Tap Into the Upside Down

April 09, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

Photo: Lizzie Munro


Tap Into the Upside Down

April 09, 2020

Story: Kara Newman

Art: Lizzie Munro

Inverting the proportions of classic drinks can unlock a whole new realm of low-proof cocktails.

In his quest to create food-friendly cocktails for Le Crocodile, a new brasserie at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, Jim Kearns turned classic drink recipes upside-down. That is, he workshopped “reverse”-style drinks that flip expected proportions on their heads: Manhattans with more vermouth than whiskey, or an equal-parts Martini, which despite including less gin than a typical Martini, still offers a bone-dry drinking experience.

“The cocktails have to play well with the food,” explains Kearns of his decision to swap the expected proportions of classic cocktails to lean toward lower ABVs. “The obvious product of an upside-down recipe is a drink that is more food-friendly and more ‘sessionable.’”

There’s historical precedent behind these tweaks, Kearns notes. He points to the Martini and the Manhattan in particular, where the earliest recipes were considerably wetter than contemporary standards, calling for at least equal parts spirit and vermouth. In the case of the Manhattan, Jerry Thomas’ own recipe famously calls for two parts red vermouth to one part straight rye, the inverse of today’s typical proportions.

In his take on reverse cocktails, Kearns pays particular attention to selecting the ingredients for each drink. For cocktails where vermouth is the star component, for example, it’s important to ensure that the bottle in question “has sufficient character” to make the drink interesting enough to entice a guest. Done right, Kearns adds, a vermouth-heavy classic yields “a well-considered, deliberate, thoughtful [drink.]” For example, Miró Rojo, a particularly dry, Italian-style vermouth, anchors his Reverse Manhattan, keeping it from veering too sweet.

Meanwhile, Kearns often reaches for overproof versions of spirits to balance out these otherwise lower-ABV drinks—a clever technique that ensures the resulting cocktail isn’t flabby. Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin supplies backbone to the equal-parts Martini, while Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye fills out the Reverse Manhattan. Both “do an excellent job of supporting higher concentrations of vermouth in their respective applications,” explains Kearns.

To tweak a wide range of drinks into new formats, Kearns has homed in on three specific ratios—reverse, equal parts, and perfect.

Reverse | 2 Parts Low Proof:1 Part (or Less) High Proof

To engineer a “reverse” cocktail, that is, one that simply swaps the proportions of the key ingredients, Kearns starts by carefully considering the drink, since not every cocktail works in the upside-down format. In general, drinks that become vermouth-forward when flipped tend to work well, whereas drinks that would yield a more pronounced liqueur component, for example, can be trickier.

By flipping well-known cocktails, Kearns allows ingredients to come to the forefront that would otherwise play supporting roles. In his Upside-Down Sidecar, for example, instead of using 1 ½ ounces of Cognac as the base, he uses Grand Marnier, calling on the Cognac as the modifier instead.

Equal Parts | 1:1 or 1:1:1

Instead of adhering strictly to the “upside-down build,” sometimes Kearns plays with equal-parts drinks, too. But the same rules apply: Use “very deliberately chosen spirits, in lower concentration than commonly used in most contemporary specs.”

So in place of the 1 ½ ounces of gin favored in most modern Negronis, his equal-parts Negroni reverts to an earlier construction and combines 1 ounce each Campari, Tanqueray No. Ten—which Kearns favors for its dominant citrus notes—and Mattei Cap Corse Rouge, a red quinquina from Corsica, for its dry, citric bitterness.

Perfect | 1 Part Sweet Vermouth:1 Part Dry Vermouth

The “perfect” cocktail is another classic construct that indicates the vermouth component is equally split between dry and sweet vermouths. The technique is built into the classic cocktail, The Trinity.

“The Trinity has always been a favorite, lesser-known classic cocktail for me,” says Kearns of the drink that marries sweet and dry vermouth with gin. Sourced from Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book, his take uses 1 ounce each dry and sweet vermouth (Carpano Dry and Carpano Antica, “for their Mediterranean, herbaceous character”) balanced against a single ounce of Amass Gin, chosen for its astringency and powerful notes of bay leaf and rosemary. But that’s not all that makes it special: “It is both a ‘perfect’ cocktail and an ‘upside-down’ cocktail,” Kearns observes, as well as an equal-parts cocktail. As far as ratio-driven cocktails go, this is a hat trick in a glass.

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