So it's booze o'clock on a Friday, and you're ready for a drink, but you're new to the mixing game and you're not quite sure how to get started. You've come to the right place: after three and a half years of writing about cocktail technique on Serious Eats, I've gathered my tips, essential pointers, and the wisdom of a few stellar bartenders into one handy guide. If you want your homemade drinks to stand up to any you might order for $13 or $19 (sheesh, is that what they cost these days?) in a fancy bar, consider this your handbook.
Thirsty? Let's get started!
The Tools You Need for Making Drinks
You can't make a proper cocktail without a few essential gizmos, and you can't make one without booze, either. Ready to get stocked up?
There are two common types of cocktail shakers. You probably received one type as a 21st birthday present, but you should probably seek out the other instead.
- Cobbler: This guy is the commonly gifted three-piece style you'll see in most housewares stores. I kind of hate cobbler shakers. The metal-on-metal construction means that the pieces seize up when they're cold, which makes them difficult to open for cleaning or reuse. Also, the strainer design leads to slow strains and, if you have any muddled ingredients in the drink, some bits of leaves might slip through the big strainer holes and out into your drink.
- Boston shaker: The Boston consists of a shaking tin and a mixing glass. They open easily, if you know the trick (more on that in a sec); they're relatively inexpensive; and even if the mixing glass breaks, you can replace it for cheap. Using a Boston does require you to have a separate strainer, but that means you can choose a strainer that'll do the job well.
What about those all-metal Boston shakers? Generally made of one larger tin and one smaller tin, they're increasingly popular with pro bartenders, but I don't recommend them if you're starting out. By building your cocktail in the mixing glass and then sealing the tin to the top of the glass, you can watch what you're doing as you add ingredients to the glass. Using an all-tin shaker denies you the transparency of glass, and you might therefore be more prone to mistakes.
You gotta get that cocktail out of the shaker and into your glass—preferably without the muddled bits and the ice you've used to dilute the drink. There are a couple of common types of strainers.
- A julep strainer has a perforated bowl-shaped cup and an attached handle. These fit well into a mixing glass (and less well into a shaking tin). I admit I misplaced all three of mine for months and hardly missed them—that probably means that this little piece of equipment is not a must-have.
- A Hawthorne strainer consists of a flat disc to which is affixed a coiled spring. The spring traps large chunks or slivers of ice and other solid ingredients, such as muddled fruit or mint leaves. Hawthornes are typically used when straining shaken cocktails from mixing tins. The spring allows you to control the flow of liquid from the shaker, and this tool does a generally excellent job of keeping small ice chips, citrus pulp, and particles of muddled ingredients in the shaker, where they belong.
With either type, make sure you have a strainer that covers most of the vessel's top. Some strainers are pretty, but let drinks splash out the sides of the vessel. Messy!
If you can only buy one, buy the Hawthorne: the control that the spring offers makes it the more versatile of the two types.
For stirring, natch. A barspoon's long neck allows it to reach the bottom of even the largest mixing glass, and its twisted (or cylindrical) shape allows the spoon to spin freely in your stirring hand while it moves around the glass. A standard teaspoon makes stirring much more clumsy and slow—and may not reach to the bottom of a glass.
When I started down the road of obsession, about the only type of barspoon you could buy was the cheap kind with the red, plastic cap on the end. The caps invariably fall off, leaving a poky end that I've stabbed my hand on more than once. Worse, though, they're flimsy. You want a spoon with a little heft; once you know how to stir, you'll quickly learn that a good, hefty spoon does most of the work.
In The Bar Book, Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Portland's Clyde Common recommends specifically seeking out a twisted (or coiled) spoon. He writes, "I steer clear of those sexy spoons without coils, as they tend to slip around in the grip of wet fingers, which you're often going to have behind the bar." That's a point well taken if you're a pro bartender, but if you're just mixing at home, you probably don't need to worry about that. The Death & Co. cocktail book also suggests spoons with spiral shafts; the writers reason that a tightly spiraled shaft creates less resistance in the glass as you stir, thus letting you stir quickly without introducing too much air into the drink.
Morgenthaler also suggests that in addition to the bowl on the business end of the spoon, you should look for something useful at the other end: a disk for muddling herbs or sugar, perhaps, or a fork for spearing garnishes. A home bartender might not need to worry about this, but since barspoons with functional tools on the end also tend to look cool, they might be worth a splurge.
Spiral or not, useful tool on the end or not—it's really up to you and whatever you think you'd prefer. Just look for a spoon with a good balance, a decent heft, and a comfortable fit in your hand.
If you're in a pinch and don't have a barspoon, a chopstick will work well enough, though it won't agitate the ice in the glass in the same way that a spoon will.
Your home bar really needs two knives, a chef's knife and a paring knife.
A good quality chef's knife is crucial for working with large fruit like pineapples and for halving citrus prior to juicing. If you can afford to do so, it's convenient to purchase a separate knife just for your bar. If you're not also using it to chop vegetables, slice meat, and smash garlic cloves, the blade will stay sharper for longer.
