As a cooking as well as cocktail aficionado, the Grog Dog believes in following a recipe… at least at first. It takes a few run-throughs before I’m comfortable with the timing, techniques, and last-minute fixes that mean the difference between a dish that looks like the picture in the cookbook vs. one that looks like, well, the dog’s dinner.

If you want to know what a proper cocktail looks, smells, tastes, and feels like, check online reviews and take a field trip to the bar that’s most highly rated for their ability to serve a good drink. Decor, ambience, price even – none of that matters if the bartenders really know what they’re doing. (The proof of this principle is the success of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives“.) Once you’ve had a good-quality sample of the cocktails you like most, you’ll be better able to re-create them for yourself.

Image: startcooking.com

Image: startcooking.com

Most US drink recipes are given in (no surprise) US standard measurements – ounces, tablespoons, etc. Occasionally you’ll come across a recipe where the ingredients are given in “parts”, which are simply ratios – 1 part gin, 1 part Campari, 1 part sweet vermouth (Negroni; stir with ice in a rocks glass). I’m a fan of using parts as opposed to ounces. First, the standard US measurements are not universal, and it’s pretty arrogant to push our scheme, especially when we’re the one major holdout from the metric system. Second, it allows for scale. Sometimes you want a 3-oz drink; sometimes you want a double. The recipe is the same ratio of spirit to juice to liqueur, just more of each.

Regardless of the absolute numbers, ratios are important. When you’re baking a cake, it’s not critical that your measuring spoons are crafted to space-shuttle precision; it is critical that your set of measuring spoons is accurately proportioned to one another, or you’ll end up with a cake that’s flat as a brownie.

So once you know what a really good Jack Rose tastes like (2 parts applejack, 1 part lemon or lime juice, 1/2 part grenadine; shake with ice; strain into a cocktail glass), and you’ve made it a time or two by the book, you can riff on the recipe according your taste. I tend to like sours and herbal cocktails, so I’m liberal with citrus and bitters. But some days I have a sweet tooth and add an extra dash of syrup.

Another important measurement every drinker should know is his/her alcohol tolerance.

Image: Dreamstime.com

Image: Dreamstime.com

I’m not talking about the legal limit (though knowing what it is in your state is probably a good idea on general principle). I mean, how much alcohol can you take in before the pleasure is outweighed by a fuzzy head and twisted tongue? By embarrassing behavior or unpleasant mishaps? By snoring during the movie?

This will vary according to circumstances, so pay attention to how your flavor profile and tolerance changes before or after eating, seasonally, when you’re stressed, etc.

Identifying your own tastes and limits – How much vermouth is too much? How strong a drink can I tolerate and stay awake through a rom-com? – will make it easier for you to make, order, and even invent new drinks. You’ll have a core set of cocktails that you’re good at making, so you can always whip up something that suits your mood without having to think too much. And you’ll be able to order something you know you will enjoy from any drinks menu, saving money and the disappointment of choking down a cocktail you dislike because you can’t bear to let alcohol go to waste. (We’ve all done it…)

Image: dogtime.com

Image: dogtime.com

The true measure of a good cocktail is how much pleasure it gives you in the moments you are drinking and how much it enhances your pleasure in the event you’re engaged in. The more you know about your own drinking preference, the more confidence you have in your mixology capabilities, and the more recipes you have in your book, the more pleasure you’ll take from every cocktail engagement – from a solo sip of toasty bourbon after work to a fruity, fizzy brunch Bellini.

Cheers to a happier happy hour!

p.s. I cannot stress this enough: Do not give any dog alcohol, any time, for any reason.