Ask a Bartender: What Do At-Home Bartenders Do Wrong?

Rodger Gillespie of LAVO Las Vegas

A lot of us cocktail enthusiasts are occasional at-home bartenders, trying our own hands at mixing up drinks. But we could all do with a few tips from the pros. We asked bartenders across the country: What do most amateur bartenders get wrong? Here's what they had to say.

Ingredients and Techniques

Terence Lewis of Barbuzzo and others in Philadelphia.

"Mis-use of herbs! Herbs can really brighten a drink; especially at home if you are entertaining. Herbs can transform a simple lemonade or sangria into a vibrant, fresh drink with a little more complexity. But herbs need to be muddled or 'smacked' to release their aromatics and flavors. I've seen so many homemade cocktails with the herbs just simply placed into the glass." — Terence Lewis ( Barbuzzo, et al.)

"I do not recommend using bottled juices or bottled sour mix, especially when you want to impress a guest. Always use fresh squeezed juices—lime, lemon, OJ. Makes a huge difference. Don't forget to strain the fresh squeezed juices through a fine sieve before you use them in a drink." — Young Won (Rialto)

"A lot of home bartenders tend to torture their vermouth. Drinks like the Manhattan, Martini and Negroni are great drinks to make at home because they're simple, don't require a lot of ingredients, and the clean up is minimal. But it all goes to hell when your vermouth is oxidized. Remember, vermouth is a wine product, so if you just leave it out at room temperature after it's been open, it'll go 'off'. Buy small format bottles like Dolin Dry and Carpano Antica (both are wonderful and come in 375ml bottles) and keep them in the fridge." — Rene Hidalgo (Lantern's Keep)

"I'm a huge fan of muddling. That being said, there is a method to my muddle madness. People at home tend to over-muddle their mint for their mojitos. There is a big misconception that you must muddle the mint to complete oblivion. The truth is you only want to give the mint a few quick pops with the muddler, which releases the aromatic oils in keeping the integrity of the mint. Mint contains chlorophyll, and chlorophyll is extremely bitter. If the mint is over-muddled, the chlorophyll will be released and whammo! You have a nasty, bitter tasting mojito." — Sam Scholl (Sweetwater Tavern & Grille)

Shaking and Stirring

Brian Means of Dirty Habit in SF.

"You see a lot of people shaking cocktails that should be stirred; like a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or a Negroni. Simple mistakes, but will make a world of difference when made correctly." — Brian Means (Dirty Habit)

"Building cocktails in the glass without shaking. If you take the time to squeeze fresh lime juice for your daiquiri, it's essential to shake it. Shaking the citrus will aerate your cocktail and liven up those great flavors. " — Shane McGrath (The Oakland Art Novelty co.)

"When people make cocktails around the house, they tend to shake and stir their drinks too long. After the first few seconds of shaking (count to seven), or the first 25-30 seconds of stirring, the drink is already as cold as it's going to get and you're just watering it down." — Kyle Storm (French Louie)

"I feel that a lot of people do not stir their cocktails enough, or the stirring technique is a bit off. The glass should be quite full of ice, and the spoon should be moving the ice around the spirit. I have seen people actually stirring the drink, which creates too many ice chips which results in over dilution. Around 50 revolutions is the target for a Manhattan." — Chino Lee (Departure Restaurant)

"You should only shake a cocktail if you're using fruit juices, cream liqueurs, or sour mix. Stirring is a more gentle technique and is recommended for distilled spirits with very light mixers, which is usually what people make at home." — Ergys Dizdari (Filini Bar and Restaurant)

"I was taught by my mentor that: 'Shake like you're trying to wake up the ice, not rock it to sleep.'" — Paul Sauter (Mercadito Chicago)

Ice and Glasses

Buying Through Small Beer Clubs
Dan Bronson of Crescent & Vine in Queens.

"Make sure your glassware is clean, which almost always means hand washing with very hot water, air drying, then polishing." — Dan Bronson (Crescent & Vine)

"Too often, people at home use ice that's been sitting in their freezer for some time. The problem is that ice has been soaking up the flavors and scents of all the food that's in the freezer, too. And those flavors end up in the drinks. Better to use fresh ice to make sure your cocktail tastes like it's supposed to taste, and not like left-over chili." — Josh Berner (Poste Moderne Brasserie)

"Not using enough ice. Ice is crucial for dilution to balance any cocktail and for simple cocktails necessary to take up volume in the glass." — Ben Anderson (The Corner Office)

"Showmanship! Glassware, garnishes, and serving vessels tend to be an afterthought. Pre-making a cocktail in a cool pitcher or vessel can be a real show stopper. Presentation is key to successfully entertaining at home, and the right tools can take a ton of pressure off of the host to put something together on the fly." — Jason Lakow (Amali)

"The easiest way to up the ante for your home bar setup is to use large, solid ice cubes, as opposed to the smaller, softer variety we generally find in our freezers. Tovolo King Cube Ice Trays are a perfect addition to your at home arsenal." — Jamie Buckman (Bookstore Bar & Café)

"I've seen friends run out of ice plenty of times when making drinks at home. You use ice to shake or stir your drinks, and pour them over fresh ice. Do that a couple times and you've gone through two trays of ice so I recommend always having a bag on hand... or have a freezer just for ice, like I do at home." — Kevin Diedrich (Gaspar Brasserie)

Garnishes and More

Rodger Gillespie of LAVO Las Vegas.

"If I had to start at step one it would probably be using a jigger. Properly measuring a drink is a key element in the balance of the cocktail." — Rodger Gillespie (LAVO Las Vegas)

"The garnish, namely the twist. People just making a drink for themselves at home often leave a tasty or aromatic garnish out all together. A twist is much more than a peel of the fruit. It adds flavor without even touching the drink. To make a properly executed twist, 1) use a sharp peeler 2) squeeze the peel with the outside facing toward the drink 3) squeeze in a quick, smart fashion—you should be able to see the volatile and aromatic citrus oils hit the top of the beverage." — Dave Porcaro (Bigalora Wood Fired Grill)

"Assuming that the obvious spirit is always the largest portion of the recipe. I had a gentleman in the other day voicing his frustrations about how we can't seem to get the Negroni right at home. When I told him equal parts he was blown away. He assumed it should be heavier on the gin with some Campari and just a touch of sweet vermouth." — Dan Rook (South Water Kitchen)

"Often, at home, one may lack organization and prep to make a nice cocktail. If you set out on a mission to make a cocktail properly you should have a good mis en place, or a place for everything, before you start mixing properly." — Trent Simpson (La Urbana)

"Simplicity is key. I think it's great to get excited about cocktails and start trying to make lots of home-made ingredients, but involving more steps also leaves room for more errors. It should be a relaxing and uncomplicated process to make a drink for yourself or a house guest. Leave the hard work to your bartenders, who make it their business to sweat the small stuff." — Claire Sprouse (The Square)