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How to “Season” Cocktails With Spirits and Liqueurs

Adding a small amount of spirit to a drink—whether as a float or a rinse—can add flavor, aroma and complexity to cocktails. Here, four ways to try it, with recipes.

A simple glass rinse is nothing new. Coating the inside of a glass with a bit of absinthe is among the oldest tricks in the bartending book (just look to classics like the Sazerac, Vieux Carré and the Corpse Reviver No. 2). But there’s a reason this technique has stuck: it’s easy to do, yet adds incredible complexity to a cocktail, affecting both how a drink smells and tastes. 

Today, bartenders continue to experiment with rinses, among other techniques, to apply layers of aroma, flavor and texture, often in innovative ways. Some use atomizers to add a dramatic puff of fragrance; others are working with floats and seats—small amounts of spirits layered atop or below a drink to add visual interest and flavor. And while this of course works with spirituous cocktails, bartenders also are adding drops and dashes to low ABV ones, too.

Here, a primer on seasoning with spirits and four techniques to try.

As a Rinse

Coating the interior of the glass with a particularly aromatic spirit before the drink is poured in means extra fragrance even before the glass is lifted for a sip. (Plus, it adds a little extra flavor, and proof, to the finished cocktail.) While absinthe is usually the go-to rinsing agent, at San Antonio’s Juniper Tar, caraway-accented kümmel adds extra aroma to a vodka-based variation on the classic Tuxedo, dubbed the French Tuxedo, eventually melding into the drink and creating the effect of a spiced gin, hold the juniper.

As a Mist

Another classic technique, perhaps most famously used to mist trace amounts of vermouth into an otherwise super-dry Martini, involves decanting spirits into an atomizer to gently spray over the top of a finished drink. Compared to a float (see below), this adds less spirit, flavor and texture; it’s really about adding fragrance (so very aromatic spirits—think, smoky Scotch, mezcal and even aromatic liqueurs like Chartreuse—all work well here). Among the easiest applications might be adding a simple spray of absinthe to a Campari- and orange-driven Garibaldi. “It changes the nose,” explains Brock Schulte, who also incorporates an absinthe mist into his gin-spiked aperitivo cocktail, the Risorgimento d’Italia, at Kansas City’s The Monarch Bar.

As a Float

Adding a thin layer of spirit on top of a drink adds a visible, dramatic blanket, which in turn adds a shock of flavor at first sip, then slowly incorporates into the drink as it sits. Among the modern classics, this technique is notably used in the Penicillin, with its float of smoky Scotch (or in some variations, mezcal), transforming the otherwise mild-mannered drink into a peaty powerhouse. But there are a variety of spirits that can work well in this application; Pete Maben, bar manager at Buckman Public House in Portland, OR, for example, uses a float of blackstrap rum on top of his mezcal-based Cotopasi for both flavor and visual impact. “You get the sweet molasses of the blackstrap up front,” he explains, “and it works into the smoky-sweet-floral mezcal drink.”

As a Seat

The opposite of a float, which sits on top of a drink, is a seat, which by design nestles at the bottom of a glass. “It’s like an easy Pousse Café,” Buckman’s Maben explains. “Most Pousse Cafés can be bad, but I love the look of them and how they change [as you drink].” That’s why he created the fall-ready Easy on the Leather, with a seat of bright red Cappelletti. The first sips offer nutty spice, which Maben likens to “a breakfast pastry cinnamon bar.” But the motion of tilting the glass to sip mixes the Cappelletti in, adding a pleasingly bitter note. Plus, he says, “it looks really cool.”

Keep in mind that, as with any layered drink, both the float and the seat rely on knowing the density, weight and/or viscosity of the spirits you’re working with; a weightier liqueur will sink to the bottom, making it ideal for a seat, while a lighter, straight spirit will be easier to layer on top. As a useful reference guide, Maben recommends Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence, which considers the weights of various spirits and liqueurs.

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