How To: Craft Cocktails

Cocktails, Drink, Food & Drink


Written by Brett Llenos Smith

Published on December 3, 2014

Getting into craft cocktails can be a bit like swallowing the red pill in The Matrix – you can suddenly find yourself down a rabbit hole, surrounded by people that are way too fashion conscious, where the objects passing in front of your eyes may or may not be designed by some twisted form of artificial intelligence.

The whole point of understanding craft cocktails – or understanding anything for that matter – is to get to that scene at the end of the film, where Keanu Reeves’ character inexplicably starts seeing the world around him as streams of code from a 1980s Apple computer.

Every cocktail, from the lowly Rum and Coke to the even lowlier Cosmopolitan, can be broken down into four main elements: sugar, acidity, bitterness and alcohol. All a good drink does is simply balance these four elements to please the palate:

Sugar – hides any impurities related to the distilling process and cuts alcohol’s burn

Acidity – balances excess sweetness from sugar and adds lightness

Bitterness – adds complexity; mitigated somewhat by sugar

Alcohol – softens acidity, but enhances bitterness

These four elements are the basics, but things like aroma, texture and context should also be considered and these are the elements can make a drink transcendent. For example, a Tom and Jerry would be horrible without the egg whites and even worse on a hot afternoon in July.

On a recent trip to Vera, known for its cocktail-centric nature, the restaurant’s gregarious bartender Jason Wood and owner Cameron Rector broke down one of their favorite offerings for us: the Great Silence.

Vera Cocktail - The Great Silence

Great Silence @ Vera

The drink’s trio of gin, fresh lemon, simple syrup provides the foundation in the form of its alcohol, acidity and sweetness. However, it’s the added touches that really make the Great Silence sing. Green chartreuse adds a bit of an herbal element; egg whites give the drink a frothy texture and muffle the acidity; and toasted rosemary adds a distinct ‘woodsy’ aroma. Admittedly, having your bartender light a spring of rosemary in your glass is also just pretty cool.

In talking about craft cocktails, Cameron had a slightly different take on how a drink is put together:

Base Spirit + Modifier + Acid/Sweetner + Bitters

“Your base spirit is going to be your gin, vodka, tequila,” he said, “and a modifier is going to add complexities. Usually, modifiers are lower octane.”

“After the modifier, you’re going to add some acid or a sweetener, depending on how sweet and viscous the modifier is.”

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Looking at the classic New Orleans cocktail – the Sazerac – it’s easy to start seeing how the different pieces fit together.

Rye Whiskey (base) + Absinthe (Modifier) + Sugar Cube (Sweetener) + Peychaud’s Bitters (Bitters)

Bitters are another part of craft cocktails that can seem mysterious or overwrought to some people, but Cameron told us just to think of bitters as “salt and pepper” that bring out flavors already present.

“You can cook an egg, but when you add salt and pepper – it gives the egg just a little bit more and brings out everything else,” he explained. “These days, companies are making every different flavor under the sun for bitters. So if your cocktail has floral notes, maybe throw in lavender bitters. Or for an orange aspect, use orange bitters… We have everything… chocolate…”

Admittedly, craft cocktails can be expensive – very expensive. The standard price around town being about $10 for just a few ounces of beverage. For this amount of money, the first sip of a craft cocktail shouldn’t make you think, “Interesting!” or “Different!”

Instead, drinking a craft cocktail should feel like the first sip of ice cold beer after a long, hard day of work – satisfying on the most primal of levels.

Finally, if you’re going out with the intent of having a craft cocktail experience – make sure it’s at a place that really focuses on them, like Vera. These guys are really dedicated to providing a unique cocktail experience, so much so that they won’t even stock your Absoluts, Bacardis or Cuervos known to inhabit every corner bar in Buffalo.

Unfortunately the current trend and demand for a knowledgeable mixologist far, far out strips the supply of them – leading to a lot of well-meaning, but woefully unqualified people slapping together a cocktail list. So, trust a place with a solid reputation and, most importantly, keep an open mind. You just might be happy you took that red pill.

Step Out Buffalo Recommendations for great craft cocktails:



211 South Park Ave, Buffalo

more info | drink menu


Buffalo Proper

333 Franklin St Buffalo  |  (716) 783-8699

more info


Bourbon and Butter

391 Washington St, Buffalo  |  (716) 253-6453

more info | drink menu


Hydraulic Hearth

716 Swan St Buffalo  |  (716) 248-2216

more info | drink menu


Vera Pizzeria

220 Lexington Ave, Buffalo  |  (716) 551-6262

more info | drink menu


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Written by <a href="" target="_self">Brett Llenos Smith</a>

Written by Brett Llenos Smith

Brett Llenos Smith is a freelance writer based in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood who has been covering local food and culture for Step Out Buffalo over the past six years. As someone with a multi-ethnic background, he has a passion for exploring and understand the many diverse corners of Western New York.
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