What It Means When A Bartender Pulls A 'Mr. Potato Head'

In the world of cocktail culture, there are many mysteries, starting with why we call some alcoholic concoctions cocktails, a term whose history continues to be debated. A much more recent term, "Mr. Potato Head," may seem strange when discussing bartending but it's a pretty simple idea to grasp. Like the plastic toy shaped like a potato that allows you to add various parts, from arms to hats to glasses to create your own version, this idea is the same in bartending. By beginning with a classic cocktail you can switch out various components to create a brand new drink.


Unlike the murky history of the word cocktail, we know exactly where the Mr. Potato Head theory of mixology comes from. The renowned New York City bartender Phil Ward coined both the term and the method. "My theory is that every template of a good drink is a blueprint for other good drinks so you just take it apart and put it back together," Ward told Australian Bartender in 2014.

The Mr. Potato Head method in practice

The Old-Fashioned is one of the classics that often serves as a template for professional bartenders and amateurs alike to create new cocktails. This drink, with a storied history going back several hundred years, combines bourbon, bitters, and sugar, and has been the basis for a plethora of other cocktails over the years. Oftentimes new drinks have been born by switching out the base liquor and going from there. This is true for Chowhound's version which gives the Old Fashioned a spring makeover by swapping bourbon for gin.


Similarly, the other elements in a cocktail are also fair game for being swapped out or built off of with the addition of another flavor. For instance, a Sweet Lavender Old Fashioned adds a sweet floral syrup in place of the sugar cube from the classic version. Like the old-school plastic toy, there are a multitude of potential switches to be made to continue to create new cocktails well into the future.

How you can Mr. Potato Head cocktails at home

If you're looking to Mr. Potato Head your cocktails at home, a good place to start is with a drink that doesn't have a ton of ingredients. The Negroni, a classic that combines gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, is a good one to begin playing with. Once you've mastered how to make the perfect negroni using a bold gin that can hold its own against the strong flavors of Campari and sweet vermouth, it's time to start plugging in other ingredients to make your own signature cocktail.


The secret to successfully using the method involves understanding the flavor profiles of whatever elements you switch out and adjusting the rest of the ingredients to achieve a harmonious whole. If you want to swap tequila for the gin, you may have to adjust the amount of vermouth and Campari to allow tequila's vanilla and caramel notes to shine through. You may also want to consider swapping other elements such as grapefruit peel for an orange peel since tequila pairs well with grapefruit. Let your taste buds be your guide and soon you'll have a custom cocktail for your next get-together.