When selecting a chef's knife for the bar, apply the same rules as when buying one for kitchen use:
- Try out a number of knives at various stores, and see what fits well in your hand. Don't select something that's too heavy to use comfortably.
- Pay attention to the material used to make the blade: you definitely don't want your knife to rust.
Wondering about specific brands? Read about our favorite chef's knives here.
A great paring knife is a bartender's best friend. In the kitchen, a paring knife may be second in command behind a chef's knife, but the opposite is true come cocktail hour.
I use my paring knife to cut swaths of zest for twisting over cocktails. I cut lime wheels and citrus wedges with it. I call on it to prep slices of apple or pear to perch on the rim of a glass, to trim leaves off berries for use in syrups and homemade cordials, and to trim herbs and prep savory garnishes for Bloody Marys.
For tips on selecting a paring knife, I can't hope to improve on Kenji's advice.
Sometimes, when I want a curly twist of citrus zest, I'll use a channel knife for that purpose. But since that happens only when I'm fancy for company, I don't use the channel very often. Is a channel knife essential for you? Depends how fancy you are, I guess.
Jiggers and Measuring Cups
Why use a measuring tool when making drinks? When you're following a recipe, you want a consistent result every time, right? Don't you want your next Sidecar to taste as delicious as the previous one? Then measure. Unless you're very skilled at free-pouring—and very few beginners are—there's no way you'll pour the correct amount of cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice each and every time without measuring.
A skilled bartender might be able to pick up a bottle of booze and consistently and accurately five-count a 2-ounce pour, every single time, but that takes a lot of practice. One reason bartenders free-pour is efficiency: they need to bang out as many drinks as they can in a very short amount of time. You don't need to worry about that if you're making drinks at home. All you need to worry about is deliciousness. Measure. You can use either jiggers or small measuring cups. Here are the pros and cons of each:
Jiggers are the basic hourglass-shaped stainless-steel measuring device you've seen in many a bar. These are cheap and easy to find. Typically, the larger cup measures out exactly one jigger, or one and a half ounces. The smaller cup is normally one half jigger, or 3/4 ounces. Be careful—a number of other sizes exist, and you should know what units you're working in. For example, the second most common jigger size has a side with a one-ounce cup, and a half-ounce cup on the other side; you might find that this smaller jigger makes recipes easier to follow, especially those written with ingredients measured in half-ounce or full-ounce increments. Jiggers of this type are cheap, though, so you could buy several and experiment.
While I'm all about measuring your cocktail ingredients, I must be honest: I almost never use a jigger at home, unless I just want to practice my jiggering. First of all, not all jiggers are equal: some that might appear to measure a true jigger actually measure one and a quarter ounces instead of one and a half. If I want accuracy in my measuring (and I do), I don't want to have to second-guess the capacity of my tools.
My measurer of choice is the Oxo mini angled measuring cup. I love this darned thing and I use it daily. I only have one problem with it: there's no mark for three-quarters of an ounce. I usually eyeball it, or if I need more precision, I measure half and then a quarter ounce.
I should note, that some bartenders don't like measuring amounts as small as a quarter ounce in these cups. To explain why, I need to mention something called a meniscus. It's the curve in the upper surface of a liquid that's in a container. The reason some people see this as a problem is that the curve can make it difficult to accurately read how close you are to the quarter-ounce mark.
I don't think it's worth getting too worked up. At most we're looking at a couple of drops of liquid's difference between an accurate measure and an inaccurate measure. If you're measuring a strongly flavored ingredient, such as absinthe or Fernet Branca, a couple of extra drops could affect a cocktail. But for milder-tasting ingredients such as lemon juice or simple syrup, it's not going to make a huge difference.
You can find a number of gadgets on the market for juicing citrus, from a professional lever-style hand press to a simple inexpensive wooden reamer to an electric citrus juicer or a fancy all-purpose fruit and veggie model.
Your choice will depend on many factors: your budget, the amount of counter or storage space you have, how often you entertain, and whether you'll be juicing anything other than citrus. And also: how many margaritas you like to make. Be sure to think of the margaritas.
My wife and I don't drink vegetable juices and don't have much storage space for machines, so my preferred juicer these days is a simple hand squeezer. I'm currently using a squeezer made by Chef'n. The geared hinge provides a little more force than many other hand squeezers offer, and the handle's quite comfortable in the hand.
Storing separate juicers for every citrus fruit gets to be a pain after a while. This Chef'n model handles lemons and limes perfectly, and can take a small orange or tangerine, too. If I need to squeeze a larger orange, I use my hands, alone, with no tools.
