Bartender Basics: How to Float or Layer a Cocktail

Animation of various glasses being used to prepare layered cocktails
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Floating and layering ingredients in a cocktail may feel like a throwback bartending technique whose time ended with “Rainbow Skittles” shooters. And while this trick may be most popularly employed with college drinks like flaming B-52s, there are some practical applications to layering a cocktail.

Beyond the visual effect, layers allow you to create a cocktail that evolves as you drink it. A layered drink can change course over multiple sips, like acts in a play.

Other uses include floating a small amount of an ingredient on top of a shaken cocktail to emphasize a specific aroma and create interplay between what you smell and what you taste when you sip. It also lets you set things on fire.

The theory

Layering drinks is primarily accomplished by adding ingredients in order, based on their specific gravity—heavier ingredients get poured first, lightest ingredients last. Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the chemical makeup of each liquor, liqueur, juice, syrup and tincture in your collection, however, it may be hard to discern the density of each.

Enter, this cheat sheet:

  • Ingredients with more sugar will generally be heavier than those without. Syrups, like grenadine, will almost certainly be your heaviest ingredient.
  • Spirits (a.k.a. straight liquor) will generally be the lightest.
  • When it comes to spirits and some liqueurs, the higher the proof, the lighter the ingredient.
  • The greater difference in the weight of each ingredient, the more distinct separation you’ll get between each layer.
  • When layering beer for drinks like a Black and Tan, the darker ingredient is usually heavier.
  • Despite seeming denser, as the saying goes, cream often rises to the top.

While useful tips, individual ingredients will still vary based on producer, particularly with liqueurs that utilize various amounts of sugar. When in doubt, experiment.

Layering vs floating

A layered drink means multiple ingredients are added separately, like a Tequila Sunrise (grenadine, orange juice and Tequila). A float generally means a layer of alcohol placed on top of an already-mixed glass of ingredients, as with red wine in a New York Sour. Whichever your drink calls for, the process is the same.

Bartender Basics: The Right Way To Shake a Cocktail

How to do it

Upside-down spoon

The most common technique to float or layer an ingredient is to pour it slowly over the back of a spoon. This disperses the liquid over a wider surface area, allowing it to float rather than sink under its own weight.

You may be familiar with the iconic “Guinness Spoon,” which features an S-shaped bend in the handle that allows it to hook onto the edge of a glass to help pour a perfect amount of head on your pint. (DIY tip: You can create one of these yourself using any spoon and a pair of pliers.)

For optimal results, when layering an ingredient by pouring over the back of a spoon, keep the rim of the spoon as close to the surface level of the liquid in the class to ensure the added ingredient has as little distance to fall as possible.

Right-side up spoon

It can be difficult to pour over the back of a spoon if you’re using a tall glass or large spoon. In these cases, try inserting the spoon right-side up into the glass, until you reach the surface level of the ingredients you’re floating on top of. The trick is to place the rim of the spoon against the side of the glass, and slowly pour your ingredient into the bowl. Ideally, it should pool in the spoon and run over along the edge of the glass, creating a layer.

If some tendrils or seepage between layers occurs, just wait a few moments. They should even out.

Fancy bar spoon

Finally, if you have a bar spoon with a spiral, flat-back handle (the kind with a silver-dollar sized metal circle on the end, used to press mint and other herbs) you can use it create a bit of visual flair. Place the flat-circle back of the spoon into the glass, until it’s just touching the surface of the existing liquid. Take the ingredient you wish to float, and slowly pour it down the length of the bar spoon’s handle, allowing it to trickle down the spiral and disperse into a layer at the point of contact. While functionally no different than any of the above methods, it looks pretty cool and is a fun way to show off.

Published on April 9, 2021
Topics: Bartender Basics