It’s easy to think that all cocktails are essentially the same. You add ingredients in specific quantities, build, shake, or stir, and then present the glass with a garnish.
While that describes the majority of drinks, there’s one trick we’re missing: the art of the layered cocktail.
Yes, a well-executed Martini or Negroni is great, but there’s something extra special about layering a drink for your guests, whether at home or from behind the bar.
Why Do Some Ingredients Layer and Others Do Not?
There could be two reasons why your drink isn’t layering the way you want it to. It’s either the ingredients or how you’re pouring them. We’ll get into the second one in a minute, but let’s start with the type of ingredients you’ll want to be using for your layers.
The secret is weight.
If your ingredients have the same, or similar, levels of weight and density, then forget about layering them. You’ll need to start with your heaviest ingredient on the bottom, then work your way up to the lightest.
Take a Baby Guinness as an example. The Irish Cream is much lighter than the coffee liqueur, so it floats on top, making a lovely looking drink that’s bound to impress your guests.
How to Make Layered Drinks
Now that we know the basics of why some ingredients float on top of others, let’s dive into how to make them float.
Step One: Pour the First Layer
The first layer is the easiest to get right when layering a drink. Start with the heaviest liquid, and make sure it all pours directly onto the bottom of the glass—do not let it touch the sides of the glass. This will avoid any of the liquid mixing with the ingredients to come.
Step Two: Use the Back of a Spoon
The back of a spoon is going to ensure success and set your drink apart from botched attempts at making layered cocktails. Gently lower the spoon down toward the top of your drink, resting it on the glass and making sure it doesn’t touch the layer of liquid beneath. Slowly pour the next heaviest liquid over the back of the spoon so that it settles onto the first layer.
As long as you do this gently and slowly, the drink should layer nicely. You might need to give each layer a little bit of time to separate before repeating this step for each layer of your drink.
Step Three: the Final Layer
If you have a drink with more than three layers, repeat step two until you reach your final ingredient. The last layer is usually the most difficult to manage, simply because you won’t have much (if any) room to rest the spoon against the inside of the glass.
You can angle the spoon upwards slightly to give the liquid a bit more space to land in the drink and avoid it being mixed in with the previous layers.
And that’s it, that’s how to layer drinks. It’s a fairly straightforward method, but it may take a few tries to get it right, so don’t worry if your drink isn’t layered perfectly the first time out.
The Best Layered Cocktails
The layering technique is often employed for shooters, but the technique can be used for full-size cocktails, too. Below are a few layered shots and drinks to try making for yourself.
As mentioned earlier, a Baby Guinness doesn’t actually contain any of the famous Irish stout, but the float on top makes it look like a tiny glass of Ireland’s best pint. This is a simple recipe made by floating Irish cream such as Bailey’s atop a coffee liqueur, usually Tia Maria, in a small shot glass.
The B-52 recipe also calls for coffee liqueur and Irish cream, but this time you’re adding a layer of orange liqueur—usually Grand Mariner—on top. Layer in that order to make a show-stopping shot.
The Irish Coffee is one of the most ubiquitous layered drinks. It combines Irish whiskey, black coffee and sugar, mixed together in a heated mug. To give it that classic layered look, gently float a couple tablespoons of heavy cream on top.
The Mai Tai is an iconic Tiki drink that proves all sorts of cocktails can be layered, not just shooters. Rum, orange curaçao, fresh lime juice, and orgeat syrup are shaked and strained into a glass over ice. At this point, the ingredients have become heavy enough to support another layer, so if you want to add an optional shot of dark rum on top, gently float it over the top of the drink for that classic Mai Tai aesthetic.
There you have it: a few simple ways to make layered drinks and shots, either at home or at the bar, to take your bartending skills to the next level.
Scott Marshall is an experienced bartender based in England and one of the lead writers at MixologyU.com.