We all have those recipes that we just know we make better than anyone else. I’ll admit it. I feel pretty confident that I’m going to like my own Thanksgiving stuffing more than yours. And I’ll try your potato salad to be polite, but so far I have never preferred anyone else’s over my own.
But there are some things that are almost always more enjoyable when someone else makes them. Like sandwiches. And salads. And even cocktails.
Numerous determined bar patrons over the years have come to me frustrated that no matter how many times they’ve tried to make a margarita with the recipe the bartender at their favorite watering hole wrote down on a cocktail napkin, it was just never the same.
So, what is this sorcery of which I speak? Well, I can’t explain why sandwiches and salads are better when someone else makes them. That’s just straight-up magic I’m pretty sure. But I may be able to shed some light on why cocktails are always more enjoyable when someone else makes them:
This seems to be the most obvious since any great chef will tell you a quality end product starts with quality ingredients. The same goes for cocktails. Whether it’s your juices, syrups, garnishes, or liquor, always opt for quality. Squeeze your citrus juices the same day. Make your syrups yourself. Use what’s in season. Use spirits processed in a traditional manner (maybe pass on the tequila distilled from grain. It’s basically tequila-flavored-vodka. Go ahead and go vomit. I’ll wait.)
Now, “quality” doesn’t necessarily mean “most expensive,” especially when it comes to cocktail ingredients. In fact, the case is often the opposite. Store-bought simple syrup can run $11 for a 12 oz bottle, for what is literally sugar dissolved in water. If you’re trying to recreate the magic that happens behind a bar, just know that bars are trying to reduce their costs as much as possible. So, when in doubt: go the affordable route.
2. Tools of the trade
You can dump your ingredients into a pint glass, give them a stir with a spoon from the kitchen drawer, and bottoms up. No one’s stopping you. But you’re here to find out how to make your cocktail as good as your bartender does, so I’m telling you to get yourself decent bar tools.
First off, for heaven’s sake, please don’t buy a cobbler shaker (the cool looking ones from the movies that have a metal base and a small metal cap with a built-in strainer). You’ll shake a cocktail in it once, the whole thing will constrict as the ice chills it, and the lid will never come off. Okay, it will come off eventually; once it warms up and expands enough to release. But by that time, your cocktail is watered down and you’re back to square one. Just don’t do it.
What you want instead is a Boston shaker. It’s made of two metal tins, one smaller than the other, that fit together at an angle. Some people like to use a pint glass in place of the smaller metal tin, but I’ve seen some terrible accidents happen when that pint breaks. Not worth the risk.
You’ll also want a glass stirring vessel, a Hawthorne strainer (aka spring strainer), a stirring spoon, a fine mesh strainer, a muddler, and a jigger (2 oz on one side and 1 oz on the other, with interior lines marking smaller measurements). Cocktail Kingdom and Barfly are two of the best tool brands on the market.
3. Dilution & Timing
This one is right up there with ingredients as the most important factor in cocktail taste. Here’s the bad news, though: proper cocktail dilution takes practice; and it is arguably the number one reason your bartender’s cocktail tastes better than yours. They shake and stir hundreds of cocktails a day, to where the feel and sound of a perfectly diluted cocktail become second nature. You can ask them how long they shake or stir it, and they probably won’t be able to give you a straight answer. It just depends on the drink. So shake, stir, and taste! See what you like best and keep track of what you did each time.
Practice aside, here are some basic rules you can take away right now:
If all of the ingredients are the same consistency, stir the cocktail. These are your spirit-forward drinks that consist of a base spirit, liqueurs, syrups, and bitters; your Old Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans, etc. You don’t want the bubbles and emulsification caused by shaking; you want a smooth, chilled, clear cocktail. Use a glass mixing vessel so you can actually see how diluted the cocktail is getting. Strain it over fresh ice or into a stemmed glass.
If even one ingredient is a different consistency (citrus, cream, etc.), shake the cocktail. These are your Margaritas, Daiquiris, Whiskey Sours, etc. Use both a Hawthorne strainer and a fine mesh strainer to double strain the cocktail over fresh ice or into a stemmed glass.
Never add your ice to the shaker before your ingredients. Add them to an empty tin, then just before you shake you’ll add the ice.
Never leave your shaken/stirred cocktail sitting around before you strain it. Always strain it right away.
So now that we’ve discussed how shaking and stirring with ice affects dilution, let’s talk about different kinds of ice.
Ice comes in all shapes and sizes, and you’ve probably noticed that no bar uses the long, narrow, wedge-shaped ice that comes out of your freezer’s ice maker. They’re also not using the bagged ice with donut holes through the center and inconsistent broken bits from smashing it on the ground to break it up.
Some bars use perfect Kold-Draft cubes, some use smaller flat pieces, some hand carve their own. The main thing all bar ice has in common is that it’s consistent and predictable. It’s all the same size and it’s all melting at the same rate. You can’t say the same for bagged ice or freezer ice, which makes nailing consistent dilution trickier at home.
Again, you’ll have to experiment with the ice you have on hand.
Smaller ice will require less time stirring or shaking to dilute, but more time to chill. By the time it’s cold enough, it’s over-diluted; so try starting with colder ingredients that you've kept in the refrigerator. If you have larger ice, you’ll have to shake or stir a bit longer. That’s the reason it became so popular to use a single large rock for so many cocktails: because it cools the drink down without melting as quickly as smaller rocks. You want a chilled drink, but not a watery one.
This is yet another thing that takes practice, and bartenders simply get way more practice making way more drinks for way more people than you do. They’ve been asked, “What should I get?” “What’s good here?” and “What do you like to drink?” more times per day than you can imagine. What a lot of them don’t realize is that there is no one-cocktail-fits-all drink for everybody. Not even the Moscow Mule.
So they try to quickly learn your palate in order to match a cocktail to your tastes, all while doing about twenty other things in their head at the same time. A lot of times the only parameter in doing so is “something not too sweet.” That just leaves them with, well, literally any well-balanced drink since a good bartender knows how to modify ingredients for a desired result.
Now, some ratios should never be tinkered with. Classic cocktails are classic cocktails for a reason. But bartenders have an arsenal of classics, modern riffs off of classics, and house cocktails to choose from. What’s more, bartenders know that 1/4 oz here and 2 dashes there has the potential to result in a perfectly personalized Margarita, or whatever it is they’ve been asked for.
Using your jigger with every modification you make will help you not only learn the increments that make your perfect drink, but help you make it perfect every time. Free-pouring and eyeballing are definitely one way to go, but if you’re going for the consistency and predictability of the drinks you get at your local cocktail bar, you’ll get better results with a jigger. There’s nothing worse than nailing a cocktail, but never being able to get it perfect again since you didn’t record the ingredient proportions.
So get out there and start with a tried and true recipe. Then, get yourself quality ingredients and proper tools. Practice with your ice, and make incremental modifications to your liking. Nobody gets it perfect the first time. And thank goodness for that, since the best part of experimenting with cocktails, is getting to drink your own cocktails! It’s all in the name of research.