Given the events of this past year, we went to great lengths to recreate our favorite comfort foods at home. But if baking bread has you bored, what about recreating a craft cocktail? If you’re not already a budding mixologist, it can feel intimidating to jump into the world of fancy cocktails, and while there’s nothing wrong with a gin and tonic or whiskey soda, sometimes you want something a little more elevated.
Stocking a bar can feel like a big (not to mention expensive) task. But in the spirit of keeping things simple (and safely socially distanced), we spoke with André Darlington, who has co-authored two cocktail books with his sister Tenaya Darlington, about where to start. Their first book together, The New Cocktail Hour, focuses on cocktails made with versatile ingredients you can find at any well-stocked liquor store. André shares his advice on getting started, even if all you have is a bottle of your favorite booze.
Meet the Expert
André Darlington is an award-winning food critic and owner of farm-to-table restaurant and natural wine bar, Field Table.
First, Equip Your Bar Cart With Supplies
In The New Cocktail Hour, the Darlingtons identify five essential types of barware: cocktail or coupe glasses for drinks like martinis, champagne flutes, rocks or lowball glasses, highball glasses, and Irish coffee mugs for hot drinks. Keeping a stock of glassware will have you prepared to create any cocktail.
“The price for good barware has come down dramatically,” says Darlington, “Just in the past few years, it's become possible to find true metal on metal shakers, properly sized cocktail glasses, and more all online.” It is very possible to make do with what you have as well. Chopsticks are great stirring sticks, your regular colander can stand in for a strainer, and a jug or even a Mason jar works perfectly for stirring up batch cocktails.
Measuring is equally important for making cocktails and requires the right tools. But if you don’t have a jigger, you can use tablespoons and teaspoons. It might require a bit of mental math, but you can get there. If you’re making batch cocktails, you can even use a measuring cup.
To make measuring easy, remember that two tablespoons equals one fluid ounce, and there are 8 fluid ounces (or 16 tablespoons) in one cup.
Utilize Your Freezer
Whether you’re using a stemless wine glass as your lowball glass or recently invested in some new coupes, there are three free ways to take your home cocktails to the next level—and two involve your freezer.
“Bartenders always think about their ice,” says André. Use fresh ice if possible, as ice can take on the flavors of what it’s stored next to in the freezer, and keep your glass in the freezer to chill. A cold glass will keep the drink colder longer and keep the ice from melting. If you forget, you can always put some extra ice in your glass and stir it around to chill it.
Finally be prepared and complete any prep work needed before mixing your drink, including slicing a wedge of citrus or tearing off a sprig of mint from the backyard for garnish. Your drink won’t be watered down as you simply add the last ingredient.
Know Your Ratios
While there are a seemingly infinite number of cocktails out there, many make use of the same basic ratio. A good one to start with (that also requires relatively few ingredients) is a sour ratio, which is 2:1:1: two parts base spirit, one part sour, and one part sweet.
“You want the same amount of acid (lemon juice, lime juice, etc.) as sweetener (sugar or liqueur),” explains André. You can pick up fresh citrus, like lemon or lime, at the store, and make your own simple syrup to get started. Add herbs, fruit, or spices to your still-hot simple syrup and let it steep for about 30 minutes for a bold and infused sweetener.
While whiskey and pisco sours are classics, you can experiment combining your favorite spirits and citruses. In fact, a margarita is basically a type of sour, with triple sec as the “sweet” and tequila as the base spirit. Knowing the basis ratio should also free you to use what you have, like the lemons rolling around in the bottom of the fridge, allowing you to get fancy with basic ingredients.
Stock a Well-Rounded Bar
If you want to take at-home bartending a step further, start building out your bar. André recommends starting with three spirits: gin, whiskey, and campari. If you add a bottle of sweet and dry vermouth to your bar, you already have a ton of options. You’ll have all the ingredients, saving a few garnishes, for a Negroni, Manhattan, Boulevardier, Gibson, and more. From there, you can add on to your home bar as needed with a strong base.
If you’re ready to upgrade, André recommends maraschino liqueur and elderflower liqueur as great next steps to open up your cocktail options even more.
Experiment And Have Fun
Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment, as great cocktails were invented using basic ratios and ingredient substitutions. Use Irish whiskey instead of bourbon, lemon instead of lime, or even tequila instead of gin, and it may yield a new favorite drink. Plus, if you come up with a new drink, you get the honor of naming it. Nothing will impress your friends more at your first post-distancing get-together like mixing up a new signature drink.