In the first three seminars I attended at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference this past weekend, three different industry leaders suggested the same method for curing cocktail boredom and for discovering delicious drinks you may never have tried before. The trick: tiki expert Brian Miller (you can catch him on Mondays at Lani Kai in NYC) called it The Mr. Potato Head System. (He credited Phil Ward of New York's Mayahuel for the term.)
What does Mr. Potato Head have to do with cocktails?
Imagine a Mr. Potato Head toy. He might start out with red shoes, a black mustache, a black hat. But maybe you get tired of that version. No worries! You can swap out the black hat for a pink one. Keep going! Try it with a blue hat. And once you try the blue hat, you might want to put in some blue shoes, too. Looks pretty sharp.
In cocktails, the building blocks aren't noses or shoes or mustaches—they're ingredients. To break out of your cocktail rut, just start with a classic drink and try swapping out one element at a time. It's not a new idea (and it certainly predates our friend Mr. Potato Head)—these simple variations and substitutions go back as long as the history of cocktails.
Michael Madrusan, veteran of NYC's Milk & Honey and owner of The Everleigh in Melbourne, Australia, seems to be able to play six degrees of separation with almost any cocktail you can name. Take a daiquiri, made with fresh lime, sugar, and rum. Swap out the rum for gin and you've got a fresh gimlet. Different drink, same essential potato.
Tired of a regular Manhattan? Try cognac instead of rye, and call it a Harvard—it's gone by that name since 1895. Many classic cocktails are just one swap away from each other, so by trying the Mr. Potato Head method, you may accidentally stumble upon something that people have been shaking up since before Prohibition.
For example: take a Sidecar as your starting point. You've got brandy, Cointreau, and lemon. Swap out the brandy for gin and you've got a Chelsea Sidecar. (Add egg white and you've got a White Lady.) Make your sidecar with half cognac and half applejack for a Deauville. Or make it with lime instead of lemon and use tequila as the spirit and you've got...that's right, a margarita.
The riffing possibilities may also help you discover new recipes and a new appreciation for the spirits you've grown tired of in their traditional contexts. Try a rum Negroni, a Mezcal Old Fashioned, or a Zombie with three types of gin (credit Brian Miller for that one.) If you're a fan of tequila, explore using blanco tequila in your favorite gin cocktails, or use reposado tequila in drinks that call for whiskey.
Have you tried swapping spirits in your favorite cocktails? What are your favorite variations?