• When you drink out on the town, spend your dollars on quality and your time on people from whom you can learn.
On our site we will highlight the sorts of places and bartenders we admire and are grateful to for the experiences they provide. While we’ve learned much from websites and books, the core of a great bartender is not recipes or drink assembly technique, but the skill of hosting. This you learn best by being served and by watching good service. It is the grace that takes a drink to its highest level; the right drink for the imbiber, made with care, delivered with charm and respect.
• At home, build your home bar and your own knowledge and skills strategically.
Better tools and ingredients cost more, yes, but not all that much more and they will serve you far better. In this guide we hope to help you optimize your expenditures for outstanding results.
Our strategic approach in this guide is laid out in a series of steps, let’s call them adventures, which build upon each other and which space out the expense of building your collection of tools, ingredients, and resources. The speed with which you take on these adventures is up to your budget and time, but our goal is for each one to provide an immediate reward and a new array of possibilities.
Through these adventures you will be introduced to the core set of classic cocktails and techniques. Many of the tools, ingredients and other resources described are available through our shopping links.
Adventure #1: Tabula Rasa
On this blank slate inscribe the ancestral cocktail, the Old Fashioned.
Ingredients: ice, simple syrup, aromatic bitters, rye whiskey, lemon twist.
New techniques: Cracking Ice, Building In Glass, Stirring, Garnishing with a Twist.
Your ice needs to be fresh and not taste like your freezer. If you don’t have really good tap water, use filtered water or bottled water; ice melt is a significant taste factor in good drinks. Your cubes should be larger, to reduce melt. Avoid fancy shapes which provide too much melting surfaces. If you don’t have an ice cube tray, we recommend the Beaba Multiportion Freezer Tray (tray & lid $19.95). A good fallback from that larger, lidded tray is the Tovolo “Perfect Cube” silicone tray (set of 2 ~$15). The cube shape is a good compromise between freezing speed and cube size, but you’ll want to keep a lidded container in the freezer to hold the cubes once made so they don’t pick up freezer tastes & smells. With soft silicone trays, just push the base of the cube to extract it, rather than twisting the whole tray as one does with a hard tray. [Note: As of 2015 we no longer recommend silicone trays as they tend over time to pick up and firmly retain unpleasant freezer smells and tastes. Instead, try a non-silicone, lidded plastic tray. Oxo makes several including individual larger sizes as part of their Tot line.]
- Angostura bitters (4oz jar ~$7)
- Old Overholt rye (750ml bottle ~$15) (If unavailable, substitute Pikesville, Rittenhouse, Rittenhouse 100, or Wild Turkey 101)
- Zyliss Easy Grip channel knife/zester (~$8)
- heavy duty stainless steel bar spoon (~$5, avoid the red plastic ended kind)
- Oxo Mini Angled Measuring cup/jigger (set of 3 ~$10)
- lemon with clean unblemished skin (less than $1. Always use fresh fruit; it has a huge impact on your drinks)
If your freezer is smelly, clean it; you don’t want that smell to come into your cocktails by way of the ice. Freeze up some nice fresh ice.
Locate a completely clean kitchen towel (unless by some chance you already own a Lewis bag, in which case use that and tell us why someone with Lewis bag needs help setting up their home bar).
Locate an old fashioned or rocks glass, i.e. a smaller, fairly straight-sided, flat-bottomed glass.
Make simple syrup by heating 1 cup water in a small pan on the stove or in a microwave-proof dish in the microwave until it is steaming, pour in 1 cup sugar, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves and the liquid is clear. Let cool and then store in the refrigerator in a sealed container (e.g. a clean glass jar that doesn’t have any smell remaining from whatever it previously contained).
Optional, but recommended: locate a thin silicone cutting mat. These are usually cheap (around $2) and provide a super simple-to-clean bar surface. Just do your mixing on top of the mat and then rinse it along with your other bar tools. Very handy when dealing with simple syrup and sticky liqueurs.
Making the drink:
- Wash your hands.
- Rinse off the lemon to remove any wax, chemical residue, or fingerprints of unknown picky shoppers who came before you.
- On top of your cutting mat, set out your glass, bitters, rye, barspoon, zester, and jigger.
- Set your clean towel beside it.
- Put a teaspoon of simple syrup in the bottom of the glass.
- Add two dashes of Angostura bitters.
- Stir to blend.
- Place enough ice to mostly fill your glass on the towel, then twist the towel around the ice and strike it sharply against the countertop once or twice to crack the ice a bit. (Alternately, rinse the barspoon and use its handle end to crack each cube in the palm of your hand. This takes a bit of practice, which we recommend you do in private before attempting for guests). Your goal is to split the cubes into a 2 or 3 pieces to provide a bit more melting surface and more interesting shapes.
- Add the ice to the glass by lifting the large chunks from the towel (trying to shake from the towel into the glass will only lead to a mess and too watered down a drink).
- Pour 1.5 oz of rye into your jigger and add it to the glass.
- Stir with your barspoon to chill. Do not “chop” the barspoon up and down, instead insert it along the side of the glass and gentle swirl the whole contents of the glass. Your goal eventually is to keep the contents circulating smoothly while having no risk of spilling them as you make eye contact and conversation with a guest. Stir for at least 20 seconds.
- Cut your lemon twist over the glass by holding the fruit firmly in one hand, digging the blade of the channel knife into the peel, and drawing it around the fruit as you rotate it with the holding hand. The oils from the peel should spray across the glass and you should be getting almost entirely zest with little white pith. For this drink a short twist an inch or two long is appropriate. Use your index finger on the hand holding the fruit to catch the twist and hold it against the fruit after it’s cut. Set down the channel knife, take the twist and wipe the peel side (not the bitter white pith) against the rim of the glass, then drop it in.
- Rinse your bar tools.
- Enjoy your drink.
You now have the base equipment for measured drinks which are not shaken or strained. You have a clean work surface and good ice. You have good ice which you can use cracked in cocktails where you want more dilution or uncracked to chill without watering down a drink or spirit served by itself. Using the back of your barspoon as a surface onto which to carefully pour a float, you can layer an ingredient atop a drink. Your channel knife also includes a zester (the little holes) which give you an alternative way to add citrus flavor and a visually pleasing garnish to a drink. You can also use zest in creating a citrus-flavored simple syrup. You have Angostura bitters which when dashed into soda water can help settle the stomach.
Where you can go from here with these tools & skills:
non-rye Old Fashioneds (buy a better grade gin, brandy, rum, tequila or Irish whiskey and follow exactly this same recipe).
You can also try some other recipes using these other new ingredients, with specific recommendations where we have them noted:
Champagne Cocktail (buy decent champagne, sugar cubes, champagne flutes to serve in)
Black Velvet (buy decent champagne, Guinness stout, champagne flutes to serve in)
Caipirinha (buy cachaça, a lime)
Improved Holland Gin Cocktail (buy Bols Genever (~$50), Peychaud’s Bitters (~$4), and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur(~$28))