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Layer Or Build? Decoding What Each Technique Means For Your Cocktail

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When foraying into the world of mixing your own cocktails at home, you may have come across directions that ask you to “build” a particular drink, or “layer” another. What’s the difference, you may have wondered — after all, both methods end with the ingredients mixed in a glass, isn’t it? But building and layering are very different techniques and each works best with specific types of spirits and recipes. Here’s a brief and handy guide:

To Build Or Not To Build, That Is The Question

(There’s no question: if a recipe calls for a drink to be built, build it! We’re just infusing some drama into these proceedings!) Now building a cocktail is a straightforward enough process. You want to add each ingredient, as it is listed in the recipe, directly into the glass in which the drink will be served. Ice is added first, before the spirit and other components are poured into the glass. For obvious reasons, this is the easiest form of cocktail mixing for a beginner to master, before moving on to more complex techniques. 

What are the stages involved in building a cocktail? You start by —

1. Preparing your glassware. Does the cocktail call for your glass to be rimmed, or have its insides coated/painted with a syrup or other flavouring element? Does your glass need to be chilled before you make the drink in it? Now is the time to finish your glassware prep. 

2. If the drink calls for ice, add it to your prepared glass now. This will help you gauge the quantity of other liquids that need to go into the glass. 

3. Add your spirit at this point, following the measurement specified in the recipe. 

4. Finish with the mixer, and end with any garnishes or ingredients that are asked to be sprinkled/drizzled over the drink.

RELATED | Why The 2:1:1 Ratio For Cocktails Is A Beginner’s Best Friend

What cocktails are built?

The Old Fashioned, Gin & Tonic, Seven Hills, Saratoga are all examples of cocktails that use the build technique.

A Layered Experience

Unlike building a cocktail, layering one isn’t the simplest or most straightforward of techniques, especially for a beginner. Even a pro might baulk at having to spend as much time on preparing one drink that requires layering when they might easily build two (or three) in the same duration. 

So why do we layer cocktails anyway? 

The short answer is, because it looks good. Think about a Tequila Sunrise and its brightly coloured bands in your cocktail glass. Apart from aesthetics, an expert bartender or mixologist — do note, this is not something you’re advised to try at home — may want to create a flaming cocktail, in which case they’d need the flammable spirit to be topmost in the glass.

How do you layer?

The rule of thumb is that the heaviest liquid — that is, the ingredient with the lowest alcohol content and the most amount of sugar — goes at the very bottom of the glass, followed by the others. So if a recipe includes a syrup, you’ll begin by pouring that into the cocktail glass, followed by say, a liqueur, and finally, the spirit. 

Apart from the order in which each ingredient is added to the glass, you also need to pay heed to the method. Each successive liquid isn’t just poured directly above the other. Instead, you gently pour it over the back of a spoon, and into the glass. What’s the rationale for doing this? Pouring the liquid over the convex end of the spoon ensures it covers a wider surface area as it drops into the glass, allowing it to float on top of the previous layer instead of sinking because of its own weight.

You can also use a spoon right side up — just ensure its rim is touching the side of the glass, and the very edge of the layer on top of which you want to pour the next liquid.

Think you’ve got the hang of layering and building? Check out our guide to shaking versus stirring your cocktail ingredients!


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