For Josh Duncan, bar manager at Adrift Tiki Bar in Denver, the key to creating the perfect cocktail combination is understanding the balance that exists between ingredients and knowing everything there is to know about each ingredient.
“Just like cooking, when building a new cocktail, the most important thing is to understand your ingredients, and how they work together,” he says.
“Whether it be gin, rum, vodka, vermouth, bitters, or peach liqueur—It is imperative that you taste and understand the ingredients that you choose and learn how they combine to create new flavors.”
– Joshua Duncan of Adrift Tiki Bar
For Josh, learning and knowing your classic cocktail ingredients is important. The balance that exists in the classics have stood the test of time, and there is a lot to learn from riffing on a basic Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or Daiquiri. “Understanding how the sugar and spice in a vermouth can soften and further express a good whiskey in a Manhattan can do wonders for understanding why that new stirred cocktail you’re making isn’t working out,” Josh explains. “Discovering the challenges of whipping up a Daiquiri that doesn’t taste too dry or too bitter can also be a momentous learning occasion and solving these problems will provide a wonderful learning experience for future experimentation.”
Josh stresses to new bartenders to study and fully understand the basics of how sugar, spirits, and citrus act to balance a cocktail.
“Your choice of spirit provides the base flavor, and alcohol content gives structure and body to the cocktail. Citrus creates a mouthwatering and sometimes refreshing sensation, and sugar also adds body while softening the heat of alcohol and adding balance to tart cocktails. Sugar also helps to spread flavor over the tongue, which accentuates ingredients and creates a lasting sensation of flavor. Outside of sugar, spirit, and citrus; you can also add bitters, spices, and aromatics (think cinnamon, flowers, celery salt, mint, etc.) to add complexity and intrigue to cocktails. They give your cocktail a nose that can entice and affect the way it tastes before it even touches your lips.”
Josh also says bartenders should play with contrasting flavors. “Sometimes it is useful to use a pear syrup and add pear liqueur to boost the sharpness of the flavor that you’re going for, but this is often redundant and a waste of space in your cocktail. I always try to think of flavors that contrast and accentuate each other. Like chocolate, banana, and lavender; or scotch, lychee, and ginger. Including flavors in your cocktails that are wildly different can open new flavor combinations you didn’t know existed!”
“Of course, you will fail many times while reaching for such odd combinations, but you’ll learn a ton along the way and push the boundaries of your own creativity at the same time,” says Josh.
There is always so much room to play and explore in crafting cocktails. Josh recommends starting from a classic or well-balanced cocktail that you know well, and then substituting ingredients from there. “With distilleries around the world always releasing new flavors and spirits, the creativity is endless,” notes Josh. “It’s always exciting to see what other bartenders are doing, and I’ve enjoyed watching this industry continue to grow as I grow alongside it. I’m looking forward to seeing what new inspiration comes. I know there are plenty of skilled bartenders out there pushing boundaries in ways I haven’t even thought of! Go forth and create!
Josh’s tips on unique flavor combos in cocktails
1. Riff on classics: One of my favorite cocktails that we’ve ever featured on Adrift’s menu was the Ku Ku Kachoo—named after a combination of lyrics from the famous Beatles song “I am the Walrus” and the Hawaiian God of War Kū. This cocktail blends three complex layering flavors—Scotch, lychee, and ginger. Sometimes I’ll pull ideas from classic cocktails, and other times I’ll just think of something random that sounds like it “might” work in the cocktail I’m working on. In this case it, was a bit of both. The base idea came from The Penicillin cocktail, a beautiful classic cocktail that uses scotch, lemon, ginger, and honey. Lychee was my contrasting flavor that added depth and created something entirely new and served as a nod to our Tiki theme. Add some other supporting flavors and the final recipe ended up being: ¾ oz. blended scotch, ¾ oz. Jamaican Rum, ½ oz. Angostura Amaro, ½ oz. Honey-Anise Liqueur (Xtabentun), ½ oz. of our house ginger syrup, ½ oz. lemon juice, ¼ oz. Lychee Liqueur.
2. Think of a contrasting or unique ingredient that would add to the cocktail: The final cocktail ended up being a far reach from a Penicillin, but the addition of Jamaican rum gave it a funky body, and the honey-anise liqueur gave it depth and lightness (vs. honey). The Angostura amaro was a final addition that added a bitter component to help cut the sweetness of the cocktail.
3. Play with your other existing ingredients: Make sure to support your new creation with similar or complementary ingredients (i.e. changing honey for honey-anise liqueur, or splitting your scotch base into 1/2 part scotch & 1/2 part Jamaican rum).
Joshua Duncan has over 11 years of experience in the restaurant industry, nine of which have been spent crafting cocktails behind the bar. Josh’s bartending career began in Rochester, NY at a cocktail bar named Ox & Stone. After a few years in Rochester, Josh moved to Denver and landed at Williams & Graham, apprenticing with their highly skilled and knowledgeable bar team. Through their rigorous training program, Josh learned a set of skills that would propel him to new heights at other Denver bars like Union Lodge No.1, B&GC, & White Lies where he worked as the lead bartender. Josh landed his first bar manager position a year later at The Preservery in RiNo, after which he found home in his current passion project—Adrift Tiki Bar.
Joshua’s passion lies in pushing the boundaries of cocktails to test the limits of what a cocktail can be as opposed to what one thinks it “should” be. This can be seen in the Tiki Standards section of Adrift’s current menu, in which Josh has recreated many of the classic tiki cocktails from the ground up while always keeping the original flavor profile in mind. When tasting cocktails, Josh always asks the question, “How can we make it better?” From classics, to originals, to staples on Adrift’s menu, Josh is always trying to improve the offerings of his bar program.
His passion doesn’t end at the bar however, these days Josh operates with the title of General Manager; and oversees all the operations at Adrift in addition to the bar. His intensity for constant improvement extends past just the cocktails, and a visit to Adrift quickly reveals the consistent efforts of Josh and the Adrift team. If you live in Denver, CO, or if you’ll be visiting anytime soon, be sure to make a trip to this hidden oasis on South Broadway.