I love going out for fancy cocktails as much as anyone. Sitting at the bar watching the bartender work, taking in the carefully curated atmosphere, and people watching will entertain me for hours. I also absolutely love the energy of a well run bar or restaurant, it almost makes me miss my serving days.
But these days I make a lot more cocktails at home than I enjoy out. That’s partially because I’m an aging homebody that doesn’t often want to put on shoes or hard pants, but it’s also because making drinks at home means I get exactly what I want in a comfortable atmosphere while also saving a bit of money. However, if you’re just getting started you may feel like your drinks aren’t that good or you don’t know what to make. I’ve got some tips to get you feeling comfortable and to help troubleshoot common problems.
It doesn’t have to be complicated
By complicated I mean that there are steps or ingredients involved that I generally won’t bother with at home, such as shaking a cocktail with egg white for that lovely foamy top, or mixing something with more than 5 ingredients. But complicated doesn’t necessarily mean better. Some of the most classic cocktails are super simple and super tasty. When you’re using good ingredients it doesn’t take much to make a good drink. A Manhattan is only 3 ingredients and can be made in the glass you serve it in. Same with an Old Fashioned and a Negroni. So when you’re starting to make drinks at home, start with something and put your focus on getting the best ingredients.
It’s all about balance
I’ve heard from a number of customers that when they make drinks at home they just don’t taste the same as at the bar. There are generally a few reasons for this.
Different ingredients, even just a switch in the brand of bitters or vermouth can have a big impact on the final flavor. Each ingredient brings it’s own nuance to final drink. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other, it just means that when you swap out ingredients you’ll get a slightly different result.
Experience, that bartender has made the same drinks over and over again. When you first start riding a bike, you are indeed riding, but you’re wobbly and shaky, after more practice the movement is the same, but you’re smooth and controlled. There is elegance in not over thinking.
And the most important thing that makes drinks at a bar sometimes taste better, balance. Part of the bartender’s skill is deeply understanding how the balance of strong (alcohol), sweet (sugar or liqueur), sour (citrus juice or even just a twist), and bitter work together. They can quickly taste (that straw they dip in once they’re done mixing) and know if it needs just one more dash of bitters or a squeeze of lemon. Not only does this take a bit of practice, but balance is also subjective. What you think is a perfect drink might be too sweet for me. But trust your taste and don’t be afraid to add a little more sugar, or bitters, or sour to make it how you like it. That recipe you’re following is just a baseline of where to start, adjust to your liking.
If you taste a drink you’ve made it just doesn’t seem right one of these things will most likely bring it all together - a touch more sugar, an extra squeeze of citrus, or a little more dilution.
Water is your friend
Water is one of the most important ingredients in a cocktail. It’s “added” when you stir with ice, shake with ice, or simply pour over an ice cube. All these actions melt the ice a little and add dilution. Dilution does two main things in a drink. It mellows out the ingredients and helps them come into balance (much like bitters). It also “opens” up the flavors. Adding just a few drops of water lowers the alcohol content and allows for us to better taste the layers of flavor in the drink and each of the ingredients. Some water is necessary in every drink.
If that first taste of a drink seems like there’s not much going on or it’s just too strong either let it sit in the glass on ice for another minute or throw it back in the mixing glass for a few more seconds of stirring.
So find some recipes that interest you, put some thought into stocking your home bar, and start practicing. Once you’re feeling a bit confident, invite a few friends over. Not only can you show off your new skills and most likely impress with a tasty beverage, but it feels great to hand a drink to someone you made for them and have them enjoy it.