Bartending Techniques Part 1: Measuring Out Your Ingredients

Properly measuring out your ingredients is an essential first step to creating great drinks. Most recipes for cocktails that you'll find in books and online are listed in terms of ounces and parts of ounces but some websites, especially those catering to cooks instead of bartenders will list ingredients by cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. Whether you're using measuring spoons or a jigger, measuring out your ingredients isn't difficult but does require some attention to detail. Because the recipes on this site (and most you'll encounter) are listed in terms of liquid ounces, we are going to mostly talk about using your jigger, but if you don't have one, here is a handy table of conversions for you.

Conversion Chart1

1 barspoon....…….   1 teaspoon………..   ⅙ fluid oz………….    5 mL  
½ tablespoon.....    1½ teaspoons.....   ¼ fluid oz..............    7½ mL
1 tablespoon…....    3 teaspoons……..   ½ fluid oz………….    15 mL
1½ tablespoons.    4½ teaspoons.....   ¾ fluid oz.............    22½ mL
⅛ cup……………....    2 tablespoons…..   1 fluid oz…………...    30 mL

¼ cup……………....    4 tablespoons…..   2 fluid oz…………..    60 mL
⅓ cup……………....    5 tablespoons…..   2½ fluid oz……….    80 mL

½ cup……………....    8 tablespoons…..   4 fluid oz…………..    120 mL
⅔ cup……………....    10 tablespoons...   5 fluid oz…………..    160 mL
¾ cup……………....    12 tablespoons….   6 fluid oz…………..    180 mL
½ pint……………....    1 cup……………….....   16 tablespoons…    8 fluid oz………...    250 mL
1 pint………………...    2 cups…………….....   16 fluid oz………....   475 mL
1 quart……………...    2 pints…………….....   4 cups……………....    32 fluid oz……….    950 mL
1 gallon…………....    4 quarts………….....   8 pints……………....    16 cups…………….    128 fluid oz………..    3.8 liters

Using Your Jigger

Using your jigger isn't difficult and over time you'll get very fast at it, but first, take some time to get to know it. Know what any internal markings are indicating without having to look at the annotation and know the levels of commonly used measurements, even if they aren't specifically labeled on your jigger. For instance, if you're jigger doesn't have a marking for ¼ oz, pour a quarter ounce of water into it and memorize the level. It will be different for every jigger so it's god to pick a jigger you like and stick with it.

Before you pour a single ingredient, give some thought to the order in which you should add the ingredients to your shaking tin or stirring glass. Most recipes list the dominant alcoholic ingredient (the base) first, which makes sense when classifying recipes, but it's exactly opposite how you should generally work. A good best practice is to add your cheapest ingredients first. That way, if you make a mistake, you aren't wasting a bunch of expensive booze. This generally means adding sugars first, followed by citrus or cream, bitters, and then alcohol in ascending order of cost (this often, but not always, means adding the lowest volume alcohol first).

Another point to consider is the viscosity of the ingredients. Viscous ingredients have what's called holdback, the amount that stays stuck to the sides of the jigger when you pour. Some ingredients, like maple syrup have a high amount of holdback, others, like heavy cream, have some, and others, like vodka, have a negligible amount. You need to account for holdback in two ways. First, overpour beyond the recipe's given measurement slightly to account for the holdback. And second, consider adding your most viscous ingredient last or rinsing your jigger before measuring out another ingredient so that the measurement of your next ingredient after a highly viscous one isn't thrown off.

Many bartenders, especially those that use the hourglass-shaped jiggers, hold the jigger in their hand between their middle and pointer fingers or between their middle and ring fingers. This allows for easy manipulation back and fourth between the jigger shot and the pony shot, and if you have a steady hand, works quite well. I recommend, at least at first, that you place the jigger on a level surface so you can be sure of your pour. A slight tilt to a jigger held in the hand can throw a drink's proportions off.

Fill the jigger to the brim or to one of the internal measurements (if applicable). Unlike the accepted practice when reading scientific apparatus, the meniscus should be as level as possible, not concave, and it should not be convex either, meaning the pour should not be over the top of the jigger, held in place with the liquid's surface tension.

Once you've measured your liquid, dump it into your mixing tin or glass and measure the next ingredient. If measuring to an internal marking, like the 1/2 oz line in a 1 oz pony shot, it's perfectly acceptable to dump your second ingredient on top after measuring out your first; fill to the one ounce mark and pour both ingredients into your mixing vessel together. It saves a lot of time. 

I always rinse my jigger immediately after I'm done using it for a drink to ensure that the next substance measured won't be contaminated. You wouldn't want a $40 pour of single malt scotch to be adulterated by your well gin, for instance.

So that's it for jiggering, please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. If you're following the lessons in order, the next one, on shaking your cocktails, can be found here. Happy mixing!

Notes

1 The volume of a "standard" barspoon can vary widely. Make sure you know what volume yours holds if you intend on using it for measuring.

Bartending Techniques Part 3: Short Shaking and Dry Shaking

You may be wondering why we need two separate posts to cover what is, after all, a fairly simple procedure. While the methods described in the previous post will be all you need for the vast majority of cocktails, some of the best cocktails out there, such as swizzles, flips, and egg white cocktails require a different take on the shake. This post will cover short shaking and dry shaking.

Short Shaking

There is nothing complex about a short shake, it's simply shaking your cocktail for much less time than normal with the goal of mixing and chilling without a lot of dilution. It's usually used for making cocktails that are served with crushed ice. As we discussed in the post on ice, speed of dilution is dependent on many factors but one of the main ones is the surface area of ice exposed to a higher temperature liquid. Crushed ice will dilute and chill a drink much more readily than a single giant ice ball will.

So when a cocktail served with crushed ice is shaken, you don't want it to be fully diluted in the shaker tin or it will be overdiluted by the time the glass gets to its intended imbiber. The solution is to shake the cocktail only briefly, around two to four seconds depending on the drink, the ice you are using, and your shaking method. I like to pack my shaker tin as full as possible with ice1 when I short shake, this allows the maximum amount of liquid to get into contact with the cold ice but also limits the amount of ice breakup that occurs because the ice doesn't have as much room to rattle around.

You are aiming to completely mix and homogenize the ingredients while providing a bit of chilling and very little (less than 50% complete) dilution. Once your short shake is finished, immediately strain it into the serving glass, pack with crushed ice and any other liquid ingredients you didn't have in the shaker tin (i.e. soda water), garnish, and serve.

I always short shake my swizzles, even though they don't technically call for it. I think shaking better incorporates ingredients than swizzling does. Some other cocktails that benefit from a short shake are the Mai Tai and the Kitty Hawk Express.

Dry Shaking

As we've discussed2, eggs and booze have a long history together. Egg yolk adds flavor and richness to cocktails, think egg nog or the New York Flip. Egg whites add a silky texture and frothy head to drinks, examples include the Pisco Sour and Trinidad Sour. Most, but not all, egg cocktails benefit from a procedure called the dry shake.

Dry shaking is shaking a flip or an egg white cocktail without ice. The purpose is to incorporate the ingredients and allow the proteins in the egg white to break down and do their work trapping air to create the smooth, velvety texture that egg cocktails are known for. The process takes time so dry shaking before adding ice keeps the drink from over-diluting. Dry shaking adds another step to the drink's preparation but you can shorten the shake time considerably by adding a wire whisk ball or the spring from an old Hawthorne Strainer to your shaker tin.

Scientifically speaking, there are some interesting things happening inside your shaking tin when you dry shake an egg white. If you're a baker and have ever made a meringue before, you know the result. Here, we're making an alcoholic meringue by shaking in a tin instead of whipping in a bowl. As you shake, the egg white becomes agitated, causing the proteins to break down and unravel, forming long strands that trap air bubbles. The citrus juice in the cocktail strengthens the molecular bonds between protein molecules allowing the trapped air bubbles to link up to form a stiff foam. The sugar in the cocktail also plays its part, increasing the viscosity of the water in the egg, which also encourages the foam to form.

A dry shake with a wire whisk ball need only last fifteen to thirty seconds, depending on your shaking method. After which you simply pack the tin with ice as you normally would and shake again to chill and dilute. The longer you dry shake, the stiffer your alcoholic meringue will be, but for most cocktails, you're not trying for a stiff foam but a velvety one, so no need to shake your arms off. The exception is the Ramos Gin Fizz, for this classic cocktail to work, a fairly stiff foam is needed. Even with my shaker ball, I routinely shake a Ramos Fizz for at least three minutes.

Short shaking and dry shaking are two simple additions to your arsenal of techniques that will help you make some of the best cocktails in the books with precision and perfection. Happy mixing!

Notes

1 Just a quick note to avoid any confusion, never shake with crushed ice. The drink is served with crushed ice but always shake with the densest, highest quality ice you have.

2 Check out this post to learn more about using eggs in cocktials.

Bartending Techniques Part 2: Shaking Cocktails

Shaking is the most common way of mixing and diluting cocktails. If you need help choosing a set of shaking tins, check out this post. Once you have your tins, using them is pretty straightforward. The only difficult part for some people is getting them separated but with a bit of practice you'll be cracking them apart in no time.

