Back in the day, any home bartender (and most professional ones) could create the most popular cocktails with “Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide” and a martini pitcher. In the current bar climate of speakeasies, tinctures and giant ice cubes, a budding home mixologist needs a few pro tricks up his or her sleeve in order to create the craft cocktails that guests have come to expect. We checked in with a few bar experts to discover their secrets for making excellent cocktails at home.
Stir vs. Shake
How do you know if you should stir or shake? Says Jan Henrichsen of Drink Well Consulting: “Only shake if there is citrus or egg white involved. Shaking dilutes a cocktail by breaking up the ice more.”
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Jeff Donahue, a managing partner at Sportsman’s Club in Chicago, agrees. “Stirring is called for when spirits make up the bulk of the cocktail. Drinks that require aeration call for the more vigorous method of shaking. It is faster, colder, and results in a more homogenous cocktail.”
So how exactly do you stir that old-fashioned or Manhattan? “Let the spoon do the work, and always keep the back of the spoon toward the inside of the glass,” Donahue says.
And remember, adds Henrichsen, “It is not the number of stirs, it is the amount of time spent stirring” that chills the drink properly. When a recipe tells you how many spoon revolutions to make, the writer is just making sure you chill thoroughly.
Batching cocktails is a great way to make drinks for a (small) crowd. Choose one house special and scale up the recipe, then mix up a jug and refrigerate. At party time, just add bitters, ice and garnish and serve.
Just like chefs, bartenders have distinct preferences about what tools to use for their job. Donahue recommends the following:
Straight-sided mixing glass (with spout)
“It’s more durable than a pint glass and less likely to topple.” Many bartenders like an attractive faceted style called Yarai.
“Find one with a tighter twist and a smooth spiral handle.”
“Choose a tin on tin version of a Boston shaker with two weighted metal tins like the Koriko. They are balanced, lightweight, won’t leak, and are easy to separate with one firm rap.”
“Use a julep strainer for stirred cocktails; it fits perfectly in the mixing glass.”
For shaken drinks, use what’s known as a Hawthorne strainer, the familiar looking spring-loaded type that catches all shards of ice and solids. Professionals sometimes double strain by finishing with a fine mesh strainer over the glass to remove any citrus pulp or tiny bits of ice that can dilute the drink.
“You can never have enough ice,” says Henrichsen. Start bagging ice cubes in your freezer a week ahead of time. Use your freezer’s ice-maker or regular ice cube trays or check out the varieties of ice at your local grocer or liquor store.
Fancy shapes are fun, but perhaps the best use of novelty ice is that single large cube that rolls around in the glass with your choice of whiskey. Source silicone ice molds (try cooking supply stores or online sources) and remember to make them ahead. You can even fill balloons with water (a trick from New York chef Daniel Boulud) for spherical ice – but don’t make them too big to fit in your chosen glassware.
“Jiggers are thought of by customers as restricting their alcohol,” says Henrichsen, but in fact the use of jiggers to measure spirits precisely ensures consistently delicious cocktails.
In his excellently detailed guide “The Bar Book,” Portland barkeep Jeffrey Morgenthaler recommends tall Japanese-style jiggers (also found on cocktailkingdom.com) for their elegance and accuracy. Find a balanced version that measures one ounce on one side and two ounces on the other but is graduated and marked on the inside for smaller amounts as well.
Donahue also recommends the use of speed pourers to prevent spilling and over-pouring, “but be sure to keep the caps” or you’ll be corking liquor bottles with plastic wrap at the end of the night. He uses a “finger on the choke” to control his pours by covering the air hole in the spout, but even without this advanced technique, Donahue uses speed pourers at home, “unless I am just making a drink for myself.”
Syrups and garnish
Do like the pros do and make your own simple syrup in a 1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water, stirring over low heat to dissolve. For a richer, deeper flavor, try using turbinado or “sugar in the raw” in a 2 to 1 ratio. Keep both of these on hand in the refrigerator for sweetening cocktails efficiently.
“Garnish is king,” says Henrichsen, and nothing but the best quality fruits, herbs, and vegetables will do. Cut garnish as close as possible to serving time, but be sure to prep it ahead so you are not scrambling to slice oranges on a tiny bar cutting board while your guests clamor for a refill. The exception – citrus peel, which should be zipped off with a y-peeler after the cocktail is finished, so that the essential oils add zing to the drink.
Now, head to the liquor store with a few solid recipes (“The Bar Book” has plenty) to stock up on a well-chosen selection of booze, and invite the gang for cocktail hour.
Makes: 1 drink
All this talk of drink is making us thirsty, so here’s a classic from “The Bar Book,” by Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
1 teaspoon simple syrup (2 to 1 ration)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces bourbon
Large ice cubes
1 orange peel
Combine the simple syrup, bitters and bourbon in a mixing glass. Stir with ice cubes. Strain over fresh ice into a chilled old-fashioned glass. Twist the peel over the surface of the cocktail, rub the rim of the glass with the peel and drop in the drink.
Simple syrup: Combine 2 parts sugar to 1 part water in a small saucepan. Simmer until sugar melts.