I see it all the time. People who “ooh and ahh” over fancy cocktails in bars. But when it’s time for a drink at home, they grab a dusty bottle of vodka and some flat tonic and call it a night. It’s like someone who loves eating gourmet food in restaurants—only to scarf down TV dinners when they’re back at their apartment. Is it laziness? Or just the desire for simplicity? Regardless, if you enjoy well-crafted cocktails when you’re crammed into a bar on a Friday night…there’s no reason you can’t enjoy them lounging on your couch on a random Wednesday evening. With just a little effort and know-how, you can make great cocktails in the comfort of your own home. Here are 7 easy tips to take your home mixology chops to the next level.
1. Think “Farm to Glass”
Talk to any mixologist and they’ll tell you that the lines between chef and bartender are blurring. Just as chefs have discovered the virtues of using simple, fresh, flavorful ingredients, many mixologists believe that the “non-booze” components of a drink are even more important than the alcohol. And their cocktail menus reflect that: classic drinks with new twists like muddled fresh herbs and fruits, “house-made” tinctures—even exotic savory ingredients like kale juice. It’s not just for shock value: it actually creates amazing flavor profiles.
The great thing? You can easily bring this “farm to glass” philosophy back home when you’re making drinks for yourself: always look for ways to incorporate fresh produce into your drinks. You will not be disappointed.
Fresh Citrus: This is probably the easiest way to start making STUNNING drinks at home. Don’t ever use store-bought margarita mix or sour mix again. Embrace the beauty of fresh lemon and lime.
If you have bourbon and some white sugar, all you need is some fresh lemons and you can make amazing whiskey sours:
Whiskey Sour Recipe: 2 parts bourbon, 1 part fresh lemon juice, 1 part simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar). Shake together with ice, strain and enjoy!
Fresh muddled fruit: Using the same ratios as the whiskey sour above but substituting rum for bourbon and lime for lemon, you can make the classic daiquiri (which is not the slushy “girly drink” you might think, by the way).
But let’s say it’s a hot summer night, and strawberries are in season… Adjust your daiquiri recipe to leave out some of the simple syrup and then muddle fresh strawberries in the bottom…And all of the sudden, you’ve crafted an extremely tasty and colorful cocktail!
Of course, this extends to any other type of fresh produce you can think of—from fresh mint for mouthwatering mint juleps or mojitos, to fresh cucumber for a sophisticated garnish for your martini… If you can make an effort to incorporate fresh fruit (or even vegetables) into your cocktails, I guarantee you it will boost the flavor and appearance.
2. Give Your Drink a Pocket Square
In the same way that a suit isn’t complete until you’ve added that last pop of color and visual interest—the pocket square—your drink needs a final crowning touch: a beautiful garnish. Garnishing your drink isn’t just about visual appeal, though. A proper garnish adds to the smell and flavor of the drink as well.
Think about it: When you taste a cocktail, it happens in 3 parts:
- Eyes: What does it look like? What is the color, what kind of glass is it in?
- Nose: What does it smell like just before it touches your lips?
- Mouth: What does it taste like? How does it feel on your tongue?
A garnish certainly influences those first 2 dimensions. Adding a lemon twist or a sprig of fresh mint can add color and flair to the drink, and the scent of a fresh garnish gives off a welcoming aroma right before you taste it.
But since something like 80% of taste is smell, a garnish even goes as far as to influence the way you taste the drink when it’s finally on your tongue.
With that in mind, a garnish shouldn’t just be an afterthought, it’s a critical component to the experience of the drink.
You might be thinking, why should I go to all that trouble to garnish my drink at home? Well, the nice thing is that if you’ve decided to make a great cocktail, you’ve probably already followed tip #1 (using fresh ingredients). So, adding a garnish is usually no more complicated than slicing another bit of peel off that lemon or lime you’ve already used. I mean, c’mon, you already got the cutting board dirty…you might as well go all the way. Easy garnishes that can brighten up tons of drinks:
- Lemon or orange peel
- Lemon twist
- Mint sprig or basil leaf
- Fresh pineapple, strawberry or other fruit
- Olives and cherries
How to Make an Elegant Lemon Twist: making a fancy lemon twist isn’t that hard, and it looks amazing. Watch this video to see how to make lemon twists.
3. See Ratios, Not Recipes
When you read a drink recipe in a book, you might first be tempted to only see the absolute measures. An ounces of this, a half-ounce of that. But when you do that, you don’t see the whole picture.
It’s much better to think of drinks in “parts.” First, it gives you more perspective about how the drink ingredients fit together. You’re able to see, for instance, how the alcohol is balanced with the other flavors, like sweet, sour or bitter, etc. Instead of seeing a drink as 2 ounces booze and ½ ounce sweetness, you now see that it’s really 4 parts booze to 1 part sweetness.
