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Modifiers in Cocktails

This post is sponsored by PAMA pomegranate liqueur, but written by me. 

Cocktail Modifiers

Though I think most bartenders agree on what a cocktail modifier is, finding a definition of the term was tougher than expected.

Defining Modifiers in Cocktails

The first book I picked up to look for a written definition was David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, from 1948. Embury is the king of categorizing cocktails (as is Gary Regan in his book The Joy of Mixology, but I don't think he addressed modifiers) so I figured he might have something to say. 

Unfortunately though, I wouldn't say that I agree with his definition. Embury divides cocktail ingredients into three categories:

  1. The Base
  2. The Modifying Agent - "It is this ingredient, in combination with the base of spiritous liquor, which characterizes the cocktail... The flavor of the modifier itself should never predominate but should always remains submerged." All good, right? But then Embury divides modifiers into Aromatics (fortified wines and bitters), Fruit Juices, and Smoothing Agents (sugar, cream, eggs, etc.)
  3. Special Flavoring and Coloring Agents (liqueurs and fruit syrups).

So in Embury's definition, liqueurs are not modifiers.

However I think a more modern definition can be found in Tony Abou-Ganim's book The Modern Mixologist from 2010. Abou-Ganim writes briefly about cocktail components in a section on creating cocktails. He groups together Modifiers and Accents.

He says, "Modifiers are made up of various aromatic wines- for example, vermouth and Lillet- and a long list of liqueurs, such as Cointreau, maraschino, and creme de cassis. Accents include different varieties of bitters- like orange, Peychaud's , and Angostura- and non-alcoholic syrups-including Rose's lime juice, orgeat, grenadine, and falernum." 

Making up a definition off the top of my head, I would say a modifier is a cocktail ingredient, usually alcoholic and typically a fortified wine or a liqueur, that both softens the base spirit and adds flavor to the drink.

This isn't a perfect definition by any means. The Chartreuse in a Last Word and the Campari in a Negroni, for example, form so much of the flavor of the drink that 'modifier' understates their importance. 

Do you think my definition for a modifier works? And if so, then what do we call the non-alcoholic modifiers like citrus and grenadine? It doesn't seem that everything other than the base spirit should be called a modifier.

But anyway...

Modern Modifiers

Cocktail ingredients come and go and in the past 10 or so years we've seen some amazing products come onto the market. Classic modifiers (by my definition) include absinthe, maraschino, and orange curacao (these created new categories of cocktails when they become widely available in the US, "improved" and "fancy" cocktails), Chartreuse, Benedictine, and the like. 

The liqueur category in particular has provided us with many amazing new flavors to work with in the last five or ten years, and include products like St. Germain, Domaine de Canton, Hum Botanical Spirit, Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette, and (our sponsor) PAMA.

New liqueurs also provide the easiest way to create new cocktails- simply swap out or supplement the current liqueur or sweetening agent with the new liqueur: A Pomegranate Daiquiri or a Ginger Cosmopolitan is the easiest thing in the world to create with these new products. Of course, the new cocktails will need to be rebalancing in their sweet/sour/strong ratio, but that's the nature of making cocktails.

Using PAMA as a Modifier

PAMA is designed to be both sweet and tart, so the balancing of the ingredient in a cocktail will be a little different (and actually a little easier in some drinks) than with a regular sweet-only liqueur. On the PAPAPros.com website, Eben Freeman suggests ways to use it.

In a typical sour recipe, rather than using 2 parts spirit, 1 part sweet, and half part sour ratios, Freeman suggests using 1.5 parts spirit and  .5 parts PAMA, and keeping the same 1 part sweet and half part sour ratios.

Below is a more complicated adaptation, a spin on the Ward 8.  

Pama & Rye
By Eben Freeman

Glass: Rocks
Garnish:Orange Wheel
1 oz. PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur
1 oz. High Proof Rye Whiskey
1 oz. Orange Juice
1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
1/2 oz. Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into rocks glass over fresh ice and garnish.

Freeman says of this cocktail, "Use PAMA to modify classic cocktails such as the Ward 8 to be more approachable without upsetting the balance of the cocktail. In a classic drink such as The Ward Eight PAMA takes the place of Grenadine and it feels right at home. I did not create a pomegranate flavored Ward Eight, I used the PAMA to keep the flavor profile but lighten the flavor to a point where some may argue the drink is more approachable."

p.s. If you haven't noticed, there is a fancy new ad banner over to the left. Click on there (or just click here) for mixology news from top blogs and websites. 


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Great article--looks like I may need to add a bottle of PAMA to the home bar. In related news, if I was to name a new pop-up bar or consultancy today, it would definitely be called "Smoothing Agents".


Your definition of "modifier" is similar to the one I've used when explaining the composition of cocktails: http://madartlab.com/2012/08/02/rational-mixology/

And I think you can point to many cases where modifying agents are used as base spirits--this doesn't mean the definition is flawed, it just means that there are exceptions to the rule, which is A-OK. That's where the real fun comes in!


I would go so far as to say that The Last Word is a Chartreuse drink with a gin modifier.

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