To use your shaker setup, first place your large shaker tin on the bar1 and measure your ingredients into it. Add ice. Place your smaller "cheater" tin, opening down, into the larger tin. You don't want the vertical axes of the tins aligned when you do this. Offset the axis of cheater tin from that of the larger tin. Basically, you want the wall of the cheater tin to rest against the lip of the larger tin. Holding the larger tin firmly to the bar with one hand, slam your palm down on the bottom of the cheater tin to firmly wedge it in place.

Now, pick it up and, with the smaller tin pointed toward yourself, shake it. Pointing the smaller tin toward you makes it less likely that you will spray cocktail all over the bar or, worse, your guests, if something should go wrong and the tins fall apart mid shake.

I've read a lot of articles over the years about "proper" shaking methodology but trust me, if anyone has ever told you the "right way" to shake a drink, it's bullshit. I guarantee you given the exact same recipe, temperature, and dilution level, no one is going to be able to tell the difference between two cocktails, one shaken with a vigorous, piston-like, back and forth motion, and another shaken with a "Japanese hard shake". One method may dilute the drink faster, for sure, but as long as you know that your method is giving you the proper dilution, you could put your tins in a paint shaker for all the difference it makes.

My shake time changes depending on the cocktail but I basically shake until after condensation starts forming on the outside of the shaker tins. I'll generally shake longer for cocktails served up without ice than those served over ice because cocktails served up need to be to the exact right dilution level when they hit the serving glass. Cocktails served over ice will continue to dilute in the glass. With my technique and lots of Kold-Draft ice, this usually means about six to ten seconds of very hard shaking. Since I'm making 500-600 drinks on a busy night (around 60% of which are shaken), a brief, forceful shake serves me well. I have fairly large hands so I find it easy to shake one handed and, therefore, to shake two cocktails at once, but if you're not comfortable with that, lots of bartenders prefer a two-handed shake as well (it's probably better for your shoulders in the long run anyway). Do what works for you.

Not to get too off track here but I'd like to share a little bit of the science behind what's happening when you shake a cocktail. Once you slam that cheater tin down on the large tin, you've formed a closed system with a fixed volume. The liquid and gas inside the tins at this point are in isolation from the air outside the tin. As you shake, the ice starts to melt and cool everything down, the melted water has a higher density than ice (and therefore has a lower volume) and as the liquid ingredients (alcohol, citrus, sugar, etc.) cool down, they also increase in density (decreasing in volume). The volumetric decrease in liquid and solid ingredients allows the air in the shaker to increase in volume, but because the system is closed and no new air molecules can be added, increasing the volume of air decreases the air pressure inside the tins. The negative pressure forms a vacuum, drawing the two tins together. This is one of the reasons why the tins don't fly apart when a bartender shakes one-handed and why the tins are difficult to pull apart. The guys over at Cooking Issues, who I really respect, have a much more in-depth explanation if you're interested. They also have a fascinating breakdown on how shaking chills your cocktail below the freezing point of ice (around -7°C), even though you start with ice at 0°C and ingredients at room temperature.

Okay, so you've got your drink cold and properly diluted, now comes the "hard" part, breaking the tins apart. Holding the bottom shaker tin firmly in your non-dominant hand, place your thumb over the point where the cheater tin touches the large tin and, using the meaty part of your dominant hand where the thumb meats your palm, hit the large tin firmly at a spot about an inch and a half away from where the two tins meet. You should hear a crack and the tins should break apart. Practice with empty tins, or shaken ice water until you get it.

Once you have the tins apart, strain the drink into your serving glass, rinse your tins, and drink up!

Notes

1 Some references will tell you to measure your cocktail into the smaller tin instead of the larger tin, and then pack it with ice. This way, they observe, you will never fill your tins past their capacity. While it's true that there is a danger of overfilling the larger tin—making it impossible to get the smaller tin on without spraying cocktail everywhere—over time you'll learn what your maximum capacity is and you won't overfill. I prefer to measure into the larger tin for two reasons. First, the smaller tin can usually hold only two cocktails worth of ingredients max, whereas the larger tin can hold three easily with room to spare. Also, because the tins are already oriented properly (with the smaller tin facing up, and therefore, toward you) measuring into the larger tins allows you to grab them off the bar and immediately start shaking without having to flip them around. This especially comes in handy when you are shaking two cocktails at once.

