Understanding the basic structure of a cocktail

Understanding the basic structure of a cocktail is important if you’re trying to make up your own concoctions. And I wish I’d known this years ago.

Generally, a great cocktail is made, based around the following key components ;

  • Base
  • Modifier
  • Mixer

Base is often neutral in flavour, and gives the drink it’s kick and spirity base. A little bit of fire, making the drink a bit heady. This will therefore normally be one of the spirits : The big 6.

The Big 6 - the spirits - from my 2012 collection
The Big 6 – the spirits – from my 2012 collection

These are distilled grain spirits at around 40% alcohol (ABV).

The second constituent of a cocktail is known as the Modifier. This adds flavour and may be the strongest flavour in the drink. I like it to be subtley dominant.


The modifier will often be a liqueur. Some are strongly alcoholic, again around 40% like a spirit. Cointreau and Drambuie are examples. But these go down in scale to around 17% for ingredients such as Baileys and vermouth etc.

The third element of the cocktail mix is the mixer. This will normally be the largest ingredient by volume. So hopefully it won’t be too alcoholic! This will include carbonated mixers : lemonade, soda, tonic or fruit juices: orange juice, cranberry juice or even cream. Or it could be something with alcoholic content such as champagne.

Rubicon juices - great mixers
Rubicon juices – great mixers

The mixer will usually be used to add colour or length to the drink or in the case of cream, some texture.

There you have it, the rudimentary parts of the cocktail.

Even something like the Mojito which appears to defy convention – with only 1 alcoholic ingredient, fits the model. It has a base (Bacardi), the modifiers to give flavour (mint & lime) and the mixer – soda.


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