1. Measure your pours.
The biggest mistake home barkeeps make is not properly measuring the ingredients in a drink. Making a cocktail is all about balance. You need a jigger or one of these awesome measuring glasses with ounces, teaspoons, tablespoons, and millilitres. I recommend starting with classic cocktail recipes and learning ratios before experimenting with your own creations. This is a good way to learn what components work well together and how much of each to use when crafting. Get a copy of Mr. Boston’s Official Bartender’s Guide here to start practicing old tried-and-trues. This will lead to confidence and inspiration in your home bar!
2. Use fresh ice.
Ice is actually an essential ingredient in most cold cocktails, since the water that melts as you stir or shake a drink helps to dilute, meld, and mellow the other components. Sometimes ice absorbs the weird old stale aromatics lingering in your freezer from leftover food and who-knows-what other ghosts of meals past. That can ruin your drink. Clean your ice trays often, use good water, and put some baking soda in the fridge/freezer. It’s also fun to have ice cubes of different shapes and sizes. Use larger ice for slow sipping liquor drinks, as the ice will melt slower and keep your drink nice and cold longer.
3. Squeeze fresh fruit juice.
This is especially important for lime and lemon juice, although any fresh-pressed juice will elevate your cocktails. If you are using one of these manual citrus presses, you can expect about 1 ounce of juice per lemon or lime, 2.5 ounces per orange, and 8 ounces for a ripe grapefruit. Avoid concentrated and artificially flavored juices when possible.
4. Have garnishes on hand.
Fresh sliced citrus peel (twisted to release and spritz the oils), good quality cocktail cherries, olives, fresh herbs like basil and rosemary springs, organic cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, star anise, artisan salts, fresh cracked peppercorns, celery, carrots, pickles, dilly beans, sugar, etc. I also love these metal garnish picks to help create a nice presentation.
5. Stock mixers, bitters, and syrups.
Mixers are non-alcoholic ingredients or lower alcohol content ingredients in a cocktail recipe. We like to keep bottles of fruited or spiced liqueurs, organic tomato juice (I know, I know: see above), sweet and dry vermouth (BUY GOOD QUALITY VERMOUTH! Cheap vermouth will ruin your drink. I love the sweet Italian vermouth called Antica Formula, but you can also try the Cocchi or Dolin – keep it in the fridge), ginger brew, tonic water, a soda syphon, homemade sour mix (coming soon), champagne or prosecco, and of course, fresh citrus juice. You will also want to have bitters in the cabinet.
The bitter flavor is often shunned, but it’s necessary for both flavor balance and general health. Bitters stimulate the digestive system, which is why cocktails have been called apperitifs and digestifs throughout history – bitter aromatics stimulate appetite before a meal, encourage digestive prowess, and help relieve belt-loosening bloat. They also balance flavors and take the edge off of sweet and sour flavors. You’ll need Orange, Angustura, and Peychauds, but go ahead and grab a bottle of Cherry, Peach, or Whiskey Barrel bitters to try too.
You should also make a batch of simple syrup. Making a liquid sugar syrup for your sweetener ensures that the sweetness will be distributed more evenly throughout the mixture. They are simple to make too! Once you get that down, you can make all kinds of flavored syrups to play with in your creations. Having a bag of super fine caster sugar is a good idea too.
6. Know when to stir vs when to shake.
Do you want your drink to be clear or frothy? Are you using something with bubbles? Milk? Egg? All of these require specific techniques. A good example of my first pet peeve is the classic Manhattan. Nine out of 10 times, a bartender will shake my Manhattan, serving a watery, chunky ice disappointment. This beautiful combination of bourbon, vermouth, and bitters likes to be stirred and strained to produce a silky cocktail that’s clear as a jewel.
Generally speaking, cocktails with fruit juice, eggs, and cream should be shaken, while drinks composed entirely of spirits should be stirred. How long should you shake? Look for frosty condensation to form on the outside of the shaker and then double strain using a boston strainer and a mesh strainer. For stirred drinks, fill a pint glass half with ice, add the cocktail ingredients, and stir using a bar spoon around the perimeter of the glass for about 20 seconds and then strain with a julep spoon.
7. Use the right glass.
From tall Collins glasses for soda drinks, rocks glasses for old fashioneds, and pints for beer, to champagne flutes and toddy mugs, having the right glass is an important component of any drink. You can find my favorite glassware here: Kitchen and Bar Tools.
Cold cocktails should be poured into well-chilled glasses just before serving. This helps keep them cold longer and adds a nice frosted glow to the drink. We always keep a few glasses in the freezer, but you can also give them a quick freeze by swirling ice water in the glass for about 30 seconds and then dumping out before pouring the drink into the now chilled glass.
This technique also works for warming a mug, but you’d fill the cup with boiling water, allow it to heat up, and then dump before serving your hot drink.
8. Buy good quality liquor.
Higher quality spirits make better tasting cocktails. However, you don’t have to break the piggy bank to stock your home bar. We usually pick up a bottle for the cabinet each week, always keeping staples stocked too. The first rule is NO PLASTIC BOTTLES. You always want to buy alcohol in glass to avoid nasty chemical leaching from the plastic. Gross! Generally, I’ve found that bottles priced at $25.00 or above to be reasonable for good quality liquor, while assorted liqueurs can range from $30 to $70 (and up from there if you’re really serious about making an investment and drinking some fantastic booze). We usually spend around $25 to $50 for vodka, $35 to $55 for bourbon, rum, and gin, and $35 to $70 for brandy, tequila, and cognac.
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