This post is for people who want to put the days of drinking handles of Kamchatka and Ten High behind them. You’ve probably had a few craft cocktails at cool bars and are hooked. You want to learn more and start making them at home, but don’t really know where to start.
This post isn’t for those who consider themselves knowledgable about liquor and mixing drinks. If you are one of those people, check out the other posts in the Tipple Tuesday archive.
If you are ready to step into the world of mixing drinks at home, I recommend you start small, learn the flavors, and learn how the flavors change and interact when mixed.
Going into the liquor store and buying one of everything to impress your friends won’t get you anywhere. You’ll end up broke and staring at a shelf full of spirits you have no idea how to mix. No fun.
Instead, pick 1-2 spirits you want to start with. The best way to do this is to make a list of cocktails you like (or cocktails you’ve heard of and want to try) and look for recurring items in the ingredient lists. Then pick a drink that uses one of those ingredients. This drink can be from your list or you can do some searching to figure it out. I prefer starting with classic cocktails, but remember that the end goal is to find something you will enjoy and actually make.
Once you’ve picked your starting cocktail and have the necessary ingredients, own it. Make it a few times as-is, try swapping individual ingredients out and seeing how the flavor changes, try adding additional ingredients, and try making it for friends. Really get to know the cocktail and become comfortable with it.
What I Would Choose
I need to start out by saying I’m a big fan of purchasing good ingredients. Your cocktails will be better and you will be happier. If the majority of your cocktail is made with paint thinner that came out of a plastic jug, your finished product won’t be much better. That isn’t to say you need to spend $50 a bottle—you can get good mixing spirits for $25-35 a bottle.
I’d start with these two spirits:
I’d also purchase these ingredients to mix with:
- Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth – Essential in a Manhattan and a Martinez, but this brand is good enough to sip on its own. This also sets you up nicely for expanding into other classic sweet (red) vermouth cocktails like the Negroni or the Bijou when you are ready to expand your liquor selection.
- Angostura Bitters – The classic, go-to bitters. Essential for lots of drinks (including some below) and very handy to have on the shelf. Trinidad and Tobago’s best export. Before you use it, try some on the end of your finger to get an understanding of what it tastes like. If you get hooked, read this to take a deep-dive into the world of bitters.
- Fresh limes – Please throw away the little green bottle in your fridge shaped like a lime holding some acidic liquid. When at all possible, use fresh lime juice that you just squeezed from real limes.
- Fresh lemons – See above. Use actual fresh lemons if at all possible. The taste is so much better.
- Superfine sugar – You can use regular sugar in cocktails, but superfine sugar dissolves better.
- Tonic water and club soda – Look for the small glass bottles with the yellow and blue labels respectively.
Given the ingredients above, here is what I’d begin making, as well as good ways to experiment with each of them. Before you make a cocktail, try tasting each of the individual ingredients so you can get a better understanding of what they are and how they work in the drink.
- Manhattan – Experiment by changing the ratios of the ingredients and take notes on the taste. Also try swapping regular bitters for orange bitters and noting the taste.
- Rye Old Fashioned – Experiment with different amount of bitters, different amounts of sugar/simple syrup, and different garnishes.
- Gin & Tonic – Try different ratios of gin to tonic, try different brands of tonic, and try adding a small amount of lime or lemon juice.
- Gimlet – Try different ratios and try making your own lime cordial.
- Martinez – Try changing the ratios of ingredients and using different garnishes.
- Pink Gin – See how the flavors change as you add more and more bitters to this drink.
- Gin Fizz – Try using lime juice, swap simple syrup for sugar, or try adding egg whites.
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- OXO Measuring Jigger – You’ll need something to measure your ingredients with. I like this jigger because it can be read from above.
- Boston Shaker – You’ll need something to mix/shake your cocktails in. This is the classic.
- OXO Cocktail Strainer – Once you mix your cocktail,
- Lemon/Lime Juice Press – This isn’t entirely necessary, but it sure makes juicing lemons and limes faster, cleaner, and more effective than you can achieve by hand. Besides for making cocktails, I cook with lemons and limes a lot, so I use this multiple times a week.
You’ll see a lot of other cocktail tools like muddlers, mixing glasses, mixing spoons, and more, but they are just nice to have. They aren’t essential to starting out. I listed the essentials above. If you are on a tight budget or find yourself somewhere without any of these items, you can always get crafty and improvise.
- Martin’s Index of Cocktails – $9.99 iPhone app, but totally worth the price. It is the most complete database of classic cocktails I can find with excellent filtering and search options
- CocktailDB – Based on the same dataset as Martin’s Index and available online for free, but without as many filtering options or a user-friendly interface.
- Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique – This book will teach you the techniques of building cocktails.
- David Wondrich’s Imbibe – This book lays out the history of classic American cocktails. It is a fascinating read.
- Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined – When I’m looking for the recipes of classic cocktails, this is the book I pull off the shelf.
Please let me know what you think in the comments. If you have any questions about getting started, let me know!