Assuming you joined us for the first installment of Home Bar Essentials, or assuming you already have a curated home bar built for hosting, it’s about time we dug a little deeper to discuss a few techniques and tools that will put your home bar over the top. The biggest stumbling block for the home bartender, after acquiring the full array of crucial cocktailing spirits we mentioned previously, will be consistency and ease in execution. Just as wine may be experienced differently due to any number of external factors, a spirit or a cocktail is subject to the wilds of its surroundings as well. The more we can simplify and control those outside elements, the more consistent and delicious our drinks will be!
Time to discuss.
◊ MEASURING ◊
We’re going to assume you read the previous Home Bar advice we posted (here) and in turn assume you’ve already gone out and bought some jiggers. There’s nothing more crucial to a consistent cocktail. Let’s keep moving.
♦ JUICE ♦
One of the most notorious curve balls in cocktails is your juice— not all citrus are created equally, after all, and nothing will ruin a daiquiri faster than store-bought bottles of antique lime juice. To keep a home bar prepared, we recommend juicing just a little bit every few days. Most citrus juice will keep its flavors no more than 48 hours, at which point the vitamin C has all been depleted and metallic notes begin to find their way in. Better to toss it and juice fresh. That being said, after much careful juice taste testing (in the form of cocktails, of course) we’ve determined that our favorite fresh citrus isn’t juiced a la minute. When it first oozes out of the fruit, the acids are sharper and more assertive, but in about three hours they’ve calmed down and the juice seems to gain a touch of balance. For that reason, go ahead and juice a pint or a quart of juice before hosting a cocktail party — one of the best techniques of the well-prepared home bartender.
One last thing : go out and pick up a mesh strainer, also known as a fine strainer or tea strainer, and use this to filter the pulp out of your citrus. Leaving those pulp strands not only gives up your control of the cocktail’s final texture— it also leaves acids and proteins in the juice which will encourage it to turn more rapidly. We recommend the strainers from Cocktail Kingdom, but any similar strainer will suffice.
◊ SYRUP ◊
Are you making a round of old fashions at home? Muddling that sugar cube? You are? Great! But stop. No, really, stop. It’s aesthetically pleasing, for sure, but it will never break down consistently. There’s no way anyone will ever muddle the exact same way twice, and since we’re about to dilute that sugar cube into our cocktail, if we want it to dilute consistently we’ll need to do that work in advance. In other words, let’s make a syrup.
The classic simple syrup, which you probably know, is 1:1 (or equal parts) sugar to water, stirred until fully integrated and then chilled before use. Seems simple enough, eh? But if you’re making an old fashioned, you’ll probably want a syrup with a bit more weight and texture behind it— like the brown sugar cube you might have muddled before. Try making a syrup from Turbinado sugar (or Sugar in the Raw), or even Demerara sugar from Guyana if you can find it, and try making that syrup at Rich Simple Syrup— let’s double it up. Instead of equal parts, let’s use 2:1 (two parts to one part) sugar to water and so make a thicker, creamier syrup. The plump weight of these deeper varieties and this higher sugar content will mimic the sensation of that rich sugar cube, but this way we never give up control of the sugar’s dilution. Let’s get back to making that old fashioned— try adding just 1/4 oz of rich simple syrup to your whiskey and bitters, and let us know how delicious it turns out…
Use this same 2:1 ratio for making honey syrup and agave nectar syrup and anything else along those lines (looking at you, maple)— it becomes much easier to work with once you’ve thinned it out before it hits the ice. We suggested this last time too, but once you’ve mastered simple syrup, make some traditional grenadine too – it’s another 2:1 — two parts sugar and one part pomegranate juice (make sure it’s 100% pom), and it’s called for in a lot of great recipes. Making the real stuff at home (or buying a true pomegranate grenadine bottled commercially) will add a lovely new tart-fruit dimension to your sours.
The best thing about simple syrups is that they have an excellent shelf life. Where citrus dies in a day or two, sugar has a slight preservative quality, so simple syrups should last you for weeks. Even better, try out some orgeat (a classic tiki component that plays nicely in a plethora of other cocktails) or some cane sirop (actually the product of first boil fresh sugarcane juice) for fancier spins on the classic simple.
