Like a professional bartender, sometimes we are faced with challenges when mixing cocktails as a hobby. Maybe we are short on ingredients. Maybe we are too lazy to add that final touch. Whatever the challenge, to make great cocktails it's important not to cut corners. Therefore I follow self-made rules, which help me to be good at making cocktails, and also become better.
I want to share some of the things I have learned over the years and which I made into my personal guidelines. I hope you find them useful. Not everything might apply or seem reasonable to you, but I'm sure there are a few points you can take away to improve yourself. I encourage everyone to make their own set of rules, because we are all different.
1. Fresh Citrus Fruits - No Substitutes
This should be a no-brainer. Sadly, it is ignored quite often, especially in a non-professional environment. If I have no fresh lemons or limes then I'd rather make a drink that doesn't require any. The same applies for oranges, but I think when making cocktails at home a quality orange juice will work most of the time.
2. Always Use Enough Ice
Nothing is as bad as a watery drink that isn't chilled properly. You may have heard that I'm very peculiar about my ice, so I always make sure to have enough ice and that the ice I use is properly frozen. I fill my shaker up to the top. Always. No reason to be stingy here.
But beware when stirring cocktails in a mixing glass, using too much ice will produce too much dilution according to Kazuo Uyeda in Cocktail Techniques.
3. Quality Ingredients - Nothing Less
Without high quality products there can be no good cocktails. This doesn't mean that I have to use the most expensive ingredients, but there is no substitute for a clean and proper produced product. Alcohol is more than enough poison, so there is no need to add to that by using cheap and questionable spirits. Apart from that you will taste the difference.
When making a cocktail I always concentrate on whatever I am doing. It sounds trivial, but our minds wander easily. When I concentrate I can think about my actions. This gives me the chance to find things I can improve upon.
Focusing on what I am doing also helps me to realize sooner when I have done something wrong. It also prevents accidents or mistakes, which is good since I don't like to get hurt or waste good alcohol.
A good cocktail deserves your full attention, whether you are making or drinking it.
5. Be Precise
If I have a recipe that works, I stick with it. I measure my ingredients correctly and thus get a consistently good drink. Most drinks depend on the correct balance of their ingredients. And adding just a bit too much sugar can shift a cocktail from perfect to a sweet mess.
When I come up with my own recipes then of course I can't really be precise. I just have no recipe to work with. Thus, like in cooking, I have to taste my concoction before handing it to my guest. (And be sure to write down the recipe if it's a good one.)
6. Stay Sober... If Possible
Professional bartenders should always stay sober of course, but when making drinks at home it's only natural to join the fun and have a drink or two. To make a great cocktail, however, concentration is needed (see Focus). Which is also the first thing to go when you imbibe too much.
To prevent accidents or spilling expensive alcohol everywhere, I only make complex cocktails1 when I'm in full control of my bodily functions. Therefore I start the evening with making some fancy cocktails and then convince everybody to switch to easily build highballs later. It's hard to harm yourself when making a Gin and Tonic... I hope.
Although it sounds clichéd: Always enjoy alcohol in moderation.
7. Always Try Something New
When you become good at what you do, there is a tendency to become complacent. And when you know that you can make a perfect Gimlet which will be well received then why risk anything? Because the only way to get better at understanding cocktails, is to broaden your knowledge and experiment! Therefore I always try to make at least one new cocktail without a recipe. I just think about the ingredients at my disposal and what my guests (read: victims) or I might like. Then I try to come up with something that resembles a good cocktail. It won't always work, but when it does people are usually excited. And most of the time people enjoy picking a name for my new creation that was created just for them.
8. Don't Be A Cocktail Snob
When you know a lot about cocktails, ingredients and mixology it can be quite frustrating if your friends just order some Rum and Coke. That is however no reason to launch into an endless discussion on what they should drink. Maybe suggest them something similar (in that case a Cuba Libre comes to mind) or make the best Rum and Coke there ever was (add some dashes of bitters for example).
That doesn't mean you can't expand their horizons. Suggest something they might enjoy or show them with your drinks that the world of mixology is so much more than just pouring A over B. But never come off as the wise-ass that knows it all and tries to lecture people. Just remember that it is about having a good time and not about who knows the most obscure recipes.
Some Additional Ramblings
Most of these rules are about just using some common sense and not being lazy. It is often that people associate the carelessly made drinks from questionable bars when you mention making cocktails. The world of mixology is great and fun, so in order to bring this joy to other people you have to set yourself some standards.
As said in the beginning, it doesn't really matter if you follow the exact same rules I do. But you should at least sit down and think about what you want to achieve by making cocktails and how you want to get there.
Anything that isn't two liquids poured into a glass. ↩
Title image via pixabay.