There once was a time when I thought a frozen bucket of margarita mix was home bartending at its best. I used to get overwhelmed by making cocktails with more than two ingredients. If you enjoy cocktails out, why not make them at home? While your house may lack the charm of an upscale bar, it only takes a few things to get you from a bucket of margaritas to sipping a perfect margarita. By using these suggestions, you’ll be embracing your inner mixologist in no time! Let’s get started with the cocktail making tips you’ll need to become a home bartender in no time!
1. Stock your home bar
The first step is to stock your bar with everything you need to make great cocktails at home. This might seem daunting at first, but there are some basic spirits and mixers that you can start with. Identifying a couple of classic cocktails (see tip #3) you love is one of the best ways to start stocking your home bar. You can also learn a lot by asking a local cocktail shop owner. They will be able to help you select what is right for your tastes.
2. Buy the right tools
Investing in some quality bar tools makes the whole process so much easier. I look for tools that are well made, dishwasher safe, and are affordable. One of my favorite tools is my manual lemon juicer. It can put up with a lot of heavy use. While I usually buy things individually, you can make it even easier by buying a complete set, like the one pictured from A Bar Above. Save 10% by using the code ‘COCKTAILSAWAY2020’.
3. Learn the six basic cocktails
As with many bartending concepts, there are some disagreements about how many classic cocktails there are. As bar culture and tastes have evolved, things have gone in and out of favor. However, there is general agreement by most that there are six drinks every bartender should know. They are: the Daiquiri, Old Fashioned, Martini, Sour, Highball, and Flip. These six provide the foundation for every other cocktail. For more on what these classic drinks are, check out this post.
4. Make your own simple syrups
Simple syrups are LITERALLY the easiest thing to make. While you can buy pre-made versions, a freshly made syrup makes all the difference. The basic recipe is a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. I usually make a simple syrup with a cup of water and a cup of sugar. You can also make infused simple syrups, which just add fruit or herbs for more flavor. I recommend using Crew Bottles to store your syrups. They are easy to label and you can see inside. You do not want to add moldy syrup to your cocktail! One trick to keep your syrups fresher longer is to add a half ounce of vodka to the finished syrup before storing.
5. Use fresh fruit and herbs
Squeezing my own fresh juices for cocktails instantly kicked the quality up tenfold. (I used to think that Rose’s Lime Juice was juice.) Many store-bought juices also contain added sugar. This will complicate your cocktail making efforts as most cocktail recipes are referring to fresh juice and won’t account for the added sugar. Fresh fruits and herbs are the difference between a so-so drink and one that you will love. Farmer’s markets, buying fruits in season, or planting an herb garden can all help keep your costs down.
Another easy trick is to use the oil from the citrus peel around the rim of the glass. This elevates your cocktail because you smell a drink before you taste it. A whiff of fresh fruit from the glass sends a signal to your brain that this drink is going to be a good one! Here are some of my favorite citrus cocktail recipes.
6. Infuse your spirits
If you’ve been to a cocktail bar and been intrigued by infused spirits, you can make them! It’s really easy. I recommend buying a base spirit that is fairly inexpensive. Start by adding simple flavors you know you would like. For example, I love lavender gimlets, so infusing some gin with dried lavender was something I knew I would like. I also love tea and spruce/pine flavors in cocktails, so I made some gin up with some spruce tip teabags. It only takes 30-40 minutes of soaking before you strain and remove the ingredients from the liquid. I used 500mL of gin and six teabags for the spruce gin and 325mL of gin and a quarter cup of dried, food-grade flowers for the lavender gin.
7. Try some fancy ice
If you follow any bars or bartenders on Instagram, you have surely seen clear ice pop up. Made through directional freezing, clear ice can really make your cocktail pop. (Check out this post for some professional shots of cocktails with clear ice.) While you can buy clear ice, it’s also possible to make it at home. Some people go the do-it-yourself with an igloo cooler in your freezer route. I just use a True Cubes maker that is very affordable and fits in my small freezer. It makes four perfectly clear 2″ cubes with tap water. You can see the difference above.
8. Recreate drinks you’ve had
Have you ever had a drink that you couldn’t stop thinking about? I have! I always take photos of menus, mostly for Instagram, but I also reference them if I feel like trying to make a drink later on. It is a bit of trial and error, but sometimes I get it right. I had the drink above, the Rhythm and Blues-berry at The Monarch and figured it out. Let me know if you try out the recipe below!
