"Ancestral relatives of the Manhattan and the martini often follow this formula, and it's amazingly versatile."

Back in 5th grade, when my math teacher, Mr. Kimball, was trying to impress a bunch of 10-year-olds with all the essential and, he asserted, fascinating ways that math would play a role in our lives and careers, he probably didn't anticipate that one of those functions would be related to booze.

Mixing a good drink takes craft and attention, but it also requires a basic understanding of ratios and proportions. While you can always improvise your way into a half-decent gin and tonic or even a martini (assuming you don't mind a little variation in your drinks), cocktails that require more than a couple of ingredients typically follow common structural formulas that have been honed over time.

For example, sour-style, liqueur-sweetened cocktails such as margaritas and sidecars usually fall into a 2:1:1 or 3:2:1 ratio of spirits:liqueur:citrus, depending on how sweet or tart you prefer the result. Remember the particular formula that's to your liking and you can start swapping all kinds of things through to make different drinks: rum instead of brandy, apricot liqueur instead of Cointreau; while a little wiggle with the proportions may be required with some substitutions, as long as you follow the basic formula you can be assured that you'll wind up with something balanced.

In the April issue of Esquire, drinks correspondent David Wondrich offers another handy formula for creating cocktails on the fly--one that calls for two ounces of spirits, one ounce of a fortified wine, a teaspoon of liqueur and a dash or two of bitters. Ancestral relatives of the Manhattan and the martini often follow this formula, with excellent results, and best of all, it's amazingly versatile.

In addition to your standard players in the liquor aisle, you can introduce fortified wines ranging from port to sherry to vermouth to Madeira; while the wine-plus-spirit match may not be perfect, a little teaspoon of Cherry Heering or Chartreuse (or most any liqueur you can lay your hands on), along with a dose of bitters (Angostura is probably your most useful candidate here), tends to smooth everything out and make all the flavors get along.

I gave this formula a test drive over the weekend, matching silver tequila with oloroso sherry and cherry liqueur, and gin with sweet vermouth and a touch of elderflower liqueur. While some attempts were better than others, none of the drinks came out with a flavor that seemed crooked, and the formula held true through several runs.

Are there tried-and-true approaches you take when mixing up something new, either a formula you've developed yourself or an age-old ratio that you find still works well? Fill us in if you have one.

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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