Walk into any housewares store, and you might feel overwhelmed by the variety of cocktail glasses available to you. (And I'll warn you: collecting them can become a bit of an expensive hobby. Don't forget to save cash for booze!) Really, though, you only need four different types of glasses to contain nearly any cocktail you might want to make:
- Stemmed, or up, glasses
- Old fashioned, or rocks, glasses
- Chimney-style glasses (that is, highball or Collins glasses)
- Champagne flutes
Which glass goes with which drink? Here's a rule of thumb: Use a stemmed glass, also called an up glass, whenever you're serving a shaken or stirred drink without any ice in the glass. The stem lifts the bowl of the glass up and away from your hands, which would otherwise warm the glass. Hold the glass by its stem and raise it to your waiting lips. Use an Old Fashioned glass for drinks built in the glass, meaning you're not using a cocktail shaker or mixing glass—you're mixing it (usually with ice) in the serving glass. Use a highball glass when you're sipping something cold and refreshing that's served over lots of ice, sometimes with a straw.
You've probably seen a few different types of stemmed glasses. The iconic V-shaped glass—sometimes called a Martini glass—has a drawback, as you probably know if you've had a little too much celebration: It's easy to tip over. That's where its lesser-known cousin comes in: the coupe glass. The coupe started life as a Champagne glass, but alas, the coupe is not all that well suited to Champagne. Its shape means most of the effervescence evaporates before the sparkler reaches the mouth. But the coupe is very well adapted to holding cocktails! I like having both types of glasses on hand. I reserve the V-shaped cocktail glass for a classic Martini. Anything else goes into a coupe: Manhattans, Daiquiris, Sidecars, you name it.
Making tall, cool drinks served over ice? The chimney-style glass that you need goes by a few different names: the Delmonico, the Collins, and the highball. The Delmonico is the smallest of the chimney styles, at five to eight ounces; the highball rings in at about eight to 12 ounces, and the Collins at 12 to 16 ounces. Historically, they were each used for a different type of cocktail. You'll still find bartenders who insist on serving a Tom Collins in a Collins glass but a gin fizz in a highball. For home use, though, I think these distinctions are unnecessary.
Smaller Is Better (Though Harder to Find)
One thing you might notice when shopping for cocktail glasses: they're all so damn big. Chain stores mainly stock stemmed glasses in the 10 to 15 ounce range; their double old fashioned glasses reach 14 ounces; and highballs go up to 20 ounces—you might as well just drink your gin and tonic from a pint glass! (Kidding. Please don't do that.)
But if you look at the recipes here on Serious Eats—the delicious Ampersand, for example, or the wonderful Boulevardier—you'll see they generally call for three or so ounces of liquid, unless they're highballs. So, for most cocktail recipes, I recommend seeking out the following sized glasses:
- Stemmed (V or coupe glass): five to seven ounces
- Old fashioned or rocks: six to eight ounces; double: 12 to 14 ounces
- Chimney-style: 10 to 16 ounces
How to Shop for Booze
Every well-stocked home bar starts somewhere, and most start with a bottle or three of booze. If you're just getting started, you might be wondering how to how to choose those first couple of bottles.
When it's time to stock a home bar, you have two options. You can buy one of everything, or you can be more selective.
Unless you have access to unlimited cash (hey, bank robbers gotta drink!), I'd recommend that you buy bottles with a specific goal in mind—perhaps a particular drink you want to get good at making, or a spirit (for example, bourbon) that you want to explore in depth.
Let's look at the first example: Pick a cocktail, and then assemble everything you need to make it. If you like the Sidecar, buy one cognac and one bottle of decent triple sec. When you have money, buy a second cognac and compare the two. Whatever you don't use immediately, you can keep around for later cocktail experimentation. Then buy a second triple sec. If you're really serious about the Sidecar, buy a third bottle of each. Suddenly, you have a great supply of cognac and triple sec on hand.
Another drink that rewards experimentation is the martini. Gins come in all formulations and flavors these days, and most of them make a killer martini. I like to mix my martinis a little differently based on the gin bottling I'm using. A dry, juniper-rich gin in the London Dry style, such as Beefeater, can take a little more vermouth than can a sweeter, more floral gin such as Hendrick's. If you're into experimenting with various martini proportions, you can build up a great gin selection in no time.
How Do I Store This Stuff, and How Long Will It Last?
Liquors and liqueurs will theoretically last longer than you will, if you store them well. Liquor collectors are constantly on the search for bottles of old spirits: bourbons, ryes, Cognacs, Chartreuse, and other bottles that date back decades or even back into the 1800s. When you taste vintage bottles, you're tasting a bit of history. Why? Well, unlike most wine and beer, liquor and liqueur don't mature or change much in the bottle; in the case of spirits such as gin or whiskey, the high alcohol content preserves them from spoilage. In the case of liqueurs, it's both the booze and the sugar that keeps them from going bad (although there are some possible exceptions, noted below). If you store your hooch upright and preferably in a cool, dark place, you can generally keep your stuff around until your great-grandkids are of drinking age, if you're so inclined.
Most spirits, such as rum, bourbon, Scotch, gin, vodka, and brandy can be stored safely at room temperature on a pantry shelf or in a closet. The alcohol content is strong enough to preserve them. High-proof liqueurs such as most absinthe and Chartreuse can also be stored at room temperature.
