modifying agent (vermouth, bitters, juices, eggs, etc.) and a special flavoring / color agent (Chartreuse, orange liqueur, bitters, orgeat, grenadine, etc.) His research and reference for cocktails became highly influential to generations of great bartenders / mixologists.
Ironically, David Embury was an attorney, never working a day behind a bar, but was so influential to those that did by giving them great guidelines for drink design.
A Time and Place for All Mixed Drinks
It is easy to discount those that drink a “basic” mixed drink as uneducated cocktail enthusiasts… newbies… posers… wanna be’s you name it. There is a time and place for a mixed drink and a cocktail, you just get to choose the time and place.
I find myself drinking Cuba libres while making mai tai’s, mezcal margaritas, and hemingway daiquiri’s for friends and family. As a home bartender I enjoy making other people drinks to open up their creativity and love of flavors. I tend to make simple drinks for myself because I already spent a great deal of time making complicated drinks for others. A mixed drink is a great alternative to a more craft cocktail when you just want to socialize and have a good time.
Highballs are a great fit for summer time activities where being sober is party fo your agenda (in moderation of course.) The higher concentration of juices and refreshing ingredients gives you a perfect blend of fun in the sun and alcohol consumption. Of course, a highball fits that “easy to make” solution just as any mixed drink and allows you to pair great flavors together and experiment. A highball often makes a great experimental base pairing for a future cocktail design–perhaps grape juice and gin for today, but tomorrow you add bitters and a flavorful liqueur?
All Styles for All People
In many ways a highball is a gateway mixed drink for someone getting into cocktails. More than likely, before you became excited about a Harvey Wallbanger you spent a few years with a screwdriver or greyhound. Don’t limit your audience to complicated cocktail combinations.
Over time many new drinkers will begin to explore the fun of a more complicated cocktail. Those soon-to-be cocktail enthusiasts will begin to understand and appreciate the slightly more complicated cocktail recipes. Those well trained enthusiasts may explore the ease and simplicity of a basic mixed drink just to relax and shut down the brain after a long day at work. There are plenty of styles of drinks for different people and different moods. Keep an open mind and always encourage people to keep exploring flavor combinations.