Cocktail recipes, like your grandma's red sauce recipe, may have their proportions written down, perfectly worked out, and fully polished. But when you step up to make a cocktail, it may taste a little different from another person's version of the same drink. This doesn't make yours any better or worse, as everyone adds their own special touch.
Learn All the Rules
Despite the freedom that exists in the cocktail world, playing with flavors, swapping spirits in and juices out, adding extra lemon juice, there are rules to the foundation. Flavor pairings should be observed however. Don't add a splash of apple juice to your espresso martini, but consider a splash of pineapple juice in your Tom Collins. Avoid shaking anything with bubbles, and keep stirring bubbly to a minimum so as not to lose the fizz.
It's not guesswork, and the internet or flavor pairing cookbooks always have answers or suggestions if you're stumped. Think of pairings such as cheese and wine. Overall, consider food flavor pairings before mixing those or other similar ingredients into your drink as a general rule of thumb.
And Then Forget Them
Rules are made to be broken. Recipes are meant to be scoffed at. Your sauce never tastes like your grandma's because she adds that secret pinch of yet-to-be-named spice that she'll never reveal.
Cocktail recipes can be viewed as guidelines rather than hard and fast regulations. If you know you like your French 75 a little more on the lemon side, add that extra hint of lemon. If you like to be more decadent than the recipe calls for with a tropical cocktail, live a big life. Don't go through life unsatisfied because you're following the recipe.
Have Fun Experimenting
Think of mixing up cocktail recipes as a chance to play. You built weird towers with toys as a kid, give it a try with your drinks. But, don't use your Hendricks gin to try a new gin recipe. Keep a bottle of New Amsterdam or the equivalent on hand, so you aren't dropping too much money on science experiments or rehearsal. Save the good stuff for opening night.
An incredible tool to have on hand is a flavor pairing book or reliable website, as these can be incredibly helpful as you play. Espresso plays well with orange, and it's not a flavor pairing that would immediately jump to mind. But an espresso martini with a dash of orange liqueur is a new level of decadent.
Time to Time
From classic cocktails to modern creations, recipes are what create the standard for any cocktail. Classic cocktails have withstood the test of time because of their reliability, but so many modern classic drinks are a result of changes to the original recipe. All cocktail recipes can withstand some change, and it's all about the profile you're looking for.