What Makes a True Signature Cocktail?

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

We’ve all seen people who create a “signature cocktail” for their wedding or a bar that claims to have an original drink inspired by a staff member or customer, but what makes a cocktail truly signature? Is it the name? The combination of flavors? The fact that no other restaurants in the area offer the same mixed drink?

A true signature cocktail is created to be unique and to express some aspect of the restaurant/bar/clientele in drink form. Trademarks of a signature cocktail drink include a creative name, an original recipe reflecting a location, a theme, a culture, etc. Originally, cocktails were mostly created to reflect something about where a given liquor/spirit came from. Now, as we’ve seen the rise of competitive bar scenes, especially in metropolitan areas, signature cocktails have become even more central to each establishment’s menu.

True signature cocktails are specially crafted by bartenders or mixologists to communicate a certain idea, elicit a particular emotion, or reflect the atmosphere of the establishment by utilizing unique ingredient combinations and coining a creative name.

Who Creates Signature Cocktails?

Signature cocktails are often created by bartenders since they tend to know what flavors the patrons like and they also have a feel for the bar’s atmosphere and theme. Mixologists can also create signature cocktails for businesses, weddings, special events or parties. Sometimes even wedding planners are asked to create them to represent something special about the couple!

The most important qualification for making signature cocktails is a thorough understanding of different liquors and a wide variety of other flavoring ingredients (bitters, liqueurs, herbs, botanicals, etc.) that can be combined to create a cocktail that people will actually enjoy.

How Are Signature Cocktails Created?

Each bartender or mixologist might use a bit of a different process, but in general there are a few steps that can help anyone, professional or amateur, create his or her own signature cocktail.

1. Find your inspiration

Each cocktail should be inspired by a personality, a theme, a season or some other detail that informs what kind of flavor profile the cocktail will have. For example, if you’re planning a menu for your father’s 50th birthday, you would think about what makes him who he is: his sense of humor, his hobbies, his favorite tie, etc. Then, you can think of what flavors might express his distinctive qualities!

2. Limit the scope

Just as you need to focus on one limited piece of inspiration for your cocktail, you also need to limit the amount of ingredients or flavors you are going to mix together. This will make it easier to make a larger quantity of drinks. You also want to ensure that the drink can appeal to a variety of customers’ taste buds.

3. Choose your base and your flavoring ingredients

On the Cooking Channel’s instructional video about creating a signature cocktail, the mixologists recommend choosing your base liquor to go along with the flavor of the meal it will be served with. For bar or restaurant purposes, offering a few different signature drinks to go with a variety of dishes might work well (i.e. tequila-based to go with Tex-Mex or bourbon-based to go with red meat).

Alan Cooper, a bartender in Brooklyn, expressed that it can be hard to create an original drink when everyone’s working with similar ingredients. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, while also not worrying too much about whether you’re the only one in the world who has ever combined those specific flavors before.

4. Use the right ratio

Whether you’re creating punch for a party or a fancy drink for a high-end bar, you have to know the correct proportions for each of the ingredients so that the drink doesn’t end up too sweet, too sour or too bitter.

5. Give it a great name!

Why go to all the trouble to create a unique cocktail and then skip the fun of naming it? You can use puns, inspiration from the flavors, people’s names--the options are endless! If you’re stuck, pull in a few friends or coworkers and see if a short brainstorming session can produce a name that people won’t soon forget!

A Signature Cocktail Expert

In Esquire Magazine’s interview with Herb Westphalen (owner of Signature Cocktail Creations), Herb uses his experience as a chef to get his creative juices flowing when it comes to expressing someone or something’s unique qualities in a drink. He even uses ingredients that most people would never expect, including hard boiled quail eggs and prosciutto to make edible garnishes.

According to Herb, the craziest cocktail he ever created was inspired by a couple’s dog for their wedding. He used creative ingredients to depict the dog in some grass on top of each drink! Herb’s custom cocktails are proof that while it may seem as though creating a unique combination is impossible at this point, there are always new flavors to try!

Popular Signature Cocktails

In New York City, you can find a cocktail called “The Penecillin” at Attaboy which combines scotch with honey, lime and ginger. The LA Times boasts of a local favorite at Love & Salt called the “Jimmy Conway” which is, “whiskey seasoned with walnut bitters, pricey Nonino amaro from Friuli and a weird, bitter Italian liqueur made from rhubarb.” Last but not least, there’s a cocktail in Seattle, Washington called “Milk-n-Cookies” which combines cognac, scotch, chocolate and milk and is served with cookies, a comic book to read and, once in a while, a “note from mom.” Wherever you are, there are always one-of-a-kind cocktails to try!

Put It All Together

In essence, a true signature cocktail is a drink that is distinctive to a particular establishment or event and that captures the essence of a person, place, thing or idea. Whether shaken or stirred, straight or on the rocks, signature cocktails can add just the right touch to your dining experience as you expand your horizons and take a risk to try something new.

CityGate Grille

If you’re ready to try a killer signature cocktail, make a reservation to dine at CityGate Grille this weekend or drop in to check out our fabulous bar! We love to create unique experiences for our patrons that they won’t forget. We also offer banquet space, perfect for hosting your next party or wedding reception!

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