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April 5, 2023

Shaken & Stirred: Cocktail Fundamentals with Cara Devine

Melbourne bartender and A+ contributor Cara Devine, host of the popular YouTube channel Behind the Bar, provides a comprehensive guide to understanding the crucial components of cocktails and their variations in her new book, Strong, Sweet and Bitter. A+ is proud to feature this excerpt.

Words: Cara Devine
Photography: Melinda King, Gareth Sobey

The best cocktail I've ever had was a Mango Daiquiri, at a restaurant in Thailand. It was my first proper holiday anywhere in Asia and first overseas holiday with my fiancé. We were in Ayutthaya, a city known more for its temples than its tipples, and we had walked for what felt like miles in the pitch dark, along a muddy road with few signs of life. It was unbearably muggy and we were hungry and very, very thirsty, so when a restaurant’s flashing beer signs loomed ahead like an oasis we knew we were stopping there no matter what – and it turned out to have a beautiful deck at the back by the riverside, friendly staff and cocktails. The rum was ordinary but the mango was fresh, and the drink was the size of my head, frozen and thirst-quenching and the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

A mango daiquiri is not my favourite drink, nor an old faithful that I come back to time and time again. I’m talking about my favourite drinking experience, and that is about so much more than what’s in the glass. If I asked you to describe the best drink you’ve ever had, I bet you would tell me a story too – about the drink itself, of course, but also your surroundings, who you were with, how the drink was served and who served it to you

If I asked you to describe the best drink you've ever had, I bet you would tell me a story too – about the drink itself, of course, but also your surroundings, who you were with, how the drink was served and who served it to you.

The purpose of Strong, Sweet and Bitter is to give you such a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of flavour that you don’t have to stress about what’s in the glass because you know you can make it delicious. Once you’re well acquainted with the Taste Triangle (the foundation of every single cocktail) and understand complementary flavours and how different ratios affect the finished product, it’s genuinely hard to make a bad drink. You’ll feel confident to smash out classics or whip together a new creation with what you have on hand and cater to larger groups with ease. Then, you can relax and have fun with your guests – and that’s what makes a truly good host.

I fell in love with bartending and drinks culture while sitting at the bar of some consummate hosts. I’d worked in hospitality since I was legally old enough to, but as a part-time job alongside studying Law at university. When I graduated, I decided to take a working holiday before taking the first step on the corporate ladder I expected to be my career. I found myself working as a host in a pre-Prohibition style cocktail bar called Pourhouse in the trendy Gastown area of Vancouver and, from my perch at the door, I watched the bartenders being masters of their domain, orchestrating the guest experience with the sole purpose of making them happy. A smile, a chat (or being left alone if that’s your mood!), and the perfect drink – it’s all anyone really wants at the end of the day, right?

The first time I sat at the bar I was nervous; I felt very unsophisticated in such a suave setting. When I was asked what I wanted to drink, my mind went blank – the only cocktail I could think of was a French Martini. Since that is very much not a pre-Prohibition drink, they were unable to make it for me but let me down with such grace that I felt it was my own decision to try something different. I was given a Gin Sour made with Hendricks and celery bitters, and it was a revelation. I was hooked, and have spent the last 10-plus years bartending and trying to recreate that feeling for my guests. Lots of bars can make you a good drink, but the ones you go back to time and time again are the ones where you feel genuinely welcomed. That is the art of hosting.

Lots of bars can make you a good drink, but the ones you go back to time and time again are the ones where you feel genuinely welcomed.

Moving to Australia was eye-opening – the food and drink scene in Melbourne is second to none, and to be immersed in it is infinitely inspiring. My current role is bar manager of a rooftop bar with a Spanish twist, called Bomba, which puts me in charge of staff training (among many other things – not all glamorous!). I’ve found that sharing my passion for this industry is easily my favourite aspect of the job.

To that end, a couple of years ago I started working on a YouTube channel called Behind the Bar with Cara Devine with the aim of demystifying all things bar and booze, and quickly realised one of the things that holds people back from making cocktails (apart from the confidence to give it a go in the first place) is not having the exact ingredients for a recipe. Never let that stand between you and mixing a drink! I guarantee, with some clever substitutions, you’ll be able to concoct something that hits the mark – and is maybe even better than the original.

Bartending is not rocket science, but it is alchemy. The ingredients come together to form the drink; the drink comes together with the atmosphere and the company to create magic.

So, without further ado – let’s get mixing!

