The first act of any dinner party rightly belongs to the cocktail, and so does the first moment of repose after a long day. With more than two centuries of history behind the cocktail, there is an art to making a good drink. Here, we’ll show you the basics: how to equip your bar, the drinks equivalent of a well-stocked pantry, and then how to use it to prepare five classic cocktails.
If you want to build something – even a cocktail — you’ll need tools. Here’s a rundown of the necessary equipment.
A Boston shaker, which consists of a mixing glass (the same shape and size as a 16-ounce Shaker pint glass) and a metal tin, is sufficient for all shaken and stirred cocktails. For stirred drinks, you’ll need a long-handled bar spoon. If you enjoy the ritual of stirring a cocktail, and want to feel slightly grand as you do so, there are a number of lovely, wide-mouthed, heavy-bottomed mixing glasses on the market.
To strain stirred drinks you’ll need a julep strainer, which has a perforated bowl shape. Shaken drinks require a Hawthorne strainer, which has a metal coil wrapped around its bowl to keep out citrus pulp. If you’d rather invest in only one strainer, the Hawthorne can do double duty.
Precise measurements produce a far better drink, so you’ll need a jigger. Jiggers are composed of two opposing metal cones. Unless you are a stickler, you really only need one size, the ½ ounce/1 ounce, with which you’ll have all the most common measurements covered. You can eyeball the rest.
A simple Y peeler will work for citrus twists. Completing your toolkit should be a muddler, which is used to mash up the fruits, herbs and sometimes sugar cubes used in some drinks. Old-fashioned wooden specimens work best.
Many on-the-rocks drinks, such as the Old-Fashioned, benefit from large-scale ice cubes. Molds for these (usually about 2 x 2 inches) have become increasingly easy to find.
Stocking Your Bar
It doesn’t take a great many bottles to build a bar capable of tackling most of the classic cocktail formulas. But, to begin with, you’ll just need a bottle each of gin, vodka, light rum, tequila, bourbon, rye, blended Scotch, brandy, dry white vermouth, sweet red vermouth, a few essential liqueurs and a handful of bitters. As you grow most ambitious, you can always add to your stock. Making simple syrup is, yes, simple, and you should keep it on hand too.
Liquors and Vermouths
The gin should be a classic London dry brand, a style of gin which is suited for martinis, gin and tonics and other classic gin drinks. (If you enjoy a Tom Collins or Martinez, however, the sweeter Old Tom gins are more appropriate.)
The tequila should be 100 percent agave, not the cheaper “mixto” products, which blend a minimum of 51 percent agave with other sugars.
For the bourbon and rye, buy something 90 proof or more and aged at least four years (“bonded” whiskey, which must be 100 proof, is even better); you’ll get more kick and flavor out of your drinks. The process by which bourbon and rye are aged in new, charred oak barrels lends the liquid much of its flavor and all of its color. The more age (but only up to a point), the more character.
Blended Scotch is called for more often in cocktails than single malts, whose strong flavors can be difficult to mix with.
You’ll want light rum around primarily for daiquiris. Taste a few until you find one that suits you. (If you’re a buff of tiki drinks like the mai tai, you’ll want to look into some dark rums.)
With brandy cocktails, it’s Cognac you want, and a good one (which is not the same as an expensive one).
The small difference in taste between vodkas is lost in cocktails. A fancy bottle with a fancy price won’t make much difference. Economize.
Sweet and dry vermouths vary remarkably in flavor. Most of the leading brands are acceptable, but you’ll want to try a variety in your martini and manhattan before you settle on one. More important to remember is to store your vermouth in the fridge one it has been opened. Vermouth will spoil. It will last about a month. For this reason, it’s smart to buy the small 375-milliliter bottles.
Both orange liqueur (curacao, triple sec, Cointreau and Grand Marnier are all members of this large category) and maraschino liqueur (not to be confused with the liquid that surrounds bottled maraschino cherries) are required in a number of important cocktails.
Certain liqueurs are so original in their flavors that they are categories unto themselves, which no other brand can replace. These included Campari (needed for a Negroni), Benedictine (Bobby Burns) and Chartreuse (Last Word).
Bitters are composed of a proprietary blend of spices, herbs and other plants that have been infused, usually in spirits, and sometimes aged. Highly concentrated, bitters work in drinks the way spices do in food. They are also, in historical terms, the ingredient that makes a cocktail a cocktail.
The most famous brand is Angostura. It is the one bitters your bar cannot be without. The other two crucial bitters are Peychaud’s (used in a Sazerac) and orange bitters, of which there are many varieties.
Sugar is called for in many cocktails, both new and classic. While plain sugar can certainly be used to make these drinks, simple syrup — which is nothing more than sugar water — often leads to a better integration of ingredients and consistency of texture, with no stray granules lingering at the bottom of the glass.
To make simple syrup, simmer equal parts sugar and water over a low flame until the sugar has dissolved. Then let the solution cool. It will keep for a week. Store it in the fridge in a sealed container.
If you’re in a hurry, shake the sugar and water in a sealed container until the sugar disappears. For a richer syrup, try two parts sugar to one part water. This will lend a greater viscosity to the cocktail. Demerara and turbinado sugars can also be used for a richer, deeper flavor.
Part of the fun, and some of the beauty, of serving cocktails is that every drink has a proper vessel. Some are so ingrained in drinking culture that they have taken on the name of the drink they typically hold (the Martini glass, the Collins glass). Here is what you’ll need.
Coupes are for drinks that are served “up” (that is, in a stemmed glass and not over ice). Avoid the iconic, jumbo-size martini glasses. Four-, five- or six-ounce coupes are more than big enough and perform their function with more elegance and moderation.
Rocks glasses, also known as old-fashioned glasses, are used for any drink served “on the rocks” — that is, over ice — such as an old-fashioned, but also for strong drinks that aren’t, such as the sazerac. These should be six to eight ounces. The so-called “double old-fashioned” glass is 12 to 15 ounces.
Tall, thin Collins glasses, also known as highballs, are required for many light-bodied drinks that are “served long,” such as the Pimm’s Cup and, yes, the Tom Collins. They hold anywhere from 10 to 16 ounces.
A chilled glass always contributes to the excellence and enjoyment of a cocktail. For those who think ahead, place the glass in the fridge 15 minutes before you intend to use it. This lends an attractive frost to the glass. A quicker method is to fill the glass with ice, or ice water, and let it sit for a minute while you prepare the drink.
Shaking and Stirring
Nearly every cocktail of note is brought into being by either stirring the contents over ice in a mixing glass or shaking them with ice in a cocktail shaker, and then straining it into a waiting cocktail glass. Here’s how to do it right.
Shaking is called for when a drink contain either citrus, dairy or eggs (e.g., a daiquiri, Ramos gin fizz or Pisco sour) and a bit more vigor is required to mix its ingredients.
To shake a cocktail, combine the ingredients and ice in a mixing glass. Place a metal shaking tin atop the glass at a slight angle and hit the top of the tin with the heel of your palm. This should create a tight seal. Turn the shaker over so that the glass is facing you. (This will prevent you from spilling on anyone but yourself should the seal break while you are shaking.) With one hand on the bottom of tin and the other on the bottom of the glass, shaking rigorously in an up and down fashion. (Cocktail shakes vary. In time, you’ll figure out the one that works best for you.)
Stirring is for drinks composed of nothing more than beverage alcohol (martinis, manhattans, etc.).
To stir a cocktail, simply combine the ingredients and ice in a mixing glass and, using a bar spoon, held loosely between thumb and your first two forefingers, stir the mixture in a fluid, circular fashion until chilled and properly diluted, about 30 seconds.
Cocktails come in many variations, but they all combine alcohol with some type of mixer, like juice or soda. To make your own version, you can muddle fruit or herbs in the bottom of cocktail shaker, then add your preferred liquor and mixer. Shake the mixture with ice and pour it through a strainer into a cocktail glass. Or, try a classic like a martini, mojito, mint julep, or margarita.
Here are classic cocktails you should be making at home:
The martini is the undisputed king of cocktails, nearly a category unto itself. The frosty, austere, all-alcohol icon has bewitched palates and imaginations for more than a century, to a measure no other drink can even approach. The trend toward drier martinis, with only trace amounts of vermouth, began after World War II. (In martini vernacular, “dry” means less vermouth, “wet” means more.) That style remains popular. But, thank goodness, in recent years crusading bartenders have brought proportions back close to historical, wetter dimensions. A martini isn’t a martini without the herbal tang of vermouth; a 3 to 1 ratio of gin to vermouth should satisfy both tastes, given that the vermouth is of good quality and fresh.