Rhythm and Blues-berry
- 2 oz tequila (blanco or silver)
- ¼ cup blistered blueberries (cooked in ⅓ cup honey)
- ½ oz agave or honey
- 2 oz ginger beer
- ½ oz fresh lemon juice
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- Blistered blueberries: add ⅓ cup of honey and blueberries to a pan on a high burner. Stir constantly until blueberry skins start to burst (blister). Take off heat and let cool slightly.
- Add all ingredients to a Boston shaker with ice, shake, strain, and serve in a Collins glass with ice.
Pro tip: many bartenders are happy to give you pointers, ideas, and sometimes even recipes. Just don’t bug them when they’re swamped. I also suggest asking curious questions, like “how did you get the texture this way?” versus “can I have the recipe?” Bartenders work hard at their craft and some like to keep some mystery.
9. Try new recipes at home
There are hundreds of cocktail books in print. Many of them say the same thing, or are so complex you can hardly read them. Some of them are just right. I enjoy good instructions, delicious drinks, and quality photographs. A few of my favorites are: Cocktail Codex (by Death & Co.), Savory Cocktails, 3-Ingredient Cocktails, and Drinking Like Ladies (which includes recipes by female bartenders and histories of remarkable women). If you are looking for some recently released books, here are my best picks from 2020.
10. Sample before serving
Have you ever sat in a bar and watched a bartender stick a straw in a drink, put their finger over the end, and sample a drink? Or, they use a bar spoon and place a tiny drop between their thumb and forefinger and taste what they’re making? They are not doing this to gross you out, they want to make sure the drink is good. Sometimes recipes or ingredients can be off what you were hoping for. It’s much better to take a quick taste before you serve a round that no one likes. Or, as I have done many times, forgotten to add any sweetener to!
11. Use the right glass to serve your cocktail
While there is technically no wrong glass to serve a cocktail in, the proper one is better. That said, serving a cocktail in a plastic cup can change the flavor, and your drinking experience. The exception to this could be if you are serving drinks outside and you’re trying avoid breakage. Serving your delicious cocktail in the correct glass can also elevate how well you can smell or taste the drink. You can sign up at the of this post for my glassware guide if you want to know more.
12. Dilute your cocktail properly
One of the worst things in a cocktail is over-dilution. I am sure you have sipped a drink that was watered down. The once vibrant flavors are now dull. You can also under-dilute a drink. (This is my husband’s pet peeve.) Proper dilution is fairly easy to master. And coupled with tip #10, you will easily learn the amount of stirring or shaking you need for each drink. Dilution is merely the addition of water to a cocktail. When you shake cocktail ingredients with ice, you are diluting a cocktail. And, when you mix ingredients with ice in a mixing glass, you’re doing the same thing. Proper dilution usually takes 15-30 seconds of shaking or stirring.
13. Keep your cocktail making supplies organized
When I first started getting into making cocktails at home, I stored everything in a cabinet over the stove. It was too high to reach without a chair so it became a mess. Over the years, I built out some space in my basement to keep things more organized. Best of all, staying organized can help you see what you have and you won’t accidentally buy things you already own. If you are trying to get more organized, this post goes into more detail.
14. Try a cocktail subscription box
If you are looking for a cocktail making easy button, a subscription box might be perfect for you. Even though I enjoy experimenting with new recipes on my own, my monthly Shaker & Spoon subscription is a treat! Each month focuses on a single spirit that three bartenders use to create a recipe. You just buy one bottle of liquor and the box provides everything you need to make four of each recipe. You can read my full review here.
15. Learn new techniques
If you’re curious about a term you see on a menu, you might ask the bartender, or you can always check out YouTube. While there are varying levels of quality, finding a few bartenders that you like is a good place to start. I really like watching the videos from Truffles on the Rocks and Beautiful Booze. I really love this video about making clarified milk punch. It was something that I had wanted to try but sounded too hard. Videos can do a great job teaching new home bartending techniques. I even learned how to fat wash vodka.
And there you have it! Whether you’re making yourself a drink or entertaining friends, a little extra effort goes a long way. Now that you’re becoming a cocktail making pro, try my Fire Margarita recipe. Cheers!