Imbibing Improv

By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel

In my interactions with the foodie public, I’m always surprised by how intimidated non-bartenders are by the thought of making drinks themselves. One of the areas where I see many hopeful home bartenders get hung up is recipe orthodoxy. Any competent home cook should feel comfortable whipping up a few drinks, yet I often hear from these same folks that they would have made a particular recipe but they didn’t have X, Y or Z spirit.

That same cook, though, would confidently know that in some recipes, butter can be substituted for shortening, marjoram or Mexican mint marigold can fill in for tarragon and shallots or leeks can replace onions.

In the case of recreating classic drinks, it’s certainly necessary to have the specified ingredients. But to make something that is pleasurable to drink—or to make use of a spirit or other fresh, on-hand ingredient—a few simple guidelines are all that’s needed. 

First, let’s consider on-the-fly substitutions. As with culinary ingredients, cocktail ingredients can be grouped into families, which makes it easier to consider a stand-in either out of necessity or in the spirit of innovation. If a recipe calls for an aged (brown) spirit (bourbon, for example), there’s a very good chance that the recipe would succeed with Cognac, aged rum or añejo tequila. When a recipe calls for a liqueur, try another on-hand liqueur, or make a flavored syrup—they all serve the same function of sweetening the drink while adding a flavor that complements the drink’s other ingredients. In a margarita, for example, orange liqueur serves as the sweet ingredient. That ingredient can be substituted with another cordial (as in the St. Rita or Monkarita variations). It can also be substituted with a nonalcoholic syrup, such as a housemade peach or persimmon syrup, depending on the season. 

Another way of thinking about cocktail innovation is by taking a look at how drink recipes are structured. Instead of thinking about line-item substitutions in an existing recipe, think about building a drink variation from the ground up. This has been the way new cocktails have been born since the early days of cocktail history. Considering that early martinis were made with sweet instead of dry vermouth, it’s easy to see how the Manhattan might have begotten the martini simply by substituting gin for rye whiskey. The aforementioned margarita arguably originated from substituting tequila for brandy in a daisy—and, not coincidentally, “margarita” is the Spanish word for “daisy.” And take a look at the classic French 75 cocktail, which is made from gin, lemon juice, sugar and Champagne. Upon closer inspection, the French 75 is essentially a Tom Collins topped with Champagne instead of club soda. The substitution was made not because Champagne was a close substitution for club soda (in which case you might have used another carbonated soda), but because this drink formula requires a fizzy ingredient. Think of all the combinations that can be made by thinking broadly about the functions of the ingredients in a drink and not just about their flavor profiles. What would a French 75 taste like with ginger ale? Big Red? 

Finally, remember to be flexible with the base (predominant) spirit in a drink. For example, even though Campari isn’t in the same family as bourbon, it was used in the Campari julep recipe as the foundational ingredient for this completely different cocktail.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up!



2 oz. silver tequila
¾ oz. orange liqueur
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 barspoon simple syrup, optional
Lime wedge, to garnish

Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain over ice into a rocks glass or a chilled cocktail glass. (Optional: rim the glass with kosher salt.) Garnish with a lime wedge. 


St. Rita: substitute St. Germain elderflower liqueur for the orange liqueur.

Monkarita: substitute Chartreuse or Benedictine liqueur for the orange liqueur.


1½ oz. gin
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup
Club soda

Combine the gin, lemon juice and simple syrup with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with the club soda. 


Thyme Collins:substitute lemon-thyme syrup for the simple syrup.

Sean Collins: substitute Irish whiskey for the gin.

Calm Collins: substitute chamomile syrup for the simple syrup.




2 sprigs fresh mint
¼–½ oz. simple syrup
2 oz. bourbon

Gently bruise one sprig of mint in the bottom of a glass containing the simple syrup. Add half of the bourbon and fill the glass with crushed ice. Stir until the glass is frosty. Add the remaining bourbon and fill with more crushed ice. Stir until frosty. Tear the remaining sprig of mint and place in the glass as a garnish. 

Campari Julep(courtesy of Matt Tanner, Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston): substitute Campari for the bourbon.

Stonewall Julep: substitute peach liqueur or housemade peach syrup for simple syrup.
Garden Julep: substitute other spring herbs for, or add to, the mint—although I don’t recommend doing away entirely with mint if possible as it’s a key player in the julep. But lemon verbena, sweet basil, sage, lavender and numerous other herbs can be gently used to create elegant variations on the traditional recipe.