Tips and Tricks

How to build a Cocktail: 4 Easy Steps

Imagine a builder, building a house. The builder adds one ingredient on top of another until the house is finished, and then adds a straw and garnish.

While we don’t know how to build houses, that’s how to build a cocktail.

For the most part, drinks are built in this order: prepare glassware/vessel.

Add ice, ingredients, and anything fizzy to top up the ingredients and lengthen the drink. Finish with anything needing to be drizzled over the top or crowned. Don’t forget a straw, followed by any garnishes.

Pro tip: if garnishes are elaborate or time consuming, you may want to prepare these first!


How to build a cocktail: 4 Easy Steps

A male bartender shows how to build a cocktail by pouring sparkling wine into a wine glass filled with ice and an orange liqueur. Photo by Kike Salazar N on Unsplash

Step 1

Firstly, get your drinking vessel ready. Check for chips or breaks: the drink is being built directly into what the customer (or you) will drink from! If you’re freezing the glass, applying a rim or painting the inside now’s the time to do that.

Step 2

Ice is used first to begin chilling the vessel down, and each ingredient as it is poured over. Trying to add ice at the end makes it harder to know the amount of liquid required.

Step 3

Old Fashioned Cocktail in a rocks glass with orange slice garnish on a wooden table
The Old Fashioned is a classic built cocktail

Ingredients (think more spirits, citruses, fruit juices, sherbets, shrubs, egg whites, bitters, kefirs etc.) are added next.

It’s good practice to add more complicated items and cheap items first, in case you make a mistake.

More expensive items such as spirits are added towards the end, so they are less likely to be wasted.

Fizzy drinks are typically added afterwards to lengthen the drink up to the washline (the intended level, which should be at least 1cm from the top of the glass).

Adding last keeps fizzy drinks lively and effervescent, and the process of adding them will begin to mix the ingredients you’ve built below.

Even some more complicated cocktails require some built elements.

This can mean a mix of ingredients shaken, and then layered on top of the the rest of the drink, or simply one ingredient drizzled over the top of the drink.

Think blackberry liqueur which is laced over a Bramble, or Gosling’s rum used in a Dark and Stormy.

Foams are also added at this stage – so they’re at the top!

Step 4

The final component to add is the garnish.

This is the presentational piece to finish the drink off! Recipes suggest all different sorts of garnishes which accentuate or draw a contrast to an element of the drink, learn how to make a flashy orange twist here.

A straw is almost always called for in a professional hospitality setting. It’s optional to use and it’s optional to add at home.

The Cocktail Society (and our counterparts at The Cocktail Service) moved away from plastic straws years ago.

A red cocktail in a goblet glass with a metal straw. Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash
Building a cocktail: a straw is optional, but helps mix flavour

Why build a cocktail?

Generally, more simplistic drinks are built. A drink might be built because the recipe calls for it, because it was the design of the creator, or because there is no reason not to build the drink.

Built drinks are almost always served over ice, to cool the ingredients down.

Drinks with a large number of components are less likely to be built to combine ingredients more fully.

Often components like citrus and egg whites require shaking to combine with the other components.

Some drinks are built for aesthetics, in this case you can see different layers in the glass. Where this is the case a straw or swizzle stick is imperative for the drinker to stir and mix the flavours together as they go.

Why isn’t a Dark and Stormy shaken?

Dark and Stormy cocktail
Dark and Stormy Cocktail: building the cocktail adds the classic layered effect

The Dark and Stormy is a classic built drink. It isn’t shaken because it’s made up of three components: Rum, lime juice and ginger beer. Ginger beer and most fizzy drinks aren’t shaken, otherwise they’ll go flat.

In the case of the Dark and Stormy, shaking rum and lime juice together and adding ginger beer would create a completely different tasting drink to the built, flavour-heavy and distinctive Dark and Stormy where the drinker is expecting to taste these three flavours.

Try the two out and you’ll see what we mean!


So, you know how to build a cocktail. Now, what are the alternatives?

Building drinks is one of the fundamental ways of creating cocktails. Check out our Ultimate Guide To Cocktail Techniques and Terminology for tips on how to stir drinks, shake drinks, and blend drinks.