Over time, an open bottle of liquor will start to lose some of its character as it reacts with oxygen and sunlight, but this process is gradual. If you have a bottle that you've spent a good sum on, and you want to savor it over the course of several years, you might want to consider decanting into smaller bottles with less headspace, and spraying with inert gas such as Private Preserve.
Vermouth is made with wine and should be stored like wine—refrigerate it after opening. In a blind taste test, we found that we couldn't discriminate between fresh vermouth and vermouth stored in the fridge for a month. Don't have fridge space? Try that inert gas.
Many bartenders like to keep lower-proof liqueurs, such as Campari or Benedictine, in the refrigerator, reasoning that like wine, its lower proof makes it more prone to spoilage. In the end, I think it depends mostly on how quickly you empty a bottle. If you'll finish a liqueur within a few months, you'll probably be fine keeping it at room temperature, as long as the bottle is tightly closed.
Protip: if you're storing high-sugar liqueurs such as Campari, it helps to wipe down the neck of the bottle with a damp rag or paper towel before you put the cap back on. If you don't, the sugar in the liqueur will cement the cap to the neck of the bottle, and you'll have a hell of a time opening it.
How to Use a Jigger
A full jigger shouldn't be shaken or moved around a ton—you'll lose precious, precious booze that way. Instead, just hold the jigger steady, straight, and level between your thumb and forefinger, with the rim of the jigger next to and just above the rim of your mixing vessel. Fill it brim-full with your liquid of choice, and then tip the contents into your shaker or mixing glass.
We recommend that you measure and pour your ingredients into the mixing glass without ice. This allows you to watch what you're doing, so you can keep track of what's been added and avoid over- or underpouring. There's another advantage, too: if you build the drink without ice, you can step away if necessary, to answer the phone, find an ingredient, or serve your guests some cheesy-puffs, without ice melting into the cocktail while it awaits your shake.
The Mechanics of Mixing, Chilling, and Dilution
We have three main goals when mixing a cocktail:
- Blending the ingredients
- Diluting the drink to the ideal level of dilution
- Chilling the drink to its ideal temperature
I'll look at each of these in turn. First up is the obvious point: It's easy to understand that when you're stirring or shaking a drink, you're blending its ingredients. What distinguishes stirred from shaken drinks, though, is texture. Stirred drinks have a silky texture, and shaken drinks have a somewhat foamy texture. How do we best achieve that texture? I'll get back to that in a moment.
You may think more about the bottles of booze you're mixing, but water is an essential ingredient in any cocktail, and when you prepare a cocktail to order, you introduce water into the drink during the mixing process.
As the ice melts into the cocktail, by the very nature of physics, it chills the drink. Melting ice, in fact, can chill a drink even colder than 0o C / 32o F. If you really want to dig into the details, be sure pick up Dave Arnold's Liquid Intelligence in November.
Dave Arnold's fundamental law of traditional cocktails is this: There is no chilling without dilution, and there is no dilution without chilling. Yes, you can chill drinks a bit with frozen plastic cubes or whiskey stones or by simply putting the drink in the freezer for a while. But because melting ice—and dilution—is the key to getting a drink down below the 0o C mark, you simply cannot chill a drink down below 0o C with plastic cubes or stones.
What's more, the cocktail's potent flavors often come into balance with the addition of this small amount of water, which also helps to cool the burn of alcohol on your palate.
When Should I Shake, and When Should I Stir?
Shaking is a more efficient way to chill and dilute a drink, simply because the ice rattles around more violently in the shaker and therefore breaks down more quickly, releasing its water into the drink.
That doesn't mean, though, that shaking is always the proper method. Shaking causes drinks to foam up, which sometimes results in a cocktail that... well, just doesn't look very good.
So, when is it best to shake and when is it best to stir? Here's the rule of thumb:
Shake any drink that contains juice, dairy, or eggs. These ingredients generally look better in a glass and have a better texture when they're foamy. Think of how satisfying whipped cream and meringue taste and feel.
How to Stir a Cocktail
Stirring is an easy skill to master, but it takes a special technique and a special type of spoon.
What you'll need:
- Ice, naturally. The best bet is to take a standard cube in one hand and whack it with the back of the bowl of your barspoon, to crack it into smaller cubes. Otherwise, if you use solid 1-inch cubes, you'll need to stir for a longer time to get the proper chilling and dilution.
- One mixing glass or tin. I recommend using a glass because you can see what you're doing. Metal is a better conductor of heat, though, and so it's better at drawing heat from the cocktail and chilling it down more quickly. If you prefer metal, go for it. My directions here presuppose that you're using a glass.
- One barspoon
What you'll do:
1. First, chill both your mixing glass and your serving glass. You can store them for a short time in the freezer or a longer time in the fridge, or you can fill them with a mix of ice and water and set aside for 5 minutes. (Our man Kevin Liu suggests a few other methods, including filling the glass with vodka you've chilled in the freezer for quick, satisfying results. It's a bit like a poor man's version of liquid nitrogen. Give it a try!) If you use a glass at room temperature, the glass will warm its contents and dilute the cocktail too quickly. A cold glass buys you some time. It will help chill the drink and slow down the dilution process, freeing you to enjoy the Zen of stirring, that moment when your stress begins to drop away as you anticipate the luscious beverage you're about to enjoy. As you get really good at this, you can even close your eyes and enjoy the sensation of the spoon spinning in your hand.
