Making cocktails can feel very intimidating when you’re first starting out and I think it’s because we see these amazing bartenders mixing up beautiful drinks in fast-paced bars, that it feels a lot harder than it is. Well, I want to teach you how to make better cocktails at home so that you can feel a lot more confident. In this post, I want to highlight some basic techniques and ingredients outside of spirits that help to improve the quality and taste of classic and craft cocktails. We will go over bitters, simple syrups, citrus, ice, and stirring vs shaking.
What are bitters?
Bitters are a type of spirit infused with fruit, spices, leaves, bark, roots, and herbs known as botanicals. Bitters are used as digestive aids and flavoring agents or enhancers. There are tons of bitters ranging from fruity to herbaceous and when experimenting with different cocktails it’s tempting to buy all the bitters but there a just a few that you need to start off your collection.
What role do bitters play in a cocktail?
Bitters are the salt & pepper of a cocktail. They add the right about of flavor to enhance and marry all of the flavors in your cocktail. Therefore, when a recipe calls for bitters don’t leave them out. It’s pretty much the equivalent of seasoning your food and leaving out the main flavor enhancer, it’ll be good but not great.
What bitters do you need?
I suggest starting off with the 3 most popular and then building your collection based on the flavors you gravitate to the most. Start with these:
Angostura bitters are made of herbs and spices with a cinnamon spice flavor. Angostura bitters are used in Old Fashioned cocktails, the classic Manhattan, and most whiskey cocktails
Orange bitters are made from a blend of tropical oranges and spices. They are also used in whiskey cocktails, Old fashions, gin cocktails, and so many others.
Peychaud’s bitters are a little sweeter with hints of candied cherry, clove, and orange. It still has a bitter finish and is beautiful in a Sazerac cocktail.
There are a lot of bitters on the market and I recommend that you take your time finding flavors to experiment with. It took me a while to build a solid collection and if I’m being honest, I only use five of the fifty-something that I have.
Simple syrups are one of the easiest ways to improve your cocktails and really get creative in the kitchen. Simple syrup is equal parts water and sugar simmered over heat to create a sweetened syrup to use in beverages where granulated sugar won’t dissolve. The recipe is pretty simple; equal parts water and sugar. You can add flavors to your syrups by simmering fruits and herbs in the pot.
Here are two recipes that I use pretty often in the fall and winter months:
I know it’s tempting to purchase lemon and lime juice at the store but fresh is always best when making cocktails. The citrus really brightens up the drink and allows you to taste the other flavors in the cocktail. Fresh limes, lemons, oranges, and grapefruit are essential to the flavor development of your cocktail.
Good Ice (clear ice)
Ice is another component that contributes to the quality of your drink. If you didn’t know, many shaken and stirred cocktails have water in them due to dilution and water released into the cocktail from the ice. In my opinion, clean clear ice is the best way to preserve the quality and integrity of your drink. You don’t want ice filled with cloudy particles ruining your quality spirits and ingredients. Because clear ice is only water and less dense, it melts a lot slower allowing you to enjoy your cocktail at a normal pace.
You can make clear ice by filling a small cooler (one that will fit in your freezer) and fill it with 4 to 5 inches of warm tap water, but not hot water. Place the cooler inside your freezer with the lid off and freeze in the cooler for 18 to 22 hours until several inches of the water has frozen. You’ll want to still have some water left under the ice, which prevents the ice from getting cloudy. Once it’s frozen, you will take a serrated knife and carve out your ice.
You can also purchase ice trays that get the job done just as well. I currently use this one from Clearly Frozen and I love it!
Knowing when to Shake vs. when to Stir
This was a challenge for me when I first started making cocktails because I was self-taught and didn’t do my research but now I know better and the quality of my drinks has improved so much within this past year. So when it comes to shaking versus stirring, you have to understand what’s in your cocktail and the desired result.
Shake a cocktail when you have ingredients that need to be diluted with ice such as simple syrups, purees, egg white, creams, and certain dairy like yogurt.
Stir a cocktail when you’re simply mixing spirits and serving neat or on the rocks. Old Fashions and Negronis are my two favorite stirred cocktails.
I hope these tips help you become more confident at making cocktails at home. The world of cocktail making can be pretty complex at times but as long as you understand the basics you can continue to build on your understanding. Here are a few cocktails to try out: