The Importance of Balance
We humans place great value on equilibrium. A sunset with too much orange is not as attractive as we would like. A life-partner with not enough good manners does not command the same respect from others. A baseball game without runs scored is a thing of beauty but can be boring. Then again many of you think baseball is boring even with a lot of scoring so just set that comment aside.
New Orleans cuisine begs for balance. Many of our friends who do not live here think we are all about “heat” and spice on the plate. We know that is not the real path to authentic dining satisfaction.
Balance also becomes defining when it comes to cocktails. A drink that skews too far to one ingredient or one flavor, even relying too much of one technique, loses the ability to satisfy and please. Nothing can turn what should be a delightful refreshment into a horror show quite like sugar.
While Americans proclaim to prefer “dry,” the real truth is that we, as a group, overwhelmingly drink sweet. You can say it isn’t so, but it’s very so. Sugar in one form or another makes up a huge percentage of what we eat and drink.
Let’s step back for a moment and take a hard look at cocktails. Or go make yourself a cocktail while we have our refresher course in what is a cocktail. For our purposes, a cocktail is defined as a drink that consists of at least two ingredients, one of which must be an alcoholic spirit. Then comes any number of other additives such as fruit juice, soda water, citrus and the like.
Bartenders like to keep their cocktails with equal elements of sweet and tart/savory. The sweet component does not have to come from sugar, but often does. Simple syrup, a liquid concoction of sugar, usually the granulated kind we all use on the table, and water, together brought to a boil so the sugar melts into the water, is often used in drinks at every level.
It is at this point that I begin to rebel against the sweet levels of drinks. Sometimes the drink maker does not give proper credence to the sweet levels of all the ingredients. What complicates this scenario is that most alcohols contain little if any sugar. When the raw product from which the alcohol is made is processed, either through fermentation or distillation, the plant’s sugars are converted into something else. Into alcohol, for instance, and at that point the sugar is gone.
In wine’s case, the residual sugars which remain after fermentation (the conversion of the fruit’s sugars into alcohol) are usually minimal. In the case of distillation, just about all of any sugars present are heated and changed.
Where we all tend to walk the sugar plank with adult beverages are the additives into cocktails. Fruits, for instance, contain fructose. Fructose is a quite sweet natural component of fruit, common in most fruits and some root vegetables. Fruits quite high in fructose sweet levels are pineapple, figs, apples, bananas and pears.
Please note that we are not drawing any dietary conclusions with this discussion. Only addressing tactile and tasting sensations.
By making a cocktail, you likely will be adding to every glass, with each ingredient, more “strength” to the sweetness level. You may end up not with a balanced, pleasant, delightful beverage but rather something truly stupid-sweet.
Further complicating issues is the fact that we all have different threshold tasting levels when it comes to sweet. I might be puckering while you are heading back for seconds on the same drink.
Bottom line: remember that every ingredient in a cocktail adds to the perception of sweet. Even citrus has a sweet level.
The whole point of a cocktail is balance. Every ingredient brings something different to the glass but the overall impression should be balanced. Some ingredients may be more prominent (for instance, you probably want to taste whatever is used as the base spirit) but it’s like a symphony.
Every ingredient contributes to the overall effect. When something sticks out, the balance is gone and so is a lot of the pleasure which should always be present.
Read Happy Hour here on myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.