There are some who adhere to dry-martini dogma when making a manhattan, thinking the drink improves with less vermouth. But the classic, best and most flavorful ratio for this drink remains two to one. Whether you use bourbon or rye is entirely a matter of taste. Bourbon will get you a slightly sweeter, more mellow drink; rye a drier, spicier one. Both versions can be excellent. Use homemade cocktail cherries if possible, or a quality brand like Luxardo. Eschew the common neon-red orbs found in supermarkets. They are cherries the way that stuff movies theaters put on popcorn is butter.
The daiquiri is a classic sour — that is, a family of cocktails made with spirit, sugar and citrus juice — whose simple, straightforward appeal has been obscured for years by frozen, fruity variations. One doesn’t need a blender to make one, just fresh limes, good rum and sugar. The proportions of syrup and juice can be adjusted, depending on whether you prefer a sweeter or more-tart style.
The old-fashioned is one of the oldest mixed drinks in the cocktail canon. (Original name: whiskey cocktail, which became old-fashioned whiskey cocktail, and then just old-fashioned.) It is a stirred drink, usually built in the glass in which it is served. Both rye and bourbon are suitable base spirits. For the sweetener, purists muddle up a sugar cube with water and a couple dashes of bitters, but simple syrup works as well. Twists can be orange, lemon or both (known as “rabbit ears”). A fruited version of the drink came into vogue after Prohibition and involves the muddling of a cherry and orange slice along with the sugar. That version remains widespread, but we advocate the more elemental rendition that took hold in the late 1800s, one that allows the flavors of the whiskey to shine.
The Tom Collins is perhaps the ultimate highball and one of history’s most enduring cocktails. It was historically made with Old Tom gin, which is sweeter than London dry gin, but the drink works well with both types of the spirit. (Old Tom only recently became available again, thanks to the clamoring of mixologists.) A peculiar methodology is used in mixing up a Tom Collins. Though it contains fresh juice, which usually dictates that the drink must be shaken, it is nonetheless often built in the glass in which it is served. But shaking the drink and then straining it into an ice-filled highball works as well, and arguably leads to a better integrated cocktail.
Garnishes are the cocktail equivalent of the hat that completes the outfit. They lend color, wit and, very often and most crucially, a taste accent to a drink. They’re not to be underestimated.
The garnish to any cocktail isn’t a frivolous decorative afterthought, but an integral part of the drink. This is particularly true of citrus twists, wheels or wedges, be they from lemons, limes, oranges or grapefruit. Such twists lend a brightness to a cocktail.
Cutting a proper twist requires some agility and a bit of practice. Begin with a clean, washed piece of fruit with an attractive color and a fair amount of surface area. Take a Y-peeler and start at the top of the fruit and pull toward you at a diagonal. This will render a long, wide twist, which you can either leave as is (a large twist looks particularly attraction in an old-fashioned or martini) or cut down to the dimensions you prefer. Be careful not to sink the peeler in too deep, to avoid a twist with too much bitter pith attached.
For a lemon, lime or orange wheel, cut a section roughly 1/4 inch thick from the center of the fruit. These are usually either perched on the edge of the glass, via a small cut in the side of the wheel, or floated on the surface of the drink. To create a citrus-cherry “flag,” often used to garnish sours like the whiskey sour or Tom Collins, fold a citrus wheel or half-wheel around a cherry and fix the two together with a toothpick.
A wedge of lemon or lime is the same size and shape you might cut to adorn or spritz over a piece of fish.
As for cocktail cherries, use homemade if possible, or a quality brand like Luxardo. Do not use the bright red specimens you might see on top of an ice cream sundae.
For olives and cocktail onions, avoid the mass-produced store brands. There are a few “craft” cocktail olives and onions now on the market, which are marginally better. But, if you really wanted to do your drink a favor, pickle your own olives and onions. It’ll take you all of a half-hour, and you’ll thank yourself with every sip.
- Start with simple cocktails and work up to more complex mixes.
- The bigger the ice cube, the colder the drink with the least amount of dilution.
- Adding ice into a shaker, mixing tin or glass should always be the last step.