Mastering the art of the home cocktail
Written by Maggie Kimberl
The bar community has gone above and beyond to keep our thirst quenched and our curiosities occupied throughout the pandemic, which has often included live video feeds teaching us how to make our own cocktails at home.
In the US, liquor laws are as complicated as they are antiquated. This has led to some unique problems and subsequent problem-solving during the pandemic. In some places, local governments recognized right away the need to legalize cocktails to go so businesses could stay open in some capacity. In other places, bars were left to get creative in order to keep cash flowing. Some that had package licenses began selling off inventory, while others started selling cocktail kits – everything but the booze – to thirsty patrons sheltering in place at home.
“Right after we closed we decided to sell our mixers,” says Trouble Bar co-founder, Nicole Stippy in Louisville, Kentucky. “We give you everything but the alcohol and you get a recipe card with it so you can put it together at home. Most of our cocktails are set up to be pitchered, so you get a pitcher, you add the mixers, then ice, then xyz amount of alcohol, then you mix it up and you’ve got a pitcher of cocktails for you and whoever you are quarantining with. That is what we have been legally allowed to do for cocktail service right now.”
People have been experimenting at home with everything from baking bread to making their own cocktails, but there are a few things to consider before you start mixing a little of this and a little of that. Too much of one thing or another can lead to a waste of precious beverage alcohol. Think about your target cocktail preferences before you start throwing things into a glass.
“I always tell people if you are stocking up your home bar think about what is in your favorite cocktail,” Stippy says. “If you are a Manhattan or up cocktail drinker – Manhattans, martinis, bees knees, things like that – don’t worry about getting a whole shaker and muddling kit. Get yourself a really nice set of glasses to drink them from. When you are making cocktails at home, what you are trying to replace is that feel of being at someone else’s bar. I have a friend who really loves Manhattans; he has these really fancy Manhattan glasses so when he makes one he feels like he is out. I am an Old Fashioned drinker, so I have many shakers and nice tumblers at home. If I want to feel like I am having a good escapist cocktail at home I will get my nice crystal tumblers down. So, pick what style of cocktail you want to have at home and invest in that. Because if you don’t like Manhattans then you don’t need to go buy coupes and a crystal stirring glass. If you are drinking more sours and Old Fashioneds you can put that together without much equipment at all.”
Start with the basics. Once you learn the basics you can work your way out from there. The basic recipe for a Manhattan cocktail is 2-1-2, two ounces whiskey, one ounce sweet vermouth, and two dashes of bitters. Of course, each of those is a variable that can be experimented with. You can try different bitters and different vermouths and even make your own infusions. The Old Fashioned is another classic, simple cocktail with endless variations to play with.
“At this point, since the revival of pre-prohibition style cocktails, you may see the Old Fashioned and think, ‘Ugh, I’m so over that cocktail,’ ” says Icons of Whisky USA 2020 – American Whiskey Ambassador of the Year, Sailor Guevara. “As a matter of fact, some bars don’t even put them on the menu any longer as they feel the Old Fashioned is such a staple now that there is no need, customers will ask for it regardless of the menu. And the same goes for the Manhattan cocktail, whiskey sour and highball. However, for your home bar, these cocktails can be some of the best to master as they have the ability to have endless variations.”
Once you master basic classic cocktails, the possibilities are infinite. The main concept to master is balance and, once you have that figured out, you can go from there. Even if you have limited ingredients at home it’s possible to make basic or even elevated cocktails from what you have on hand. Whiskey with a little soda and bitters over ice is super easy and very refreshing.
“You can apply the same creativity to highballs, which I just love in the warm weather months,” says Guevara. “I like to call them whiskey tonics and throw everything in a Collins glass. One of my favorite creations for summer is using a Japanese whiskey like a Toki, perhaps, then I add half cherry syrup and half lemon zinger tea syrup, pour it over ice, add lemon LaCroix and garnish with a Copper & Kings cocktail cherry. What a delight! Delicious, refreshing and full of complex flavors perfect for backyard sipping. And again, the possibilities for variations are endless, add your favorite Bourbon, basil syrup, muddle a few blueberries in the bottom of the glass, pour over ice, add lime bubbly and garnish with a few fresh blueberries and a basil sprig.”
Simple syrups are some of the easiest things to vary for the home bar and require things you typically have on hand. To stock your home bar, be sure to have some citrus fruits, some bitters, and some simple syrups. After that, just about any whiskey cocktail is an ingredient or two away.
Trouble Bar Basic Sour
By Nicole Stippy
1.5 oz. Bourbon
0.75 oz. lemon juice
0.75 oz. demerara syrup
0.25 oz. lime juice
Combine the ingredients in a shaker with lots of ice. A really good shake will produce a nice frothy head. Strain or pour into a tumbler glass and garnish with a Luxardo cherry.
If you want to play with cocktail recipes, start with new ways to make the syrup – that’s one thing you can change pretty quickly. If you have tea bags you can make a passionfruit tea simple syrup pretty easily, and try that with everything else the same. With a sour the important thing is that whatever you are using to sweeten that you balance that with the lemon juice or you end up getting a little too sweet or sour. You can also try different citrus – key lime takes away a lot of the tartness.
The Black Sheep Boulevardier
By Chris Dempsey, Samson & Surrey ambassador
1.5 oz. FEW Bourbon
0.75 oz. Vigo Amaro
1 oz. Peychaud’s Aperitivo
Garnish with an orange peel
Put Bourbon, Amaro, Aperitivo into a yarai (mixing vessel) with ice. Stir until the outside of yarai starts to sweat. This is when you know it’s mixed to proper dilution and temp. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel. You can flame the oils if you’d like, as it will open up the aromatics more from the orange. Admire the awesome job you did at making this cocktail, then drink it.
If you want to elevate this cocktail to another level, you can sub Mezcal Vago Elote for the FEW Bourbon. The toasted corn notes on this mezcal work great in this cocktail, and the agave gives it another profile and texture.
Uncle Nearest Old Fashioned
By Sailor Guevara
1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856
0.5 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes bitters
Garnish with orange peel and a cherry
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing glass and stir. Strain into rocks glass with one large cube. Express orange peel over top and garnish with cherry.
Infused herb and floral syrups: add one cup of water to a pot, a handful of desired herb or flower, simmer covered for 15-20 minutes, add 1 cup of sugar (demerara is a great choice), allow a low boil until all sugar is dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool and then store in a mason jar in your fridge for 2-3 weeks.
Infused fruit syrups: add 1/2 cup of fruit to the bottom of a pot, muddle and crush, add 1 cup of water, allow mixture to simmer for 15-20 minutes then strain out fruit pieces with a fine strainer, add the liquid back into the pot, add 1 cup of sugar and allow a low boil until all sugar is dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool, then store in a mason jar in your fridge for 1-2 weeks.
If you plan to spend some time by the campfire, try an Old Fashioned with Uncle Nearest 1884, marshmallow syrup (easy to make at home or you can purchase Monin’s Toasted Marshmallow syrup), a few shakes of chocolate bitters and then, if you want to really have fun, you can roll your glass rim in crushed graham crackers.