Ask a Bartender: Cocktail Experiment Failures

Ask a Bartender

You ask, they answer.


Kiel Schecich of SideDoor in Chicago

For every intricate cocktail that ends up on a menu at your favorite bar, odds are there were a dozen more drinks that didn't make the cut—some outright failures. Trial-and-error is an important part of any creative endeavor, and mixology is no different. We asked bartenders from across the country to tell us about a drink that just didn't work. Here's what they had to say.


Christian Sanders of Evelyn Drinkery in NYC

"I tried to create a vanilla-forward pesto flip, which was inspired by a dessert at Marlow & Sons [in NYC] called the Creeper. The dessert was vanilla ice cream with candied pine nuts sautéed in olive oil and drizzled on top of the ice cream, all finished with sea salt. I was so close to nailing it, but then just kept getting further away from my goal as I kept experimenting. I didn't get my pine nut orgeat to the consistency and flavor I wanted. I want to revisit the idea one day, with help from a chef or other professionals." — Christian Sanders (Evelyn Drinkery)

"I really wanted to make a Benedictine-based cocktail a while back. With something so sweet and herbaceous, it was hard to create a ratio where the Benedictine was at the forefront without overwhelming the other flavors. I eventually cut the Benedictine and added gin; the drink turned into a Ford cocktail riff." — Kiel Schecich (SideDoor)

"Absolutely, I feel you haven't made a truly delicious cocktail until you've made a complete car-crash-of-a-drink. Chef Virant makes an incredible milk jam that I tried repeatedly to squeeze into a flip-style cocktail. No matter what I tried—volume changes, spirit substitutions, sweeteners, different ports, even egg types—the resulting beverages either destroyed the milk jam's flavor or made for a chalky and fudge-like texture. I haven't given up but have sure as hell put that one on the back burner." — Bill Anderson (Vie)

"I remember being handed a bottle of really funky rum made with rice back in 2009 when I still worked at a sports bar and I was told that I had to transform it into the house shot for the night. I must have made over 20 attempts to mask the weird flavor and nothing worked. Then again, I wasn't using fresh juices or top-quality products at the time." — Pamela Wiznitzer (The Dead Rabbit)

"I recently tried some sort of rum, Skinos [a Greek liqueur], and some other ingredient on a whim. It didn't sound that great in my head, but I thought it might translate differently in the glass. I was very wrong. I took a sip, and it immediately went down the drain." — Jeff Faile (Iron Gate, Red Apron, Birch & Barley)


Meaghan Dorman of Raines Law Room in NYC [Photo: Aliza Eliazarov/Star Chefs]

"Sometimes an idea never manifests like you think it might. Once I made a delicious strawberry and black pepper shrub...but I never made a very tasty drink with it. Every attempt was just okay. Nothing really worked, then we just ended up drinking the shrub mixed with club soda! I'll try again when we get nice summer strawberries." — Meaghan Dorman (Raines Law Room)

"Finding a new alternative to a Dirty Martini troubles me. I tried many times to come up with something to substitute the olive juice, but I keep missing on that one." — Tommy Shani (Upstairs at the Kimberly Hotel)

"Laying in bed at 4:30 a.m. after a long night of drinking, I got the idea to tweak a Vieux Carre, swapping out Laird's Applejack for cognac, then topping it with Unibroue Ephemere. I wanted it to be good so badly, but it just was not... at all. I learned two things: that you should never screw with the Vieux Carre, and that Laird's, contrary to reports, can't solve all your problems." — Jesse Cornell (Sbraga)

"One in particular was the base for a potential barrel-aged drink with Scotch, peach vinegar and peach bitters. The cocktail ended up tasting like a bland version of Calvados." — Tyler Voelker (Urban Farmer Steakhouse)

"I love Bloody Marys. A few years back, I had it in my head that I would create a "modern" version of a Bloody Mary. I've tried many techniques from sous vide to clarification using a centrifuge. After every trying every attempt, I always felt like I'd rather be drinking a real Bloody Mary. That drink is my white whale." — Steve Yamada (Bar R'evolution)


Nate Howell of Jsix in San Diego

"All the time. R & D is what brings it out. I think about recipes all the time—actually developing the proper balance is what takes some time." — Nate Howell (Jsix)

"Yes, I have made drinks that simply don't work and can't be fixed. The last one was for the Luxardo Bitter competition: it ended up looking like Pepto. I finally gave up and started fresh." — Elizabeth Powell (Liberty Bar)

"I travel to Greece a few times a year and I always get inspired to make a drink using ancient recipes, and ingredients unique to the region, but sometimes the cocktail just fails. Sometimes, there are so many variables to fully understand why it is that they fail. Other times the cocktail is too complex and guests don't quite grasp it; sometimes they're just looking for a simple, easy drink." — Kamal Kouiri (Molyvos)

"There are too many failed cocktails to remember. Genever and Cachaca are a pain. They have such interesting flavors that I have difficulty finding the right balance." — Brandon Lockman (Red Star Tavern)

"The one I remember the most clearly was when I got challenged to make a fig cocktail. I was so hooked on the name, but the concept fell flat. I wanted to make the Fig Lebowski, a fig version of the white Russian and use Nigori sake as the cream element, aquavit, and figs, but it just wouldn't come together. I just wanted to make a cocktail the dude would abide." — Sean Still (Mercadito Chicago)

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Holly Hart of A.G. Kitchen in NYC

"During fall we always want to use seasonal ingredients. We made a bourbon cocktail with muddled figs which tasted great, but fell short in presentation—muddled figs at the bottom of a glass aren't exactly appealing to the eye." — Holly Hart (A.G. Kitchen)

"I tried to do a Harvey Wallbanger concept. Instead of orange juice, I made an orange soda with no sugar and toned back the anise from the Galliano by using Lemoncello or Cointreau. Let's just say there's a reason classics are classics." — Andy Nelson (Jackson 20)

"Recently, I was trying to make a drink using a fig reduction. After many attempts, I realized that figs are just too subtle on their own and could not compete with the flavor of a smoky Scotch." — Beau du Bois (The Corner Door)

"Yes, just this past week I was working on a cocktail that featured the Monin elderflower syrup. My recipe included gin, lime, hibiscus tea, and Monin elderflower syrup, and it just didn't taste right. As it turned out, all I needed to do was switch it up by replacing the gin with tequila." — Ray Anguiano (Atwood Café)

"I've been trying to make a cocktail with black pepper in the style of a Moscow Mule for a while now. First we just did fresh cracked black pepper right in the drink and you didn't taste it. Then we made a pepper syrup that didn't really work either. Our last attempt was to infuse the vodka with the peppercorns, which ended up being awesome.... Now we use it in Bloody Marys." — Jason Lakow (Amali)