You know those gorgeous, whoaaaaa-worthy layered cocktails that get a cool million likes on Instagram? Turns out they’re easier to make than you might think! Layering liquors requires a bit of special technique and technical knowhow, but you don’t have to be a professional bartender to become a pro. Read on to find out everything you need to know to drop some jaws at your next happy hour!
How Layering Works
Layering alcohols isn’t a new technique—it’s been popular for well over a hundred years. A beautifully layered pousse café (or “coffee push”) was all the rage to pair with your after-dinner coffee in 19th century France. The strategy to create these drinks remains the same all these years later—it’s allllll about weight and density.
In the simplest terms, if you pour liquids from the heaviest at the bottom to the lightest on top, you’ll produce a layered drink. You probably don’t think of your liquors and mixers in terms of which is the heaviest, but there are some simple tricks to help you figure it out! Generally, the more sugar and/or the less alcohol a liquid has, the heavier it is.
A thick, sugary syrup is very dense and makes a perfect base layer for a layered cocktail. On the other hand, high-proof liquors without sweetener are very light and will float on top of most other ingredients. The biggest exception to this rule is cream and cream liquors, which are typically a float (the top layer)—especially if you’re whipping that cream for an Irish Coffee.
These basic rules (plus a little trial and error) will help you figure out how to layer most of the cocktail ingredients at your disposal. If you want to get scientific with it, you can find the specific gravity (the technical term for weight + density) of your liquors. The higher the number, the heavier the liquid—and the closer it should be to the bottom of your layered drink. The bigger the difference in specific gravity between your layers, the less likely they are to mix and the clearer the separation will be. You can find a table with the specific gravities of dozens of common liquors here.
How to Pour Layers
Alright, you know the science and you know the ingredient order—what happens next? Grab your liquors, glass, and bar spoon! Here are the basic steps for pouring a layered cocktail:
First things first, pour your heaviest liquid at the bottom of your glass. Nicely done.
Now, let’s get fancy. Get your next liquor ready and make sure you’ve got a tight grip on it for a steady pour. Hold your spoon upside down with the tip pressed against the inner wall of your glass and just above the liquid layer beneath. (Any spoon will do here but we recommend a bar spoon because the small size gives you more control in petite cocktail glasses.) Slowly and gently pour your next heaviest liquid over the back of the spoon. The goal is to disturb the surface of the drink as little as possible.
Repeat step 2 as many times as needed to pour all the layers of your drink. Congrats—you did it!
Make sure you practice this technique a few times before you whip this out as your party trick! They say you’ve gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelet, and in this case you’ll probably have to “mess up” a few drinks before you get the layers right—but every mess up is still delicious. It’s allllll part of the process.
Types of Layered Drinks
Once you nail these techniques, you’ve got a whole new array of drink recipes at your disposal! We’re talking everything from a classic Black and Tan to a colorful shot like a B-52 to an elegant wine float on your cocktail. This is also the technique used for flaming drinks—a high-proof liquor floated on top of your drink brings the drama once it’s set ablaze. While you’re searching for new recipes to play with, here’s one of our favorite easy layered cocktails:
Sugar & Spice
2 oz. Navel Gazer-infused dark rum
4 oz. ginger beer
.5 oz. maple syrup
Lemon slice for garnish
Pour your maple syrup at the bottom of a tall glass. Fill with ice and gently pour over your ginger beer. Let the bubbles settle before slowly pouring the rum over the back of a spoon to create a float. Garnish with a lemon slice and serve with a straw. Enjoy the beauty of those gorgeous layers before you stir and sip, sip, sip.