The Bartender's Kit Part 2: Mixing Vessels

Just like the world of ridiculous kitchen gadgets, the world of bartending tools is full of all kinds of useless items that may look neat/terrifying, but ultimately fail at making the process of mixing cocktails more efficient. In a large, busy, craft cocktail bar, the service well bartender will frequently be expected to build, shake or stir, and garnish an average of two to three drinks per minute for an entire eight-hour shift. The pros don’t have time to waste on gimmicks, they know the tools that work to make their job easier and more efficient. For this reason, the essential tools professional bartenders use vary little across bars. In this post, we’ll examine the different types of mixing vessels the pros use and explain why they use them. We’ll also give some examples of alternatives that are commonly marketed to the novice cocktail mixer and why you may want to steer clear of them. The first part of this post will focus on the most important tool in the bartender's arsenal, the shaker, and the second will highlight different options for stirring vessels. Deciding when to shake a drink and when to stir is covered in this other post.

Shaking Vessels

There are four types of shaker setups you can commonly buy but, in my opinion, three of them are stupid.
What not to buy: Cobbler Shakers, Parisian Shakers, and Boston Shakers

Cobbler Shakers
Cobbler Shakers are often billed as easier for novices to use than the other types but in my experience, that's not the case. This type of shaker is made of metal and consists of three pieces, a bottom, a perforated top that acts as a strainer, and a cap. The only place in the world they are commonly used is Japan because... Japan is weird. In the west, I rarely see these in use in a professional bar setting and when I do, I usually order a beer because the chances of getting a decent cocktail are somewhat worse than the odds of being struck by falling airplane debris.

Cobbler Shakers suck for several reasons. First, the internal vacuum created by shaking (discussed below) makes the tins very difficult to get apart without resorting to vice grips and over time and repeated use, the seal between the lower tin and the upper strainer becomes too loose or too tight either spraying your carefully measured cocktail all over the place or, once again making it difficult to get the tins apart. Also, the three-piece design takes more time to rinse between cocktails, the built in strainer is too small to quickly drain and doesn’t have a “gate” to help control the strain, and the cap is constantly getting misplaced, rendering the entire apparatus useless.

Parisian Shaker
The Parisian Shaker is sort of like a Cobbler Shaker without the cap and built-in strainer. Graceful-looking, all-metal affairs, the two tins fit snugly together to form a seal—at first. But these have the same issue that the Cobbler Shakers have, difficult to get apart after shaking and eventually the tins get warped and the seal becomes too loose.

Boston Shaker
Boston Shakers consist of a large metal bottom tin and a smaller “mixing” glass (usually a 16-oz, straight-sided pint glass). These are a viable alternative to my preferred shaker set but I dislike the glass used in the Boston Shaker for several reasons. First, it’s heavier than an all-metal tin setup, after shaking hundreds of cocktails in a night, this truly makes a difference with how a bartender's arms will feel the next day. Second, without getting into a lot of complex thermodynamics, the higher thermal mass of the glass absorbs more heat before it cools, so cocktails shaken with a Boston Shaker can taker longer to reach proper dilution than those shaken with an all-metal setup. Third, glass breaks; an accidental drop to the floor (or, worse, the ice well) stops service. The only benefit of the glass "tin" is that bartenders who free pour liquor and mixers can see the level of liquid in the glass before they add ice to ensure that they properly mixed the cocktail. Most professionals and home bartenders these days jigger everything though, so they don’t need a clear mixing glass to see the liquid level.

What to buy: a set of uninsulated, metal, weighted, mixing tins

Mixing Tins
The best shaker set is one that consists of two metal tins, the smaller "cheater" tin (usually 16–18 oz) replaces the mixing glass in the Boston Shaker setup and fits snugly into the larger tin (usually 26–30 oz) to form a tight seal. Unlike the Cobbler and Parisian Shakers, these tins actually fit together more tightly as the metal warps over time. The low thermal mass of the two metal tins cools cocktails quickly and efficiently. The metal tins won’t break; even under the most rigorous use, they will easily last a lifetime. And, as an added bonus, they are the least expensive of the options above. The weighted tins on this page and this page from barproducts.com are an excellent, low-cost, entry-level set I happily used for years and I’m currently using this set from Cocktail Kingdom and loving them. 

A side note, don't buy insulated shaker tins. I think these started as a gimmick and in recent years I've seen more and more bartenders using them. The insulation is designed to keep your hands warm, which it does; the only problem is that it also keeps your cocktail warm. Just like the heavy glass in the Boston shaker, the thermal mass of the insulation absorbs so much heat that it can take forever to chill your cocktail sufficiently. If you're a home bartender, your hands will warm back up in seconds and if you're shaking all night behind a busy bar, your hands just get used to it.

Stirring Vessels

Because stirring vessels aren't as specialized as shaker tins, there's quite a bit of variety in what people choose to use. I've seen lots of bartender's "stir" cocktails in pint glasses or cheater tins but I've found the conical shape and narrow bottoms of these vessels to be problematic for maintaining an efficient stir. Lots of bartenders these days are opting for specialized, cut-glass, Yarai-style, Japanese mixing glasses. These are beautiful and their straight sides make stirring a breeze. Several people in the bar I work for use this glass from Cocktail Kingdom and a few others I know use this cheaper one and they're very happy with it.

I don't use any of these though, instead I opt for 600 mL chemistry beakers. I can't take credit for the idea, the bar I work for has been using them since it opened but I love using beakers because they are made of durable, inert, break-resistant Pyrex glass and they have a much thinner base and side walls than the Japanese mixing glasses, once again resulting in a lower thermal mass that allows for faster chilling. The flat bottom and straight, groovless sides also make for easy stirring and the graduated markings make it easy to judge dilution levels. Plus, they're super cheap! People do look at me strangely sometimes when I whip out the chemistry set but I'll never go back to the Japanese glasses.

So that's my mixing vessels overview. Although I'm passionate about the products I've presented here, as I say on all my tool reviews, ultimately the right tool for you is the one you're most comfortable with, so if your mixing vessel choices aren't the same as mine and you're happy with them, that's great! Happy mixing!

The Bartender's Kit Part 1: Jiggers

I once had a fellow bartender, the best bartender I've ever known, in fact, tell me that making drinks was the least important part of his job. Obviously, good drinks are a pretty essential part of the profession, and his comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but his point is a valid one. He was driving at the idea that bartending is really about the people consuming the drinks, not the drinks themselves. And while I still believe he's right, it's only true once you've mastered the basics.

The first step to creating great cocktails is ensuring your drinks are properly built, meaning that they have the right proportions. And the best way to do that, especially at the beginning, is to use a measuring device called a jigger.

A Bit of History (Mythology)

The term jigger came about from the small tumbler that the Bosun on a ship used to issue the day's ration of rum. Because the sailors liked to complain that the amount was too little, they named the measuring device after the smallest mast on the ship, the jigger mast. It turns out that the measurement was approximately 1½ ounces and eventually, cups designed to serve exactly that amount came to be known as "jiggers". Smaller cups that served one ounce were known as "ponies". As time went on, a two-sided, hourglass-shaped cup, one side equipped with a "jigger shot" and the other with a "pony shot", came to be a standard part of the pre-prohibition barkeeps kit.

These days, a jigger is a generic term for any device used to measure booze and mixers for a drink and they needn't be 1½ ounces in volume. Many have different volumes and/or graduated markings inside the bowl to indicate different measurements, anything from an eighth of an ounce to three ounces.

To Jigger or Not To Jigger

If, like me, you read a lot of articles and blogs about the profession of bartending, you may be under the impression that this age old, sometimes divisive question is all but decided, and that no one in the industry ever free pours to measure their ingredients anymore. Vocal personalities within the industry have, in recent years, portrayed the free-pouring bartender as a wasteful, uncaring dullard not at all concerned with the consistency of her drinks or the happiness of her patrons. Others allow that free pouring is ok as long as the bartender is using a Boston Shaker with a transparent mixing glass so they can get a visual confirmation that their drink is at the right level once all the ingredients have been added. 

Although the characterization of the lazy bartender is sometimes true, it often isn't. I know many professional bartenders who free pour and have drinks that come out perfect every time. It isn't easy, for sure, different spirits and liqueurs and syrups all have different specific densities and pour at different rates. However, free pouring is a skill, that, like any other, can be honed and mastered.

That said, for the home bartender who isn't making hundreds of drinks every night or the pro just starting out, jiggering is absolutely the way to go. If you want to get to the point where you can free pour, I suggest that you count your pour every time you fill your jigger to get the hang of it. For a more detailed explanation on how to free pour, go here.

Selecting a Jigger

As the image above shows, there are a lot of different styles of jiggers on the market these days, some more practical than others. As I say before all my tool recommendations, ultimately the right jigger for you is what you're most comfortable with. But I will offer you some points to consider.

First, anything with a handle is out. The handle makes the jigger difficult to manipulate quickly and tends to get in the way of other things on the bar. I'm not sure why some jiggers have handles, I've never really been able to discern the purpose, I mean, it's not like the jigger is difficult to pick up without the handle. 

Next, a lot of jiggers are sold as a set. Many bartenders I know use such a system but I've found having more than one jigger on the bar to be more hassle than it's worth. I'm constantly grabbing the wrong jigger and having to peer at the measurement on the side to ensure I've got the right one. And they take up valuable space on your bartop. I've found that a single jigger with laser-etched (not printed) interior graduations marking other volumes to be the best option for me.

