You can do it. I know you can, because I believe anyone can, provided they understand that the best cocktails consist of two basic elements:
- Great ingredients
- Great technique—with the equipment you have
You won't resolve yourself to mediocrity once you realize that you're not required to own a multitude of special tools to get the job done. Of course, using top-shelf products and fancy equipment to build your cocktails can make things easier, faster and better—but getting good results using what's available is always the goal.
Is great technique a substitute for great ingredients?
No. As you'll see, proper technique is closely tied to the equipment you are using, and rarely can it replace or mask a substitution or omission. Ingredients and technique are equally important, and as you face inevitable limits due to budget, space or availability, you'll need to understand how to use what you have and make the most of it.
There's no question that what you put into something has the greatest effect on what comes out. It's the same with cooking a gourmet dinner. When it comes to making cocktails, there are some things you cannot substitute. Fresh citrus is definitely one of them. Don't use the sweetened bottled lime juice available at the liquor store. Also, don't bother with bottled lemon juice thinking you are saving time. It just doesn't make sense when you can grab a few lemons and limes at the local market any day of the week. Besides, fruit is almost drink sized! Cut and squeeze only what you need for a drink or two. You won't be wasting anything, and the fresh peel will often end up as a cocktail garnish, so you need to get the fruit anyway.
Some spirits cannot be substituted either. Chartreuse and Benedictine, for example, are totally unique, as are plenty of others. Yet, there are some liqueurs that can be replaced, such as subbing triple sec for Cointreau, with very little affect on the outcome. It could also be argued that light rums are similar enough, or that vodka should be flavorless anyway. Just remember that if a recipe calls for one brand, it's usually because another might not contain some subtle flavor characteristic that is important in the cocktail. When in doubt, ask someone who knows the drink and they can suggest alternatives.
Don't skip the bitters! You may not think a drink that calls for just a dash Angostura even needs something so tiny in the first place, but skipping the bitters is like not salting your soup. Don't worry, they don't make your cocktail bitter—think of bitters as the seasoning for a cocktail. The powerful and complex flavors and aromas serve to bring the other ingredients together, often elevating them to a much higher standard.
Great Technique—Bar Tools
As I mentioned earlier, technique is just as important as the ingredients, but a lot depends on the equipment you have. While there are plenty of opinions about the tools you should use to mix a good cocktail, it can take time to acquire all of your favorite items. Knowing how to use what you have in light of what might be ideal is a good first step toward helping you overcome challenges, avoiding problems and finding alternatives that work well.
Mixing the cocktail
There are only a few cases when a drink is supposed to be "built" right in the glass in which it is served, although you will see bartenders doing this more often than they should in order to save time. In the vast majority of cases, preparation should happen in a mixing glass or shaker. Most professionals use a Boston Shaker. It consists of a stainless steel tin and a heavy 16 ounce tapered pint glass. You fill the glass with your ingredients, add plenty of ice, and pound the inverted tin over the top. As you shake, keep the glass pointed away from your guests, and open the shaker with the tin on the bottom! Shaking provides the chill and when the temperature goes down, so does the pressure inside the shaker. This vacuum effect helps keep the shaker together. When you feel a biting chill or frost on the tin, you know your cocktail is cold. If you don't have a Boston shaker, you might have a two or three part metal shaker. These work, but once you get the hang of a Boston shaker, you'll find three part shakers are less versatile and more difficult to manage.
If you don't have any type of shaker at all, you can still make a great cocktail. Consider using a large glass and simply stirring your ingredients with ice. This method is actually preferred when you have a spirit-only cocktail such as a Manhattan or a Martini. Shaking introduces lots of air bubbles which is fine if a drink has fruit juice, but for drinks that are clear to begin with, stirring keeps them transparent and beautiful. Just be sure you stir long enough to adequately chill and slightly dilute your cocktail. Keep in mind that cocktails with eggs or whites need to be shaken. Shake them first without ice to get the foam action started, then add ice and shake to chill. When adding ice, do it as the last step. This prevents the ice from melting more than you intend and allows you to take your time measuring your ingredients and keeping your work area clean.
A good bar spoon is long and rigid with a small bowl at one end. They are necessary for some measurements, float pours, and even cracking ice. It's worth spending a little extra to get a nice spoon, but there are plenty of ways accomplish what you need without one. If you are using standard tableware, you might find that the bowl of the spoon is too big and that it fights with the ice when you are stirring. Try using the handle end, or a chopstick to stir your cocktails smoothly.