2. Dump the ice water or super-cold vodka, if using, from the mixing glass. If it's vodka you're using, you may want to save it in a freezer-safe container.
3. Add cocktail ingredients to empty mixing glass.
4. Add enough ice to fill mixing glass about two thirds full.
5. Take your spoon between your thumb and your first two fingers of your dominant hand. The shaft of the spoon should be between your index and middle finger. Insert it into the glass until the bowl of the spoon touches the bottom.
6. Keeping your arm and fingers still, use your wrist to turn the spoon in the glass. The spoon, you'll find, will spin about in your fingers on its own axis. Use your index finger to pull the spoon toward you (from the twelve o'clock position to the six o'clock) and your middle finger to push it away. The ice and liquid will move about the glass. After you've had some practice with this, you'll find it's pretty easy to move the spoon up and down in the glass while you're stirring. You should do so, as it helps to agitate the drink.
7. Stir for about 25–30 seconds. If you want to be scientific about this, insert a digital thermometer into the glass. If the temperature reads about 20° Fahrenheit, you're done. If not, keep stirring.
8. Dump the ice water or vodka, if using, from the serving glass. Strain stirred cocktail into chilled serving glass, garnish, and serve.
How to Shake a Cocktail
Beginners can get nervous about whether they're using proper shaking technique, but I promise that shaking is a pretty easy technique to master if you follow these steps. And unlike stirring, shaking allows you to express personal style and wit, which are always fun guests at a cocktail party.
What you'll need:
- Cocktail shaker
- The ingredients for your cocktail
Let's talk about that ice for a moment. I previously thought that the one-inch Tovolo ice cubes I use for stirring drinks were also the best choice for shaking. I have since seen the light. The Death & Co. book suggests using larger cubes for shaking. At D & Co., the bartenders carve a large block of ice down into two-inch cubes, but you can achieve the same at home by using the larger Tovolo King Cube mold. D & Co.'s rationale is that using larger cubes (with less surface area when compared to mass) allows you to shake a drink for longer before it reaches proper dilution. Because these large cubes break apart very slowly, it's hard to go wrong and overdilute the cocktail. The resulting drink will be cold and well-aerated.
Well-aerated... what does that mean? When you shake a drink, you introduce air bubbles. The larger the cube, the smaller the bubbles it produces, which leads to a finer texture. Texture, Morgenthaler writes in The Bar Book, is "the difference between a good cocktail and a great cocktail, particularly in juice-forward cocktails and definitely in drinks that contain dairy."
The professionals differ on one important point beyond this. D & Co. bartenders shake with the two large cubes, but they shake for a long time to get the dilution right. Dave Arnold, in his forthcoming Liquid Intelligence, advocates another approach: use one large cube and several smaller cubes. The large cube will provide aeration and texture. The small cubes will provide dilution.
Boston shakers can cause two common problems. First: how do I close it so that it doesn't leak? The second: how do I open the darn thing to extract my yummy cocktail? Both predicaments have simple solutions, described in the step-by-step instructions below.
What you'll do:
1. Chill your serving glass. You can store it for a short time in the freezer or a longer time in the fridge, or you can fill it with a mix of ice and water and set aside for 5 minutes, or do that extra-quick frozen-vodka trick.
2. Measure and pour your ingredients into the mixing glass without ice.
3. Add two large (two-inch) cubes. You can add smaller (one-inch) cubes as well, or skip it.
4. To close the shaker so that it doesn't leak when you're shaking, you need to ensure that you have a tight seal. Place the empty metal mixing tin over the top of the glass at a slight angle. Using the heel of your hand, tap sharply against the base of the tin. You don't need to hit the tin hard, just firmly. If you're too aggressive, you can risk breaking the glass. If you've sealed your shaker properly, you should be able to pick the entire contraption up from your counter or table just by lifting the tin. If you lift the tin and the glass stays on the table, you don't have a seal.
5. Hold the glass away from your guests, in your dominant hand over your shoulder. If anything leaks from the shaker, it will leak away from your guests and behind you instead of spraying your guests in the face.
6. Shake vigorously for at least 15 seconds. You want to break up the ice and mix everything thoroughly. A short, wimpy shake will not achieve this. You don't need to go crazy, though. You should hear the ice rattling around in the shaker, striking the sides, top, and bottom. Let the shaker tell you how vigorous is vigorous enough.