A final point of consideration is the shape of the jigger itself. A taller, thinner jigger is more accurate than a shorter, wider jigger. The reason is the difference in surface area at the lip or interior etching. An overpour in a jigger with a large surface area will be off by a greater margin than an overpour in a jigger with a smaller surface area. In some jiggers, a tiny overpour will result in a measurement that's off by a quarter ounce or more, which can significantly alter the drink and also cost you or your bar lots of money.

Nearly every bartender I currently work with uses this jigger and loves it. I used it for a while and found that over time, the printed interior graduations wore away until they were barely readable but it's probably a great option for home use. I really like this one from Cocktail Kingdom (as you'll find, I like a lot of their stuff). Since I use my jigger every day, I opted for the more resilient stainless steel model but if you're willing to hand wash your tools, their gold-plated and copper-plated options are beautiful too.

A Brief Overview on Making Cocktails

So you’ve been down to your local craft cocktail joint and discovered that there is more to life than Jack and Coke and PBR. But $10 for a cocktail is ridiculous! You can do it for way cheaper at home, right? Yes, you can! And…no you can’t. As we’ll see, the true cost of a home bar where you can make cocktails like the tavern makes them is not as inexpensive as it may seem at first. However, if you have a specific cocktail (or two, or five) that you love, keeping the ingredients on hand for a limited selection of drinks is usually cheaper than buying them at the local watering hole.

But that’s not really the point, is it? I mean, we’ll get to the cost of things in a future post, but really, you’re just interested in making cocktails, right? Yes? Then let’s get started.

This is a high-level overview meant to convey the most basic and essential information on mixing cocktails. It’s a great way to get your feet wet but along the way, I’ll link to other articles that discuss each of these topics in more depth. This will also be a slightly longer post than most of the essays on this site will be because it’s going to cover a lot of information. If you want to jump to a specific topic, the links in the following paragraph will convey you to sections further down in this post. Links in subsequent paragraphs will take you to posts that discuss a given topic in more detail.

First, we are going to discuss the essential tools you’ll need to mix your drinks. Then we’ll briefly cover some notes on glassware. Follow that up with some suggestions on ingredients and some instruction on basic bartending techniques. And finally, a few notes on flavor matching and proportions. You’ll be creating world class drinks in no time!

The Tools

The basic tools you’ll need to mix drinks are, fortunately, fairly limited and relatively inexpensive. You’ll need something with which to measure out your ingredients; a set of measuring spoons will work but a jigger is the preferred method. Also, something in which to chill and dilute your mixture; typically a good set of shaker tins and a mixing glass of some sort. You’ll need something to separate the cocktail from the ice; a Hawthorne Strainer and/or a Julep Strainer and a fine-mesh strainer will be sufficient. A barspoon, a decent citrus juicer, a couple of different peelers (a y-peeler for citrus peels and a channel peeler for citrus twists) and a muddler round out the list. I would also recommend having on hand a waiter’s corkscrew that can open capped bottles and, if you are working professionally behind an actual bar, a church key that can remove pour spouts.

The Glassware

There are several types of specialty glasses cocktail bars will typically use to serve drinks. Although most home bars won’t have such a selection, we’ll still run through the basics quickly so you’re aware of them. Glassware needn’t be fancy nor expensive. Utilitarian glassware that will stand up to some abuse is the best option here. I find items made by Libby to be both durable and good-looking.

Beer Glasses
Pint glass and Belgian beer glass: although a great many specialty beer glasses exist, you should really only need two types, a 16 oz pint glass (either straight-sided or Pilsner-shaped) for lagers and lighter beers and a 13 oz Belgian beer glass (or a Bel glass, as most bars call them for short) for more aromatic and higher ABV specialty craft brews.

Tumblers
Old Fashioned glass (also called a rocks glass and, in some bars, a highball): this glass is used to hold all manner of chilled cocktails served over ice and, frequently, spirits served by themselves neat or on the rocks.

Collins glass: this chimney-style glass is typically used for cocktails which include an effervescent mixer (e.g. soda water, Coke, ginger ale, etc.).

Stemware
Cocktail glass (also called a martini glass) and Coupe: used to hold chilled drinks that are served without ice.

Red wine glass, white wine glass, champagne flute: used to serve the appropriate type of wine.

Tulip glass: used to serve aperitivos, digestivos, port, and cordials.

Miscellaneous Glasses
Julep Cup: metal cup used to serve Mint Juleps and other smashes. At home, I use mine for Moscow Mules too.

Brandy snifter: although technically stemware, the purpose of this brandy and cognac glass is opposite that of most stemware. The low stem allows the hand to cup the drink from beneath, thereby warming it.

