It’s pretty safe to say that craft cocktail culture is spiking worldwide. The upside is that we’re drinking and rediscovering classic drinks and inventing new ones every day. The downside is that going out and getting sloppy on cocktails is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so.
Mixing cocktails is a little science, a little sensory, a little storytelling, and a lot of joy. If you’re willing to spend some time learning and experimenting, you’ll have a skill for life (and a lot of drunk friends).
I’ve bartended off and on for the past 15 years in various countries. Most recently in a high-end cocktail bar in Berlin called Victoria Bar. Here are a few thoughts on how to make a home bar without having to mortgage the house, or dip into the kid’s college fund every time you want to drink more than one $15 Old-Fashioned.
Cocktails are deceptively simple: a base, an enhancer and bitters. That’s it. The mixing of said ingredients is what makes each drink special. Some people barely like the shadow of the bottle of Noilly Prat Vermouth looming over their gin for a Dry Martini. Others want a 50/50 mix. Luis Buñuel probably has my favorite Dry Martini recipe. Put your glass in the freezer the day before (a 6 ounce rocks glass will do). Add three large cubes of deeply frozen ice (at least below -20F). Over the ice add 4 dashes of Angostura Bitters and 1 ounce of Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth. Stir very lightly for about 10 seconds, maybe 15. Drain the fluid away, preserving the ice. Pour 4 ounces of English gin (I like Plymouth) over the ice and gently stir once. Serve. No Garnish.
See? That’s pretty easy. It’s also delicious. Down and dirty, as I like to say.
Buy some books from Amazon and read them. Start with the classic The Bartender’s Guide: How To Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant’s Companion. It’s $1.99 for the kindle version and a good place to get a foundational footing. Move onto to books that have recipes, but also teach you the history of booze, like The School of Sophisticated Drinking: An Intoxicating History of Seven Spirits. Learn the recipes. Learn some stories behind the recipes (more on that later). Then practice at home. Most importantly learn what it is you like, and play to that strength. Mixing a Mai Thai is complicated and requires several ingredients you’ll probably only use when you have a Mai Thai (Ogreat, I’m looking at you!), so let the pros do that one for you when you’re out on the town.
Once you have a good base knowledge of what makes a drink a drink, start experimenting. A Whiskey Sour is bourbon, fresh lemon juice, and simple syrup (and often an egg white). The variations therein are massive. Use fresh orange juice and a spoon of Bénédictine and you have a Frisco Sour. Change it up entirely and use a 10-year-old single malt, fresh lime, and gomme. Call it an Edinburgh Sour. Drop the whisk(e)y all together and use rum, vodka, gin, amaretto. Why not? A “sour” is a base, citrus, and sweetener. Have fun! A personal favorite for me is the tequila sour. Add three ounces of smokey, aged tequila to a Boston shaker. Top that with two ounces of fresh squeezed AND strained lime juice and 1 ounce of agave syrup. Add your ice and shake for about 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled six-ounce rocks glass. Serve. Simple, easy, and delicious. Just remember, the point is to have fun with it. And get buzzed.
So, you’ve spent maybe 20 bucks buying some books. That’s basically the cost of 2-ish drinks at a bar. You’ve learned some recipes and are inspired. Now you need to think about how you’re actually going to mix these inspiring drinks.
- Boston shaker. A 30 ounce shaker, pint glass, and good strainer will set you back about $30.
- Bar Spoon. The narrow spoon really does make a difference, and it’s about 5 bucks.
- Do you already own a shot glass? Of course you do, you’re reading this. You don’t need to waste money on jiggers. A standard U.S. shot glass is one or two fluid ounces, sometimes they come in 1.5 ounces…for some reason. Anyway, just use what you have, but be sure to know the volume of your shot glass.
- A cocktail mixing jug is awesome. They can also cost close to $100. Honestly, as long as it is glass, you’re going to be fine. Buy a large (30 ounce) jar of something, eat its contents, run the jar through the dishwasher. You now have a mixing jug. Or you can spend $30 to $50 on a nice seamless glass mixing jug on Amazon. Note: if you do get a seamless mixing glass, do not wash it in hot water, it will crack. Just rinse it in cold water between uses, and wash it in cold water when you’re done for the night. Remember, you’re filling it with alcohol, which kills bad bacteria.
- Hand citrus juicers are a must. Don’t skimp here. You will need a heavy device that can withstand a lot of use and pressure. Generally, you can find kitchen grade hand juicers for around $20. I’d also invest in a small, steel manual juicer you can put over bowls or jugs for the larger oranges and grapefruits. That’ll run you another $10.
- Strainers. You really need to strain your citrus between juicing and bottling/storage. Don’t skip this step. Spend $10 on a set of small and medium kitchen strainers. This will also be essential for making infusions (more on that later).
- Muddler. A decent heavy wooden muddler should cost around $3. It’s cheap enough that it really doesn’t make sense not to have it on hand.
- A funnel is pretty useful. If you’re prepping some citrus juice, or refilling bottles from infusions, it just makes life easier. A stainless steel set will set you back around $7.
- Dashers are not 100% essential, but make for a step up in your cocktail game. Decanting bitters into a dasher will allow better control over measurements and finishing a drink. Before you know it you’ll be drawing landscapes on a continental sour with port. You only really need one, and they’re about $20.
And that’s all you really need for a basic set up to start mixing drinks. $105 if you go the bargain end. That’s close to one night out drinking and eating. All of us can skip a night out and save enough money to start our home bar.