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Drink Of The Week: The Riff

With The Fourth of July weekend coming, I suppose I could have found some cockail to evoke US patriotism, or perhaps one that includes the colors of the flag. Instead, I decided to feature a mixology technique. The Riff is actually a name I am using here to represent many cocktails—both classic and contemporary—that began life as a varition of an existing recipe. To riff on a cocktail is to make some addition, substitution or adjustment, taking the drink in a new (and hopefully delicious) direction. The way I see it, the cocktail itself is an American invention, so what better way to honor that heritage than to focus on the true spirit of innovation.

It's one of the best tricks anyone who has ever created a tasty beverage can use, and although there are many concoctions that are truly original, some of the best are the result of adding or changing one or more ingredients used to make something else. It's how cocktails evolve over time, and there's no shame in it at all. Consider the fact that we have a finite selection of ingredients to use in the first place. It's a wonder that we haven't exhusted every combination.

For one thing, not every ingredient works well with everything else. Random combinations can fail miserably or be completely unblalanced. Those combinations that do succeed face the inevitable challenge of proportions. Once a drink works, it doesn't take a genius to consider substiting one ingredient for another. In fact, this happens often enough out of necessity. Run out of gin? Maybe vodka would work?

A Riff can be just that—basic spirit substitution. However, changing the base spirit can also have a profound effect on flavor to where it no longer resembles the original at all. Other times, it's possible to swap one or more ingredients and come up with a cocktail that matches the original while exploring a different flavor. A good example appears in Imbibe Magazine this month:

Tequila Sage Smash
2 oz. anejo tequila
.75 oz. honey syrup
half of a lemon, quartered
6 fresh sage leaves

Place the half lemon, quartered, in a mixing glass. Add the honey syrup (a mixture of 1 part honey dissolved in 1 part water). Muddle the lemons, squeezing out all of the juice and expressing the oils from the peel. Add the sage and muddle again to gently bruise the leaves. Add the tequila, ice and shake very hard until chilled. Double strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish with a sprig of sage.

Some of you might recognize a smash drink by the technique with the lemon. If you have made the Gin Basil Smash, you could think of this cocktail as a riff on that. It's similar in that they both are smash drinks that use fresh herbs. Instead of gin, we have tequila, and in place of the basil we use sage. Even the sweetener has been changed to make use of honey syrup. You could probably try agave nectar with great results too. I love the Gin Basil, but I must say, this riff is fantastic and refreshing.

You may also recall the Trident Cocktail from a few weeks back. This is a popular riff on the Negroni. Created by Robert Hess, the success of his Trident is attributed to careful selection of alternate ingredients. According to Hess, he created this drink so he could make use of peach bitters. By swapping aquavit for gin, Cynar for Campari, and sherry for vermouth, the Trident is a testament to how far you can take a riff and still be successful.

There are plenty of other examples that are more subtle. For instance, the Rob Roy is really just a Manhattan that uses Scotch whisky. Sometimes, as I have often suggested, simply using different bitters in a cocktail is enough to transform the flavor, and many riffs on classic recipes do just that. Cocktails with liqueurs can be changed by subbing another. Replacing simple syrup in a recipe with one or more liqueurs can create wild or exotic results. Try using lemon instead of lime, dry vermouth instead of sweet, agave instead of honey—the possibilities seem endless.

Of course, the possibilities are not endless, but this is how we experiment, and the results can often surprise you. It should now come as no surprise why it's important to understand the classics. With so many cocktails out there that are already riffs on one old recipe or another, it helps to recognize where they started. Even if you only know one cocktail, I encourage you to create a riff of your own. Try a different base spirit, alter the sweetener, swap the souring agent or play with a different liqueur. You might re-invent a drink that already exists, or you could stumble onto a new favorite.

Is there a cocktail you make differently than most recipes? Have you made your own riff on a classic? Did you ever run out of one ingredient and surprise yourself with a delicious substitution? Let me know in the comments below, and have a safe Fourth of July!

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