7. To break the seal when you're done shaking, hold the contraption in your non-dominant hand, and look at it carefully. What you'll see is that the tin and glass are in a curved shape. On the inner part of the curve, the tin and glass are snuggled up together like two birds of a feather should be. On the outer part of the curve, there's a wider gap between them. What you're looking for is the spot where the two just start to separate, as in the picture below:
This is where you'll aim to hit the thing with the heel of your dominant hand to break it apart. Again, you don't need to hit it hard, just firmly, right where the gap is starting to form.
8. Remove the mixing glass from the tin and set aside, leaving the cocktail and ice in the tin. Meanwhile, dump ice water or vodka (if using) from the serving glass. Strain the shaken cocktail into serving glass. Garnish and drink it down.
How to Strain a Cocktail
Traditionally, the julep strainer is used when straining a cocktail from a mixing glass, and the Hawthorne when straining from a mixing tin. The reason is simple: The julep strainer fits a mixing glass a little better than a Hawthorne does, and the Hawthorne's a better fit than a julep when using a tin. Stick to this and you're less likely to make a mess when pouring.
How to Strain Using a Julep Strainer
What you'll need:
- Mixing glass full of cocktail and ice
- Julep strainer
- Chilled serving glass
What you'll do:
1. Place the julep strainer in the glass, with the bowl of the strainer "cupping" the ice, like a bowl placed upside down.
2. Grab the glass near its rim, using your dominant hand. Using your index finger, hold the strainer against the ice. Lift the mixing glass, tilt it over the serving glass, and pour.
How to Strain Using a Hawthorne Strainer
What you'll need:
- Mixing tin full of cocktail
- Hawthorne strainer
- Chilled serving glass
What you'll do:
1. Place the Hawthorne strainer atop the mixing tin, using the strainer's tabs to keep it from falling into the tin.
2. Grasp the tin near the top, using your dominant hand. Use your index finger or first two fingers to hold the strainer in place.
3. Using your fingers, slide the strainer forward against the tin, so that no gap remains between the front rim of the strainer and the lip of the tin. This helps keep tiny shards of ice inside the tin and out of the drink. This technique also keeps bits of fruit and muddled leaves in the tin and out of your glass.)
4. Lift the mixing tin, holding the strainer in place with one or two fingers. Tilt it over the serving glass, and pour.
5. When nearly all the cocktail is in the glass, snap your wrist once toward the glass and again away from it, using the shaking motion to remove the last few drops of cocktail from the shaker tin.
The traditional instructions for mixing drinks such as the Tom Collins say to shake the gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice together, and then strain into a glass and top with soda water. In most cases, this leaves you with a dense cocktail at the bottom of the glass and a bunch of soda water floating on top. Gross.
There's a better way. Jeffrey Morgenthaler suggests shaking the non-soda cocktail ingredients—in this case, gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice—and then adding the fizzy stuff to the shaker before you strain. Makes sense: the act of straining will agitate the drink enough to mix the ingredients a bit, and the heavier alcohol will essentially be poured over the soda, leaving you a much more even mix.
When Should I Double Strain?
Some cocktails call for an extra step, a special bit of finesse to make them smooth and pretty. When you're straining a cocktail that contains fruit or mint (or basil, if you're into that), it's easy when straining to let little bits of fruit pulp or muddled leaves slip through a Hawthorne strainer, muddy up your cocktail, and provide an unpleasant chewing-grass texture.
Using a fine mesh strainer, such as a hand-held tea strainer, allows you to filter out those bits of flora (along with tiny shards of ice) and present a crisp and perfectly clear cocktail.
What you'll need:
- Mixing tin full of cocktail
- Hawthorne strainer
- Fine mesh strainer
- Chilled serving glass
What you'll do:
Strain the drink with a Hawthorne strainer as instructed above, but use your non-dominant hand to hold a mesh strainer above the serving glass. Strain the cocktail from the Hawthorne strainer through the mesh strainer and into the glass. Double trouble.
How to Make a Citrus Twist
A twist of citrus peel provides more than just an attractive grace note atop a cocktail. When made deftly, using a fresh piece of fruit, it imparts something very important to the finish of a good cocktail: citrus oil. If you look carefully at the martini above, you'll see lemon oil floating atop the drink, just to the left of the peel. That's what you're looking for.
The oil is there to boost the aroma of the drink. If you engage all your senses as you go in for that first sip, you'll notice a blast of fresh citrus drifting off the glass.
To make a twist, start with a fresh piece of citrus, preferably organic. (Pesticides are not a welcome cocktail ingredient. Neither is wax, which often coats even organic fruit. One way to remove the wax, if it concerns you, is to flash-boil each piece right before using, and then scrub off the wax with a vegetable brush.)
You'll also need a paring knife or vegetable peeler.
What you'll do:
1. Hold the fruit in your non-dominant hand with your thumb near the top pole (where the stem attached to the fruit) and your pinky supporting the bottom point.
2. Take the knife and cut toward you, slowly, through the peel. Be careful not to cut too deeply into the pith, which is bitter and will make your drink taste the same way. Don't worry about cutting an attractive shape; just cut an elongated oval.
3. Take the peel in both hands, between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Twist over the glass, peel side down, to express the citrus oil onto the surface of the drink.