The Sazerac story ended up being a little more complicated than I had first realised. The one I had always heard was made famous by Stanley Clisby Arthur, who wrote a book on famous New Orleans cocktails. He said that Antoine Peychaud, a pharmacist, liked to serve and drink his eponymous bitters mixed with Cognac in little cups (called ‘coquetiers’). Meanwhile, another New Orleans–based businessman was importing brandy, specifically Sazerac de Forge & Fils Cognac.

It all gets a bit fuzzy here but, basically, that same man is also involved with the Merchant’s Exchange Coffee House which, despite the name, is a bar. There, at some point around the 1850s, they started mixing the Cognac with Peychaud’s bitters, and this would have been known as a ‘Sazerac cocktail’. Around the 1870s, absinthe was the cool new cocktail ingredient on the block and that got added to the mix. The story then goes that phylloxera, a root disease that crippled France’s wine and brandy industry, made Cognac hard to come by and so rye was substituted, eventually becoming the norm.

Peychaud’s coquetiers have also been promoted by New Orleans as the root of the word cocktail, conveniently crowning the city the birthplace of the cocktail. David Wondrich, that great debunker of myths, is widely acknowledged as the foremost cocktail historian in the world, and as such he has a rather annoying habit of actually checking dates and looking at facts. He pointed out that seeing as the first written instance of the word ‘cocktail’ was in 1806 and Peychaud was born in 1803, he probably can’t claim it. He also pointed out that the whole Peychaud’s–coffee house–Cognac–Sazerac cocktail link is pure conjecture. The first written reference to a Sazerac cocktail is in 1899, and it is definitely a rye cocktail.


10–15 ml (⅓–½ oz) absinthe, to rinse

60 ml (2 oz) rye whiskey

10 ml (⅓ oz) sugar syrup (see page 44)

4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters Served up (no ice)

Garnish: lemon zest twist (see page 75)


Glassware: small rocks glass (a shot or tasting glass is optional to serve the absinthe on the side)


Mixing glass or another rocks glass

Bar spoon

Julep strainer


Fill a serving glass with ice and add the absinthe, drizzling around as much as possible. Give it a stir and leave to chill. Place all the other ingredients in your mixing glass or other rocks glass (traditionally it is prepared in two rocks glasses but a mixing glass works just fine!). Fill with ice and stir. Once chilled and diluted, strain the absinthe into the shot glass and discard the ice; strain the drink into the serving glass. Cut a coin-sized piece of lemon zest. Fold the zest sharply over the drink from a height to expel the oils, then discard. Serve your Sazerac with the absinthe on the side (if you like!).


You can use an atomiser, or just ‘rinse’ the glass with absinthe by rolling a small amount around the glass (see page 117), but filling your serving glass with ice and adding the absinthe will not only chill the glass but also release some more subtle flavours from a good-quality absinthe – this is also why water is usually added to absinthe when it is being drunk by itself.

The Old Fashioned is really the closest drink to the original definition of a cocktail (liquor, sugar, bitters and water), but it obviously had to go out of fashion for it to become old-fashioned! It originally went under the less judgemental name ‘Whiskey Cocktail’ and was referred to as such for several decades, served up (i.e., with no ice) and usually as an ‘eye opener’ in the morning.

So what happened for this simple but delicious drink to become passé? Well, by the 1870s bartenders had begun to have more access to liqueurs and other flavour modifiers. They got a bit excited and started pumping out ‘Improved’ Whiskey Cocktails. As with any attempt at modernisation there were those who resisted it. Plenty of people have laid claim to the Old Fashioned name, most notably the Pendennis Club in Louisville, where the story goes that a grumpy local bourbon distiller asked for a cocktail ‘the old-fashioned way’ – i.e. none of your fancy new-fangled bullsh*t – so the bartender took it back to basics (with the addition of ice – so clearly the grumpy bourbon distiller wasn’t against all modern comforts) and the cocktail we know and love was born.

The Oaxaca Old Fashioned, invented by New York bartender Phil Ward in 2007, shows how easily new life can be breathed into this ageless cocktail. Mezcal was just becoming popular outside of Mexico, so Ward introduced it in a known cocktail format and as an accent spirit to make it approachable.


45 ml (1½ oz) reposado tequila

15 ml (½ oz) mezcal

5 ml (1/6 oz) agave syrup

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Ice: large block

Garnish: flamed orange zest twist (see page 75)


Glassware: rocks glass


Mixing glass

Julep strainer

Bar spoon


Place all the ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until desired dilution (I like to under-dilute slightly and let it develop over ice in the glass). Fold your twist over the top, flame and expel the oils, then use as a garnish.

This is an edited extract from Strong, Sweet and Bitter by Cara Devine, published by Hardie Grant and available in stores nationally, RRP $36.99

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