Once you see ingredients in terms of parts, you can to endlessly scale the recipe up or down on the fly. All you have to do is change your “part.”
Let’s say you’re making margaritas—but all of the sudden, your friends come over and they want to partake as well…No problem. You calmly look at the recipe: 1-½ ounces tequila, 1 ounce cointreau and ½ ounce lime juice. And you realize that equates to 3 parts tequila, 2 parts cointreau and 1 part lime juice. So instead of stressing about multiplying fractions of ounces in your head, you just use a bigger measuring implement.
Now instead of using a jigger with an ounce measurement, you decide to use a ½ cup measuring cup from your kitchen. Or, if you know there’s going to be another round and you want something larger, why not use that universal vessel that can be found in every man’s kitchen…a coffee mug!
Point is, seeing the drink as parts instead of absolute measures gives you much more perspective and control over the recipe.
4. Experiment With New Building Materials
One of the funnest things about making cocktails for yourself is that you don’t have to order a drink that’s on a menu—you can make it up.
And sometimes creativity is a necessity at home. You likely won’t have all the ingredients a fully stocked professional bar has. But that’s okay. Exploring different ingredients is one of the most rewarding things about home mixology.
We talked about how seeing ratios instead of absolute measures gives you a better perspective on the “building blocks” of the drink. This can be valuable when you want to experiment with new flavors—or when you simply run out of an ingredient.
You look at a drink and say, I’d like to make that, but I don’t have X. Ask yourself, what is that ingredient supplying? Usually, ingredients are going to add one of the following flavor elements: “strong” (the booze), sweet, sour, or bitter. So, when you think about substituting something, try to figure out what role that ingredient needs to play.
Say you want to make an Old Fashioned, but you don’t have sugar or simple syrup handy. You’re basically need a sweetening agent, right? Then you remember you had pancakes last Saturday. Why not bust out the maple syrup? You get the sweetness, plus you get the bonus of all that caramelly richness and maplely goodness…
Or, let’s say you really feel like margaritas, and you’ve got cointreau and fresh lime juice. But you just ran out of tequila. What do you do?
You think to yourself, ok, what if I make it with bourbon instead? Or hell, all you’ve got is your flatmate’s brandy…
Well, the funny thing is, not only would that work, but it’s actually a well-known cocktail: the sidecar—the only difference would be lemon juice instead of lime. (3 parts brandy, 2 parts cointreau, 1 part lemon juice, shaken with ice and strained).
Experimenting and substituting different ingredients is a ton of fun, and it allows you to improvise different cocktails on the fly. Many times, classic cocktail recipes are still going to taste better than your “improvisations”—hence the reason they’re classics. But often, you’ll surprise yourself and stumble upon a new flavor combination that tastes great. If you look at many drinks, you can see how they easily could have been created by accident when someone substituted an ingredient—either out of curiosity…or necessity.
5. Teach Your Tongue to Know What It’s Tasting
(Try saying that three times fast!)
When you first start making cocktails at home, your understanding of taste may be fairly basic: either you like the drink or you don’t. That’s important, but to fully enjoy the adventure that is home mixology, you should develop your ability to truly ASSESS a cocktail. And that involves getting intimate with your tongue. Er…wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let me explain…
You see, the truth is that home mixology is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. One of the biggest advantages of making drinks at home is that if you throw the ingredients together and it doesn’t suit your tastes, you can tweak it until you’re happy (or until you give up and decide to just chug it down). Ideally, that kind of tinkering requires being able to quickly assess the flavor elements and decide what’s lacking or what needs to be changed.
As you begin training your palate to be more refined, the first thing to remember is that great cocktails are all about balance.
As I alluded to a moment ago, the perfect drink is a balance of flavor elements: strong, sour, sweet, and bitter (as well as salty and savory sometimes). The more you can hit multiple dimensions of flavor—where those flavors are distinct yet harmonious—the better the drink.
As mixology expert David Wondrich said, a great cocktail is a “democracy, not a dictatorship” with no one ingredient overpowering the others.
So, as you are tasting cocktails, try to evaluate how well all those elements are balanced within the drink:
- “Strong”–Is there too much alcohol or not enough?
- Sour–Is it too sour or not sour enough?
- Sweet–Is it too sweet or not sweet enough?
- Bitter–Is it too bitter or not bitter enough?
Asking these questions will give you a clue as to what the drink might need in order to fix it. The more you can train your tongue to detect these individual flavors (much like picking out an individual instrument while listening to a song) the better you can tinker with your cocktail and adjust it to your liking.
6. Become an Expert Ice Wrangler
Ice is probably the one drink ingredient you think about the least. But it has so much power to effect your overall cocktail experience.
Beyond helping to cool your drink, ice adds water—and that’s good, because most spirits need some dilution to be palatable and to bring out flavor compounds. However, you have to be careful how you use ice to make sure it works for you and not against you.