4. Rub the peel around the rim of the glass to provide a little extra flavor. Either discard the twist or drop it into the drink, depending on what the recipe calls for.
How to Muddle Mint or Other Herbs
Take a close look at a mint leaf: you should see little veins running through it like little rivers and streams. Those veins contain chlorophyll, and as it turns out, chlorophyll is bitter. So the worst mistake you can make while muddling is to crush or shred mint leaves so they release their bitter chlorophyll. Where will that chlorophyll wind up? In your cocktail. Yuck. If you've ever had a grassy-tasting mojito, that's probably why.
You can use a variety of items to muddle a drink; there's no actual need to go out and buy a muddler. The handle of a rolling pin will do in a pinch. If you do buy a muddler, be careful what you buy. You want a muddler that has not been varnished or lacquered. The varnish on a muddler will eventually wear off, and where will it wind up?
In your cocktail. Yuck.
So choose a muddler made of unvarnished wood. You may also see muddlers made of stainless steel with a plastic or hard-rubber muddling base, and those are fine too. (But avoid the type with teeth on the end; they're great for muddling the juice and oils from fruit, but they'll shred the leaves of mint and other herbs.)
Then follow these steps:
1. Choose a sturdy mixing glass, a pint glass, or a shaker tin. If you choose a thin-walled glass, you risk breaking or chipping the glass with your muddler.
2. Place the leaves into the bottom of the glass. Add sugar, pieces of fruit, or whatever else the recipe calls for.
3. Place the muddler in the glass. Press down with it lightly on the leaves and give a few gentle twists, rocking the muddler gently, not shredding the leaves. If there's also fruit in the glass, you should see juice squirting out from the flesh.
4. When your kitchen smells minty (or basil-y or thyme-y or whateverherby), you're done, and your mint should look like the shot on the left above, not like the over-muddled shot on the right. You don't want your mint to go all the way to the wet stage—just release its minty aromas!
How to Make Eggs Foam
I've never been a fan of the so-called dry shake, a technique bartenders use to foam up eggs whites in a cocktail shaker. The idea of the dry shake is to emulsify the egg whites into the drink without ice, to build a thicker, more stable foam structure. You then shake again, with ice, to dilute and chill and further blend the drink. The problem I have with the dry shake is that my shaker always leaks when I try it. Since the shaker isn't cold when you dry shake, the tin doesn't contract around the glass and form a tight seal. That means small amounts of your tasty cocktail dribble out the sides of the shaker as you work.
Morgenthaler's book offers a solution. Typically, when you shake a cocktail with a Boston shaker, you situate the glass at a slight angle to the mixing tin and seal it into place. This forms a great seal when your rig is cold, but when it's at room temperature, it doesn't seal at all.
The answer when you're dry-shaking is to align the glass dead-center into the mixing tin, rather than at an angle, and smack it hard with your hand to seal it. The shaker then aligns straight up and down, rather than in a curve, and you can shake shake shake shake shake without leaking. I've tried it, and now I'm a fan of the dry shake.
Here's how you do it:
1. Add egg whites and liquor-type ingredients to mixing glass, as you would normally when shaking a cocktail, but don't add the ice.
2. Place shaker tin standing right side up, with the open end facing the ceiling. Pour contents of mixing glass into shaker tin, and then place the top of the mixing glass into the top of the tin—dead center, rather than at an angle.
3. Smack the glass with your hand to seal the shaker.
4. Shake shake shake.
5. Separate the glass from the tin, add ice, and seal as normal—that is, at a slight angle. Shake again.
6. Strain and sip!
You might be wondering, if a dry shake works for egg whites, does it work for whole eggs, too? The answer, you might be surprised to learn, is no. Our own cocktail science guy, Kevin Liu, has the explanation.
How to Buy and Store Citrus
Unless you're lucky enough to live in a climate suitable for growing citrus, you'll very likely be purchasing your limes and lemons at a grocery store. There's not much to think about when buying citrus, except for this...
Organic or conventional? Conventional citrus, as most of you surely know, is often sprayed with pesticides, which cling to the fruit until washed off. This may not be a problem for you, especially if you're not going to be using the zest. In that case, just rinse the fruit briefly before cutting it, so your knife doesn't drag the pesticide residue across the interior of the fruit.
If you're going to be using the zest, though, I strongly suggest that you buy organic, and buy just what you think you'll need. Organic fruit does, in my experience, go bad more quickly than conventional, so make sure you don't overbuy, or you'll have moldy fruit to discard.
Should you refrigerate your cocktail limes and lemons? One argument in favor: citrus will definitely last longer held in the fridge. But previously, conventional wisdom held that refrigerated fruit doesn't juice quite as easily as room-temperature fruit. Our Kevin Liu gets around this problem by tossing refrigerated citrus in the microwave for about 15 seconds before juicing. Morgenthaler did a hands-on trial and found that refrigerated fruit can produce more juice than fruit left at room temperature. I don't know if his tests would pass muster in a laboratory, but I will go out on a limb here and say, if you want to refrigerate your citrus to keep it fresher, go for it. Nothing makes less juice than rotten citrus you left on the countertop.
