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We are overdue for a new cocktail language.

Milk Street editorial director, J.M. Hirsch writes about making cocktail language more inclusive.

Start with what you like. Describe it with words you can taste. Use those to find what you love.

It’s the sort of commonsense approach to cocktails that’s so obvious, it’s easily ignored. That’s because cocktails too often are shrouded in a language at best vague, at worst impenetrable to those who don’t make their living crafting them.

The language of cocktails—on menus and in books—has adapted poorly to the growing popularity—the democratization?—of craft drinking. Green Chartreuse and Crème de Violette? Obscure to the uninitiated. Even whiskey and gin are terms that can hide such countless expressions of flavor as to render them mostly meaningless when talk turns to taste.

Though hardly immune, the food world suffers less from this syndrome. A diner may not know the specific qualities that differentiate Parmigiano Reggiano aged 24 or 48 months, but if you tell them a dish contains Parmesan cheese, they at least are within striking range of understanding what they are about to taste.

Even cocktail nomenclature—though often charming and entertaining—diffuses understanding. With some obvious exceptions—looking at you, baked Alaska, sweetbreads and Welsh rabbit—most food recipe names contain plenty of clues. The Harvey Wallbanger, Aviation, even the venerable Old Fashioned and Manhattan hold their cards close.

Which is to say, the price of entry to understanding the cocktail world is high. Which returns me to my premise—that we in the cocktail world need to be better at using language you can taste. 

Full disclosure, I’ve written two cocktail books built around this premise, the just-released “Pour Me Another: 250 Ways to Find Your Favorite Drink” and its predecessor, “Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home.”

Both books draw on a cluster of terms—REFRESHING, CREAMY, FRUITY, SWEET, SOUR, HERBAL, BITTER, SPICY, SMOKY, WARM and STRONG—to express what each cocktail delivers in the glass.

The primary goal is to clearly inform the drinker of what to expect before they go anywhere near a shaker or bottle. But it also is a way to guide the casual consumer to new cocktails they might not otherwise have considered. Using terms we can taste allows us to help people draw connections between drinks that on the surface may seem unrelated.

An Old Fashioned drinker who dislikes a Gin & Tonic may not consider themselves a gin drinker. But evocative words can lead them to a Bijou, whose combination of gin, Green Chartreuse and sweet vermouth drinks with notes akin to a Manhattan. And those who enjoy the bitter-sweet glory of an Aperol Spritz certainly ought to be introduced to the more sophisticated Negroni.

Those of us on the inside of the cocktail world don’t often enough communicate the truth that common liquors can be transformed in unexpected ways depending on how and with what they are mixed. But we should. Because this is where drinkers—at home, as well as at the bar—find the space to experiment with and discover the cocktails they never knew they’d enjoy.

This is where “I don’t like tequila” becomes “I like tequila when…” 

Which returns me to my premise—that we in the cocktail world need to be better at using language you can taste. Full disclosure, I’ve written two cocktail books built around this premise, the just-released “Pour Me Another: 250 Ways to Find Your Favorite Drink” and its predecessor, “Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home.”

Both books draw on a cluster of terms—REFRESHING, CREAMY, FRUITY, SWEET, SOUR, HERBAL, BITTER, SPICY, SMOKY, WARM and STRONG—to express what each cocktail delivers in the glass.

The primary goal is to clearly inform the drinker of what to expect before they go anywhere near a shaker or bottle. But it also is a way to guide the casual consumer to new cocktails they might not otherwise have considered. Using terms we can taste allows us to help people draw connections between drinks that on the surface may seem unrelated.

An Old Fashioned drinker who dislikes a Gin & Tonic may not consider themselves a gin drinker. But evocative words can lead them to a Bijou, whose combination of gin, Green Chartreuse and sweet vermouth drinks with notes akin to a Manhattan. And those who enjoy the bitter-sweet glory of an Aperol Spritz certainly ought to be introduced to the more sophisticated Negroni.

Those of us on the inside of the cocktail world don’t often enough communicate the truth that common liquors can be transformed in unexpected ways depending on how and with what they are mixed. But we should. Because this is where drinkers—at home, as well as at the bar—find the space to experiment with and discover the cocktails they never knew they’d enjoy.

This is where “I don’t like tequila” becomes “I like tequila when…”

J.M. Hirsch is a James Beard Award-winning food and travel writer. He is editorial director of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street and author of two cocktail books, including the just-released “Pour Me Another: 250 Ways to Find Your Favorite Drink.” Find him on Instagram @jm_hirsch

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J.M. Hirsch’s La Rosita

2 oz. Reposado tequila

½ ounce Campari

½ ounce sweet vermouth + ½ ounce dry vermouth 

Dash orange and/or chocolate bitters

6 to 10 granules kosher salt

Tequila
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Vermouth
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