Shot glass: designed to hold a variety of “shot” volumes, shot glasses that hold up to two ounces are the most functional. These allow service of straight 1.5 oz spirit shots and mixed shots that might have higher volumes.

Wine carafe: holds a specified amount of wine (usually 6.5 oz) for wine service. You usually only find these in a bar or restaurant situation, not needed for home use.

The Ingredients

The adage “You get out what you put in” is true in life and even more true in cocktails. Choosing fresh, high-quality ingredients is essential if you want to produce excellent drinks. Although the definition of a cocktail has changed over time, most these days include ice, spirits or liqueurs or both, some type of sweetener, bitters, citrus or another mixer like Bloody Mary mix or cream, and a garnish. Let’s walk through them all briefly.

Ice
Most craft cocktail bars these days employ three different types of ice, 1¼-inch cube ice (i.e. Kold-Draft), crushed or pellet ice, and carved or molded ice balls. Home bartenders that don’t have access to these specialty types of ice should opt for store-bought ice (the larger the cubes the better). Home freezer ice can sometimes harbor flavors of the food stored in the freezer and can contribute unwanted flavors to your drinks. Cracking larger cubes into smaller chunks with a muddler can give you crushed ice without having to buy it separately.

Spirits and liqueurs
A spirit is an alcoholic beverage distilled from a fermented mixture of some sort. Liqueurs are spirits that have other stuff added to them after the distillation process like sugar, juice, cream, etc. Spirits and liqueurs are the foundation of your cocktail. The dominant alcoholic ingredient is called the base (cocktails with more than one spirit or liqueur in nearly equal measures can be said to have a split base). Obviously, the better your alcoholic ingredient tastes, the better the cocktail will taste, but use sound judgement when deciding. A spirit-forward cocktail like a Sazerac will benefit from an excellent rye whiskey but that same rye used in a whiskey coke would be wasted. In that situation use a cheaper, but still high quality whiskey.

The home bar should have a decent well lineup that includes all the basic spirits and a few classic liqueurs. In general, your well spirits should be a delicious middle-of-the road choice that is distilled with expertise and attention to detail without breaking the bank. I've included some options for well spirits below.

A few notes. With the spirits, my preferred choice is listed first. I didn't include any Canadian Whiskey on this list because, in general, it's not necessary in a home bar; a high quality bourbon can always replace a Canadian Whiskey and, in my opinion, the cocktail will be better off for it. With respect to the vermouths, the two options listed under dry vermouths are extremely different in flavor, as are those in the sweet vermouth category. If you're unsure about what type of vermouth to choose, go here for some reviews on the different flavor profiles on dry and sweet vermouths and choose one that suits you. With the liqueurs, amari, and herbal options, there is no need to stock everything. If you have all of them, you'll be able to make nearly any classic cocktail, but what you stock in your home bar is obviously completely up to your personal preference and what you'll be making most often.

Bourbon: Old Forester, Buffalo Trace
Rye: Rittenhouse, Old Overholt
Irish Whiskey: Jamison, Tullamore Dew
Scotch: Chivas Regal, Laphroig Single Malt
Brandy: Maison Rouge, Remy Martin VS
Aged Rum: Zaya, Parce 8 Year
Silver Rum: Ron Matusalem, Flor de Caña 4 Year
Tequila: Exotico, Espolón, Chamucos (reposado)
Mezcal: Del Maguey Vida, Sombra
Gin: Monopolowa, New Amsterdam
Vodka: Finlandia, Smirnoff
Triple Sec: Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Cointreau
Dry Vermouth: Dolin Dry, Cochi Americano
Sweet Vermouth: Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes
Liqueur: Kahlua, Frangelico, Amaretto Lazzaroni, Coole Swan Irish Cream, Creme de Cacao, Creme de Menthe, Chambord, Creme de Casis, St. Germaine, Drambuie, Luxardo Maraschino, Domaine de Canton, 
Amari: Campari, Aperol, Averna, Cynar, Fernet-Branca
Herbal: Green Chartreuse, Creme de Violet, Benedectine, Galliano L'Autentico, Pernod Absinthe

Sweeteners
The sweetening agent in a cocktail isn’t always a syrup, it is often a sweeter liqueur such as Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur or Chartreuse, but the sweetening agent called for in many classics is simple syrup, a 1:1 ratio (by weight) of white sugar and water. Often, changing up the sweetening agent makes for a more interesting cocktail. The display of dozens of syrup “cheater” bottles on the bar top has become a common sight in craft cocktail bars across the nation. In addition to other types of sweetener syrups (house-made grenadine, honey syrup, demerara syrup) bars will have several specialty syrups they produce (sugar water infused with rosemary, saffron, vanilla bean, etc.). Your imagination is the limit but for the home bar it’s nice to have a few homemade syrups on hand. I recommend at least a 1:1 simple syrup, a 1:1 honey syrup, and a 1:1 demerara syrup (or turbinado if you can’t find demerara). Make them in small batches and keep them in the fridge so they don’t spoil before you use them.