Wherever you store your citrus, be sure to keep it in bags or containers that allow airflow. If you keep it in airtight bags or containers, you'll encourage the growth of mold on the fruit.
Juicing Citrus in a Hinge-Style Squeezer
When using a hinge-style squeezer, there are a few ways to make the job easier and more efficient. First, if you're squeezing a lemon that has a knobby end, trim that off and discard it. These hand squeezers work more efficiently when the lemon is round, not lumpy.
Second, turn the citrus around so that the cut side (the fruit flesh) rests against the inner cup. When you squeeze, you'll be turning the rind basically inside out. Not only does this make for more efficient juicing, but it also directs the juice where it needs to go, which is through the perforations in the cup and into your juice receptacle. If you squeeze the lemon half the other way, the juice jets up out of the squeezer and onto your face, hands, shirt, and work surface.
How to Make a Salted Rim
You've got the twist down pat. But there are other ways to liven up your cocktail glass prior to serving (or sipping) your drink. The first is the easiest and most obvious: chilling the glass beforehand. A cold glass helps your cocktail stay colder while you're drinking, and nearly every cocktail benefits from a chilled glass. I'm especially fond of chilling the glass for an Old Fashioned, since the thick bottom of a traditional Old Fashioned glass gets very cold and absorbs the heat of the drink.
You can also liven up your cocktail presentation by rimming the lip of your serving glass. The most familiar item to rim a glass with is probably the salt you find on a Margarita, but you can use the same principle with sugar, cocoa powder or nibs, chili powder, dried or fresh herbs, or wherever your imagination takes you.
Now, most guides will tell you that the way to rim a glass is to take it, turn it upside down, dunk it in liquid, and then dip it in salt, sugar, or whatever. Don't do that. When you rim a glass that way, you get as much of the salt or sugar inside the glass as you do outside. That salt or sugar then dissolves into the drink, knocking the flavors out of balance. This is why I never order a salted rim when I get a Margarita at a restaurant. By the end of the drink, it tastes like seawater.
There's a better way. It takes a little more time than the easy way, but not much, and the best part is, it's something you can do in advance of your next party or cocktail hour.
What you'll need:
- Two saucers.
- Citrus juice, preferably something that parallels or matches an ingredient in the drink. Lime or orange work perfectly in a margarita, for example, because both flavors are present in the cocktail.
- Powder of your choice for rimming—sugar, salt, etc.
- A cocktail glass.
- Bar napkin or paper towel.
What you'll do:
1. Place two tablespoons juice in first saucer.
2. In second saucer, place two tablespoons salt, sugar, or other rimming powder. Holding the glass by its stem, carefully tip it toward the first saucer at about a 45-degree angle.
3. Dip the outer edge of the glass into the juice, rotating the glass through the juice so that only the outer edge of the rim becomes moist. Be sure to moisten about a quarter inch of the rim.
4. Repeat this process with the glass in the second saucer, coating the outer lip of the glass in salt or sugar.
5. At this point, you can slightly moisten a bar napkin or paper towel and tidy up the rim a bit. Be sure to get any flakes that might have fallen into the glass.
Prepping the glass in advance is helpful because it gives the salt or sugar time to dry onto the glass, helping it adhere better during service. As you might have noticed in the photos, I like to rim only half the circumference of the glass. That way, if your guest prefers not to drink the salt or sugar, she need only drink from the uncoated side of the glass.
The Flavor Rinse
The purpose of the rinse is to impart the taste of a strongly flavored ingredient to a cocktail, without that ingredient overpowering the rest of the drink.
The Sazerac is probably the best-known cocktail to feature a rinse, with its traditional wash of absinthe (or pastis, in the decades before absinthe's return to the United States). In the case of the Sazerac, the absinthe provides a hint of anise flavor, which complements the rye whiskey and enhances similar spicy notes in the Peychaud's bitters.
Writing in Esquire magazine, David Wondrich suggests other uses for the cocktail rinse. One of his ideas that I've tried and loved is a rinse of single-malt scotch in a Manhattan cocktail.
But feel free to experiment! Mezcal rinse for a tequila cocktail? Of course! Or think about flavors that you know work well in a culinary setting, and apply them to your mixing glass—for example, ginger and apple. Use apple brandy as the basis for a Sidecar variation, and then rinse your cocktail glass with a ginger liqueur, such as Canton. Yum.
What you'll need:
- Rinse ingredient (absinthe, Scotch, liqueur, etc.)
What you'll do:
1. Pour about a quarter ounce of your rinse ingredient into the glass.
2. Swirl the glass quickly so the rinse splashes around the sides of the glass.
3. Tip the glass so the rinse reaches the rim of the glass, and then slowly turn it so the rinse coats the interior side of the glass.
4. Discard excess rinse, either down the sink or down your throat. Fill rinsed glass with cocktail and serve.