Cocktail Chemistry: 10 Science-Backed Tips for the Perfect Drink

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To the average cocktail lover, the action behind a bar counter can seem full of magic and mystery. There’s a quick sprig of this and a small splash of that, followed by loud, vigorous shaking or a few stirs, then out pours a perfectly formed beverage. At first sip you know: There’s no way you could make anything this good at home. 

Lately, with the weather getting cooler, and no end to this pandemic in sight, many of us are missing our neighborhood haunts. Though some bars are selling cocktails to go, many of us are on our own. If we want to drink a perfect Negroni this Halloween, we’ll have to make it ourselves.

Luckily, making cocktails isn’t magic, it’s science. A great bar is just a chemistry lab; each cocktail, a perfectly replicable concoction.

To help unravel the science of drinking, Discover talked with Kevin Liu, author of Craft Cocktails at Home: Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science. He’s also the co-owner of The Jasper in Richmond, Virginia, which was recently named one of the best new bars in the South by Garden & Gun magazine.

To Liu, the old-fashioned is a perfect example of how chemistry and science come together in drink making. The drink has just three ingredients: sugar, bitters and whiskey (or brandy, if you’re from Wisconsin). “You look at that recipe and you’re like, ‘Why is this hard? How can you even say that one place makes a better old-fashioned than another?’” he says.

But there are hidden variables in even a simple drink that can make the cocktail taste terrible at one bar and divine at another. And the difference isn’t just the quality of whiskey. Subtle differences in serving temperature change the flavors and aroma. And if you