February 28, 2024

The Wisdom of Miyagi

by Joel Mann

One of the great cheesey movies from the 80’s is The Karate Kid. Say what you will about the acting, the general plot line, or even the ability of a teenager to learn martial arts at a black belt level in a few months. The real gem of the movie is Mr. Miyagi and his philosophy of life.

Balance is the whole key. It’s the old wisdom of all things in moderation. A bit apropos tied into a discussion concerning alcohol.

I bring the topic up not to beat the drum of a teetotaler or neo-prohibitionist, as I’m hardly either. I mention it from a sensory standpoint regarding one’s beverage choices, as your drink, like everything else in life, is best when it’s in balance. It’s the combination of aromas and flavors coming together in harmony that create something pleasant to drink, versus something that’s awkward and disjointed in taste.

Cocktails and mixed drinks in particular are a great example of how balance affects flavor, but any food really can demonstrate the concept. So after an evening of overpriced, odd flavored cocktails recently, I want to examine the concept of balance in beverages, and give a tip of the hat to Mr. Miyagi and his eternal wisdom.

Balancing Your Cocktail

I’ll start with cocktails and mixed drinks as they really are a perfect example of the concept. Most people I know go to the local bar, order a drink, and hope the bartender makes it as strong as possible concerning the amount of alcohol added to the mix. That defeats the whole purpose of creating a mixed beverage. If you just wanted a large dose of hard liquor, why not order a double shot of alcohol straight-up? If it’s the flavor of the drink you desire, then it’s not the amount of booze the bartender pours into the mix that matters, it’s the ratios of spirit to mix to modifiers that matters most to achieve the best balance of flavors. In general, for most cocktails, that usually amounts to some ratio around the 3-2-1 concept, which means you use 3 parts of the base flavor (fruit juice or mixer typically), 2 parts of spirit, and 1 part of the flavor modifier in the drink (flavored liquors or syrups, typically). The ratio is common for juice or mixer based cocktails.

When you consider several classics such as martinis or Manhattans that are more liquor based and don’t use a mixer, then a 2-1 ratio is common with the base spirit having 2 parts to 1 part of the flavor modifier. What these ratios do is give an ideal balance to the drink in terms of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors, and makes the beverage taste smooth and pleasant with all parts combining to make a harmonious drink. Add too much alcohol and the cocktail suddenly becomes overly alcoholic. Add too much base mix and the cocktail is weak and overly sweet or sour depending on the base. Add too much modifier and the drink often has an overly bitter or syrupy taste. It’s the balanced cocktail that provides the best flavor.

Wine in Balance

This concept extends to wine, as well. Napa Valley not too long ago used to absolutely abuse their Chardonnay in the concept of having balanced flavors. Winery after winery would simply beat the drink into submission with massive amounts of oak and buttery malolactic flavors. Many of the wines completely lacked any sense of the grape flavor underneath. They were essentially wooden planks slathered in butter, poured into a glass. Thankfully, that trend has passed for the most part, and now wineries realize that it’s the balance between fruit flavors with moderate amounts of toasty oak and subtle layers of creamy malolactic character that bring Chardonnay into balance.

Balanced Brews

Breweries still enjoy pushing the limits of balanced flavors, as there is a sizable segment of the market that enjoys the extreme flavor concept. One need only browse through the IPA section to find the ones claiming the highest IBU level (hop bitterness) to see the effect. The concept of achieving great balance in the malt/hop character has taken a backseat for the time being. I notice though as my tastes evolve, I look more and more for the old classics that stress the concept of just the right amount in every flavor.

While extreme tastes can be an interesting experience, they usually are not the most satisfying. So, in the wisdom of Mr. Miyagi, go find your balance, as it’s the key to the whole of life, and a great drink too.

Remember to drink responsibly.

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