Once a cocktail is shaken or stirred, you want to strain it into a chilled cocktail glass or over new ice in a clean glass. If you are using a Boston shaker, you need a hawthorne strainer. The spring slips into the tin and blocks shards of ice and other solids from leaving the shaker while the mixed cocktail passes freely into the serving glass. In addition, you may want to double-strain some drinks by pouring through a small, fine mesh strainer to catch pulp, mint or tiny seeds. If you are stirring your drink in a mixing glass, the Hawthorne strainer can be a bit tight. The tool of choice here is a julep strainer, which is basically a large perforated spoon designed to hold back the ice. Slip the julep strainer into the glass where it will sit at an angle and pour. If you don't have any of these tools, you can improvise. Just find something that can hold back the ice and that doesn't warm up the drink.
Achieving consistent balance in a cocktail is only possible with precise measurements and tasting. We have all seen bartenders free-pour cocktails and send them on their way, but remember that they have a trained eye and are often counting as they pour, familiar with the rate of flow from the spouts they use. It's definitely a skill designed for speed and it's best avoided at home. You'll have better, more consistent cocktails if you take the time to measure. Many professionals use a jigger, which is a double-sided measuring cup. Jiggers come in various sizes, so you need several of them to cover all the bases. An alternative is to use a single measuring cup with graduated markings for several different volumes. If you don't have either, you can use kitchen measuring spoons used for baking. A tablespoon is equivalent to 1/2 of an ounce. You could also use a shot glass which is usually three tablespoons, but estimating smaller portions is difficult. Finally, many recipes that call for ounces, or fractions thereof, can be made using proportions of any size.
Cocktail glasses come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. Bigger is not always better, but it's nice to have some variety, depending on what you are making. For mixed drinks, you will eventually want to have the cocktail, highball, collins, lowball, rocks glass, old fashioned, cordial—actually, this list never ends! This is an important point. Don't let a lack of glassware stop you from enjoying a great cocktail. There's no rule that says you must use a certain type of glass. However, some glasses are better for some cocktails. For example, cocktails that are served straight-up—that is, without any ice—are normally strained into a cocktail glass which has also become known as the martini glass. However, it's common to see cocktails like this served in a champagne bowl, or coupe. This bulbous shape has an elegant vintage look more akin to what may have been used when the original drink was invented. Cocktails on ice usually end up in rocks or old fashioned glasses. This style is hefty enough to hold big ice cubes. For taller drinks, the collins and highball help to emphasize the vertical trail of bubbles when soda is added, or to concentrate foam or meringue into a smaller area at the top. Recipes will usually point out the best glass to use for a drink, and in some cases it does make a difference. Most of the time, however, the choice is for appearance based on tradition. Whenever possible, and especially for cocktails served without ice, chill your glass before the drink goes in.
Eventually, you will try making a cocktail with fresh ingredients. Squeezing citrus is easy enough with just your hands, but having a hinged tool to help you do this makes the job easier. You can also use whatever juicer you have in order to get the job done. Muddling, which basically involves mashing some ingredient, requires another tool—the muddler. I've seen muddlers attached to bottles of rum for free, but there are many different kinds. You want something solid that will not chip your glassware. Wood and plastic are common, just make sure it won't shed lacquer into your cocktails. It should also be long enough to reach into your mixing glass or tin without hitting your knuckles. In a pinch, you can use the end of your bar spoon or the flat end of any long kitchen utensil.
Garnishing often involves citrus peel or wedges. You can cut these easily enough with a paring knife, but it helps to use a channel knife to make curly twists. A twist is simply a twist of peel, usually done over the cocktail so the oils from the peel spray onto the surface of the drink. If you don't have a channel knife, cut a strip of peel and carefully slice away the white pith. Long, narrow twists can be wrapped around a straw or chopstick to get an attractive coil that can be draped over the rim of the glass.
Those are the basics, but there are plenty of other items and techniques that can come in handy. Showcasing all of them is beyond the scope of this article, but it's really the whole point of Summit Sips. As I try new tools and new techniques, I'll write about the experiences and share the results. Have you found any shortcuts or made use of other kitchen tools in a pinch? Let me know in a comment below. With the proper technique and the right ingredients, there's no reason you can't make terrific cocktails.