Best of all, though, consider the potential for your syrup to be looked at more as the sweetener, not necessarily a sugar. If your recipe calls for Greenhook American Dry Gin, lime juice and sugar— great, you’re making a gimlet! But substitute one of Giffard’s beautifully produced fruit liqueurs, like say Giffard Creme de Mure, and now you have a blackberry gimlet— and how much more exciting is that? Plus, there’s a touch more booze… which is always a touch more fun!
The opportunities for easy and consistent variations seem endless.
♦ ICE ♦
Be sure to prepare plenty of ice. Bags of store bought ice aren’t ideal; they often have a wide variety of shapes and sizes which dilute very differently. However, they may be your only hope (we can’t all have an ice machine in our office), so just be aware of your ice cubes as you make your drink. A larger and drier cube will allow you to control your dilution more effectively. Note the kind of ice you’re using and adjust your method accordingly. If you have lots of cracked and tiny pieces of ice to work with, then maybe shake or stir your drink a bit less to adjust for the rapid dilution. If you have large fancy cubes from a company like Hundredweight, then don’t worry so much — take your time and dilute with patience to exactly the degree you prefer— and then be consistent.
◊ GLASSWARE ◊
Having a matching set of glassware, or at least several glasses with matching volumes, will greatly enhance your ability to host with cocktails consistently. If you’re serving a highball to six people, but your highball glasses range from 8 oz to 14 oz, then how will you control the variation? At best, probably by adding more ice to take up that extra space, or pouring short in the larger glasses— but the ice will melt and dilute the drink further, and a short pour never looks quite as appealing. Get yourself a good stash of consistent glassware so that everyone’s drink can be made and presented the same.
Though science has proven that it actually has next to zero impact on the final temperature of the drink, it is indeed also wonderful to chill your cocktail glassware before serving. A frosty coupe has a certain appeal that, logical or not, can never be matched by a room temp vessel. We keep a few cocktail glasses in our freezer all the time— just in case.
You might be thinking that instead of giving up valuable fridge real estate for some glassware that can be chilled by adding some ice and a bit of water, but it all comes back to consistency— if you chill with water, there’s no guarantee the glasses will chill to the same degree. And worse, after you dump out the ice and refill your glass with a drink, chances are some recalcitrant water remained in the coupe— and that’s going to dilute your cocktail even further, however slightly. While its very romantic to “go with the flow,” any moment the world takes control from you in your cocktail making is a moment you cede consistency. There’s enough uncertainty in life; chill your glassware instead.
♦ MEASURING ♦
Did we mention using a jigger? Oh, we did? Well, never mind, just — seriously, use a jigger. Control your balance. No one can measure a perfect quarter oz.
◊ GUESTS ◊
Honestly, the best way to ensure consistent fun when cocktailing at home is to surround yourself with the best guests. Make drinks for people you love— or even better, make drinks with people you love! Cocktails can be as much a culinary delight as a communal activity, and more fun can always be had in a good group. Make a few different syrups, use a few different Giffard liqueurs, juice a few different citrus… grab some club soda water, some tonic and play around with your friends and a few flexible recipes (see below)! With a gang of collaborators, you’re bound to have a blast— and perhaps even come up with something new that you can write down and recreate, consistently, at your next party. We’ll see you there.
- 1.5 oz Domaine de Montreuil ‘Selection’ Calvados
- .75 oz Contratto Vermouth Rosso
- .5 oz Lemorton ‘Selection’ Calvados
- .25 oz Bigallet China China Amer
- 2 dashes apricot bitters
Combine ingredients in mixing glass; add ice & stir; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a pear slice
New Mexican Firing Squad
Credit: c. 1939, Charles H. Baker, Jr.; revised for Skurnik Spirits
- 2 oz Nuestra Soledad ‘Ejutla’ Mezcal
- .75 oz fresh lime juice
- .75 oz pomegranate grenadine
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- club soda
Combine ingredients in mixing tin; add ice & shake; strain into highball glass and top with club soda. Garnish with a lime wheel.