Now that you’ve decided to try your hand making cocktails at home, the next question is: how do you begin?
The first thing is to figure out what drink you want to make. I suggest starting with one or two favorites. Keep it simple. Martinis, whiskey old-fashioneds, whiskey sours, Manhattans, even margaritas. All of these drinks have very few ingredients, and there’s nothing exotic to trip you up. I also suggest keeping your menu small so that your initial investment in booze is low.
What liquor should you buy? You can’t go wrong with the basics. Stock your bar with gin, vodka, and/or a bottle of bourbon (or rye for extra credit). These three spirits serve as the basis for a whole lot of fine cocktails. Tequila is a good additional choice depending on the types of drinks you enjoy. My suggestion is to be willing to spend a little bit more for the “good stuff.” Remember, the better your ingredients, the better the drink.
You’ll probably want to make a small investment in good barware as well. In some cases, you can improvise—but this is a column about nerding it up, right? If you’re going to go all in, you gotta have the gadgets!
For those cocktails that are served “shaken, not stirred,” a cocktail shaker is a must. There are a wide variety of shakers to choose from, but the two basic types are the Boston shaker and the cobbler shaker. The cobbler is a metal body with a strainer attached to the lid. The Boston shaker consists of two pieces: a metal bottom and a mixing glass top. It’s my personal favorite. Though it requires a tiny bit of additional skill to master, it makes a better show when you’re mixing for your guests. Additionally, you can use the glass part for drinks that merely need to be stirred. (The glass I use is a substitute for the one that met the tile floor. Extra points if you can identify where it came from…)
As with the shakers, there are two basic types: The Hawthorne and the Julep. Hawthorne strainers are typically used for shaken drinks. The spring-like contraption wound around the edge helps filter out pulp from fruit juices and so forth. The Julep strainer is a good alternative, though it requires a deft touch to keep it as tightly clamped to the rim of the glass while straining. It’s also more adaptable on many types of shakers and glasses. I’ve more commonly seen the Julep strainer used exclusively on stirred cocktails.
Measuring accurately when mixing cocktails is key. The balance of flavors can be completely thrown off if you just eyeball it, resulting in at best an unsatisfying drink—or at worst an unpalatable mess. No need to fear, though! There are several styles of measuring cups, commonly called jiggers. They’re usually doubled-ended and graded in 1/2 oz, 3/4 oz, 1 oz, and 1 1/2 oz measures. For extra credit, a small graded glass such as the one shown above is helpful when larger measures are required.
You might ask yourself why you need to buy a special spoon to mix your drinks. You might very well be able to get by with a regular old spoon out of the silverware drawer. Well, you could, but then you wouldn’t be a Booze Nerd! Barspoons come in all shape and sizes, but their most important feature is the long handle. They’re ideal for reaching into that tall glass part of the Boston Shaker, past the ice you’ve no doubt loaded it with, and really stir those spirits in the base of the glass. You can also use one to add simple syrup or grenadine to a drink—and the all-important task of scooping garnishes from those tall jars of cocktail olives.
The classic cocktail (or “martini”) glass holds about 4.5 oz of fine adult beverage. Do not be fooled into thinking “more is better,” by the ginormous 6+ oz glasses masquerading as acceptable serving vessels. While very popular for your margarita at Tex-Mex chain #2, they are inappropriate for cocktails at home. (Even if you make yours a double.)
If you’re feeling especially continental, the coupe is a fine alternative to the classic cocktail glass. If you’re making whiskey-based drinks, you might find yourselves a “rocks” tumbler (also known as an old-fashioned glass). Substitution is easier here, as many short glasses are practically identical to the tumbler. Champagne flutes can be used for several excellent drinks.
Advanced students may want to pick up some collins glasses for tall mixed drinks, copper mugs for mules, tulip-glasses for sipping whisky and scotch… Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself!
There are some other tools you should consider: a sharp knife for slicing fruit and peels for garnish, a juicer for squeezing your own (a manual one is fine), and something called a muddler for advanced drinks like Juleps. It’s perfect for lightly mashing mint or basil in a drink to release the essential oils. Mine looks like a tiny baseball bat.
Good luck setting up your bar! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below. Next time we’ll delve into the basics of cocktail construction. Until then,