First of all, the worst mistake you can make is to just throw any old type of ice in the glass without thinking about it and let it sit. Maybe you’re making drinks for your buddies and you get distracted. Meanwhile, that ice starts melting like crazy. And while a little bit of ice melt is good, starting your cocktail with a puddle of water isn’t.
You have to recognize that as soon as you add ice, the clock starts ticking. But on top of that, you need to be mindful of the different dimensions of using ice, so you can control how it affects your drinks:
Size and shape: The smaller your ice cubes are, the greater surface area is exposed to your drink. Which means it melts faster. You might decide that for your daiquiri or margarita, crushed ice or ice chips are perfect, since they help cut the sweetness and the bite of the booze, while providing a refreshing coolness. On the other hand, if you want to truly experience the spirituous glory of your old fashioned, a single, larger cube will melt slower and impart less water over time.
Kinetic energy: How the ice interacts with your drink can make a big impact. Even stirring your drink vigorously vs. slowly can change how quickly the ice cools the liquid. And of course, shaking your drink ingredients with ice helps t
o accelerate the cooling effect and speeds up dilution, since small chunks of ice break off and begin melting immediately.
Time: A huge determiner of coolness and dilution is the length of time the ice is exposed to your drink. Will your ice be simply “speed dating” with your cocktail only to be strained out before you consume it? Or is your ice going to “shack up” with your drink and bide its time, slowly melting into the ingredients?
With all these dimensions in mind, you can begin thinking about what you want your ice to do for your drink. The more make drinks at home, the more you’ll want to pay close attention to exactly how you handle your ice.
7. Invest in A Few Key Tools
No different than any other activity, in mixology man is only as good as his tools. Fortunately, cocktail craft does not require a hefty investment to get started. It just requires a few key pieces of equipment.
Jigger–The classic measuring jigger usually has one side with a 1-½ ounce measure and another side with a 1 ounce or 3/4 ounce measure. I know what you’re thinking: why would I even need this? Bartenders look so cool when they do the whole “free-pour” thing! Sure, it looks cool, but it’s imprecise. Most of the time even those bartenders will tell you that the drinks are not as consistent if you don’t measure them. Truth is, if you’re making a drink with more than 2 ingredients, it really helps to measure. It also helps when you’re calibrating your tastes and figure out exactly what you like. By using a jigger to measure, you might, for instance, realize that you prefer your classic martini with only a ¼ oz of dry vermouth rather than a ½ ounce.
Citrus squeezer–This may very well be the most important non-substitutable item in your mixology arsenal. With most other bar tools, you can probably drum up a reasonable substitute on the fly. Unless you have a juicer, a citrus squeezer is a hard thing to replace. Of course, this just helps you easily juice citrus—lemons, limes, even oranges—to make zesty, mouthwatering cocktails.
Bar spoon–You’ll notice that the spoons bartenders use are longer and skinnier than your garden variety teaspoon. First, the length helps give the spoon utility for fishing ingredients—like olives or cherries—out of tall jars. Second, the narrow head of the spoon allows it maneuver freely around the ice. When you’re stirring, you can’t just bash around in the glass; you need to get the spoon on the outer edges of the ice and let the ice do the work of stirring the liquid. Some bar spoons have twisted shafts—supposedly this can help with mixing, but really most bartenders think it makes the spoon easier to hold on to when wet.
Shaker–With shakers you’ve usually got 2 options. The “cobbler,” which is the most common all-in-one stainless steel tumbler with fitted strainer. You’ll also see many bartender using the Boston Shaker, which is made up of a pint glass, a stainless steel tumbler, and a strainer–usually the “hawthorne” strainer. Doesn’t really matter which one you get, you just want something that (A) doesn’t leak when you shake it, and (B) allows you to strain ice out of a drink.
Muddler–Have you seen that little wooden dowel-like thing sitting on the edge of bars? It may surprise you to know it’s not a baseball bat for tiny elves—it’s a muddler. It just helps you mash up stuff in your drink to add flavor—usually fruit, herbs, citrus or other ingredients.
Setting up your own home bar is a bit like acquiring tools from the hardware store. You’ll start small and inevitably build up your gear each time you embark on a new “special project.” But the list above is a good, bare-bones starting point. For a complete list of items you need to set up your own home bar, read this this post.
While at first it may seem like a hassle or intimidating to make cocktails at home, it’s really not much trouble at all. If you enjoy drinking fancy cocktails when you’re out on the town, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy great drinks in the comfort of your own home.
If you decide to use any of the tips to increase your mixology chops, let me know how it goes: Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter and say hello.
Kyle Ingham is the founder of The Distilled Man, where he writes about a variety of “gentlemanly” topics. Click here for a free copy of his ebook, “48 Hour Gentleman: Your One-Weekend Plan to More Confidence, Poise, and Manly Know-How.”