Photo by Kevin Kelly
Ever notice that the Manhattans, sidecars, and Sazeracs that you mix up at home never seem to taste as good as the ones served to you at your favorite craft cocktail bar? Ignoring the fact that things always seem to taste better when somebody else makes them, there are steps you can take and simple practices you can follow that will transform your at-home libations into cocktails worthy of being served at a professional’s bar. The following advice (and a couple of recipes), all offered by esteemed cocktail specialists, will strengthen your mixing game and transform your next soiree into a legendary affair.
Tools of the Trade
Let’s start with the basics. According to Andy Bixby, the cocktail director at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., a reputable home bartender will always have—and always use—a proficient measuring device. He recommends Leopold jiggers, which are bell-shaped (typically with a 1-oz and a 2-oz compartment) and include interior markings delineating ¼ oz, ½ oz, ¾ oz, and 1½ oz measurements. “Don’t just eyeball it,” he urges. “A cocktail is not just the pieces that make it up; it’s the composition and ratios and how you’re balancing it.”
A tool of equal importance, in Bixby’s estimation, is a beehive citrus juicer, which allows home bartenders to easily procure fresh citrus juice—the key word being fresh. “Lemon and lime juice have their best flavor profiles within six hours of being juiced,” he explains. “Lemon juice lasts a little bit longer, but lime juice loses its vibrancy around six hours after it’s juiced. The freshness and quality of a cocktail will suffer the longer you let those juices live, so you want to make sure things like that are done as fresh as possible.”
While Bixby can easily list numerous other suggestions for home bartenders, those two are the most crucial. They are, in his opinion, the foundation upon which any good cocktail is created. “It ensures that every guest at your party is going to have a cocktail that you’d want to have,” Bixby says. “At the end of the day, that’s what matters—that you’ve made a cocktail that you would want to drink yourself.”
Complex Ingredients & Impressive Glassware
With a proficient measuring device at the ready and fresh citrus in the fridge, you’re now ready to make the classics, as well as some intriguing, easily executed spin-offs. One such example, the Naked and Famous, was created by Joaquin Simo, a partner at Pouring Ribbons in New York City’s East Village (though he first made the cocktail while working at Death & Co). The cocktail is a variation of The Last Word, and it’s composed of only four ingredients—mescal, Aperol, Yellow Chartreuse, and lime juice—all in equal measures and shaken aggressively with lots of ice. “It has such crowd appeal and tends to punch above its weight,” says Simo, explaining that the libation’s three alcohols each deliver a lot of complexity and layered, nuanced flavors on their own. “It makes it look like you know a lot more about what you’re doing—and maybe you do because you’re working with complex ingredients—but you’re working with them in a way that allows them to be complex in the right order. You end up looking like a rock star, but it was everything in the bottle that did the heavy lifting.”
Aside from sharing his most crowd-pleasing cocktail recipe, Simo urges home bartenders to invest in good-quality glassware, noting that any cocktail poured into an artfully made glass, especially one with weight and substance to it, will be more impressive even before the cocktail is tasted. “The difference with really beautiful glassware is inherent the second you touch it,” he says. “When you pour a cocktail into that glass, it confers the specialness. It adds to the fact that there’s something substantive in that glass.”
According to Simo, Cocktail Kingdom offers a variety of styles that are perfect for those looking to build a uniform collection of glasses, but he recommends scouring vintage stores and thrift stores for more unique pieces. While they may not all match, the glasses will be more valuable and more interesting. “You can get some beautiful, leaded-crystal glassware that’s 50 years old with beautiful edging for 50 cents a glass,” he says. “And you’ll never find that glassware again.”
A Proper Chill
A few years back, Alex Day—partner of Death & Co—and his cohorts stumbled upon a practice that makes entertaining with classic cocktails at home a cinch to pull off: pre-mixing, pre-diluting, and pre-chilling. Day’s preference is a classic gin martini, but he says the approach works equally well for libations like Negronis and Manhattans. All you do, he says, is combine the necessary liquids together to create the cocktail, and then add water equal to 25 percent of the total measure of the alcohol. Fill a large, 34-oz glass flip-top bottle with the concoction, and chill it in the refrigerator. “When guests arrive, you can immediately serve them a welcome cocktail. It’s quite a special experience,” Day says, “and it’s one of those clutch moves for when you have people over.”
Day suggests taking it a step further with a “badass approach” of pouring that welcome cocktail into chilled mini martini glasses that hold only a couple of ounces of liquid. “The lip [of the glass] is always super cold, and that’s as much a sensory experience as the liquid in the glass,” he explains. “That has as much of an impact on us as a martini’s liquid itself.”
On the topic of temperature, Day also acknowledges that the biggest mistake most home bartenders make is skimping on the ice. “You need to pack that shaker tin full of ice and shake the hell out of it to get that crisply cold and properly diluted drink,” he says. “The basic rule of thumb is to use more ice than liquid—either stirring or shaking. That maximizes the surface area of ice to liquid, and then you can maximize the extraction, making it colder and perfectly diluted.”
With the popularity of agave-based spirits on the rise, home bartenders need a go-to margarita recipe. According to Jared Sadoian, the bar manager of The Hawthorne in Boston, they also need to understand agave distillates like tequila, which is one of Sadoian’s specialties. More so than the ratios of tequila to citrus, the finer details of a sweetening agent, or the use of other modifiers like Cointreau or Grand Marnier, a margarita succeeds or fails, Saodian says, based on the quality of the tequila that’s used to make it. What’s more, he explains that home bartenders are often misguided in their quest to find the right tequila. “A lot of people get caught up in the marketing glitz and glamour,” Sadoian says, “and they might not be asking the right questions if they’re searching for something to put on their own bar.”
First and foremost, a good tequila—and an ideal one for mixing—doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, it shouldn’t be. According to Sadoian, a top-shelf sipping tequila should be appreciated in just that manner; however, he acknowledges that not all lesser-priced tequilas are created equal, and the ones that elevate a margarita do so specifically for how they are made. Artisanal producers like Arette, Calle 23, G4, Tequila Ocho, El Tesoro, and Fortaleza all make reasonably priced tequilas in small batches, and Sadoian explains that because of that production volume, these producers aren’t cutting corners, especially as to how much flavor is imparted from the roasting of the agave plants. “Roasted agave has natural acidity and sweetness,” he says. “It just lights up when you taste really good tequila that has actual flavors of roasted agave.
“So, if you want to make a margarita that captures the flavor and energy and vivacity that roasted agave has,” Sadoian continues, “use one of these brands.”
The experience that an exceptional cocktail bar provides is rooted in more than just artfully crafted libations. There’s a sense of discovery, of communal bonding, and a guarantee of conversation—usually a dialogue that begins with the topics of alcohol and cocktails. “You want to chat with people; you want to have a conversation,” says Ivy Mix, a co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn, New York. “The reason we drink cocktails is because they’re delicious and interesting to learn about.”
You can re-create that same atmosphere at home, so long as you choose the right cocktails to serve. For Mix, the ideal choice is the Ti’ Punch, a simple mix of rhum agricole, fresh lime juice, and sugar. It is believed that the concoction dates to the colonial era and originated in the French isles, primarily on the island of Martinique, and was the go-to libation for field workers who tended to the island’s sugarcane crop. “There’s a saying in France—‘each chooses his own death’—and it references the fact that people make their Ti’ Punches in different ways,” Mix says, explaining that the drink can be made using granular cane sugar or a simple syrup; lime juice or lime pieces (wedges or discs); and with or without ice. “It has to have a little bit of lime, and a little bit of sugar, and a little bit of rhum agricole,” she says, “but there are tons of ways to let people choose their own adventure.
“It’s just a celebration of the spirit itself, and the spirit is so good,” Mix continues. “People don’t know about it because it’s so far away from the rums of the world that they know. Rhum agricole is super grassy and unusual. It’s so flavorful; it’s kind of a cocktail in and of itself.”