Bitters
Gone are the days when the only bitters to be found behind the bar was a dusty bottle of Angostura. The process of making bitters is actually pretty easy, and as a result, there has been a flood of “craft” bitters coming to market in the past few years. It’s fun to experiment with them but they can be pricey. I recommend that your home bar has, at the very least, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a bottle of Peychaud’s bitters, and a bottle of orange bitters (Regans' makes a good one). This will allow you to make most classic cocktails. If you want to experiment a bit, rounding out your collection with bottles of vanilla, peach, grapefruit, and lemon bitters will add interesting twists to your concoctions.

Mixers (Citrus, Cream, Sodas, Eggs, Other)
The original definition of a cocktail only included: spirit, water, sweetener, and bitters. Anything else wasn’t a cocktail, it was a smash or a shrub or flip or a fizz, etc. Over time, most of these classifications fell away and anything that was a mixture of booze and “other stuff” became known as a cocktail. That “other stuff” can include a lot of different things. One of the most common additional ingredients is fruit juice, and I can tell you from lots of personal experience, nothing ruins a cocktail faster than processed, pasteurized, store-bought juice. Always fresh squeeze your juice. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s not nearly as expensive as the booze you’ll be ruining with gross juice. We’ll cover other mixers in more detail in future posts but I’ll just say before we move on to always include the best mixers you can afford: organic eggs and cream, sodas with real sugar, soda water with heavy carbonation, excellent Bloody Mary mix, etc.

Garnishes
It doesn’t happen as often as it used to but whenever I go into a cocktail bar and have an elaborate garnish in my drink, I immediately wonder if the bartender is trying to make up for a sub-par concoction with some fancy eye candy. A garnish should definitely add visual interest to the drink but much more importantly, it should contribute to either the taste or aroma (or both) of the cocktail in a way that makes sense. A simple orange or lemon swath with the citrus oils expressed over the surface of the drink and rim of the glass goes a lot farther than a fancy carved citrus peel that is too delicate to express the oils from. Use your own discretion but in my opinion, simpler garnishes that enhance the flavor of the cocktail are better than those that don’t.

The Techniques

Mechanically, the techniques used to mix cocktails are pretty straightforward, and while it may take time for you to be proficient at it, the essential concepts can be grasped in just a couple of minutes. There are four basic steps to making a single cocktail (when making multiple, different cocktails at once there are a few other things to consider but we’ll get to that in a future post).

The first step is to chill your glassware, I do this with pellet ice but if you have fridge or freezer space that works too.

Second, combine the ingredients in your mixing container. This could be your shaker tin, your mixing glass, or the serving glass itself. Although there are lots of professional bartenders who can count out their pours and make a perfect cocktail every time, I recommend that home bartenders (and newbies working professionally) jigger everything. Also, investing in high quality speed pourers will make dispensing your precious booze precisely much easier, and you’ll waste a lot less.

Third, mix the cocktail. In general, there are four ways to mix a drink: building, stirring, rolling, and shaking. A cocktail is built when the ingredients are simply poured into the glass together; this works best with an effervescent mixer, i.e. Coca Cola in a bourbon and Coke. A cocktail is typically stirred when clarity is desired in the final result, usually when the ingredients are limited to spirits, sugar, and bitters, i.e. the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. Rolling is a seldom­ employed technique used when low levels of dilution are desired or when shaking will introduce too much air, i.e. the Bloody Mary. Basically, the ingredients are sloshed gently, with ice, from one mixing tin to another. Shaking is generally reserved for drinks with citrus, cream, or egg whites, i.e. the Aviation, the Dirty Bird, and the Pisco Sour. The vigorous action of shaking emulsifies and homogenizes ingredients that would otherwise separate into layers.

Finally, if the cocktail wasn’t built in the glass it will be served in, strain it into your chilled serving glass and garnish it. That’s it, you’re done! Drink and enjoy.

Cocktail Creation

Once you have the basics mechanics of bartending down, and you’ve developed a home bar with a few more liquor options than the absolute essentials (it will happen over time, trust me) you may want to try your hand at creating your own cocktails. A good place to start is to take a classic, say, the Mojito, and introduce a different base spirit say, Mezcal, we’ll call it the Mezquito. Tequila, mezcal, and rum all work well with lime and mint so it’s an easy (and delicious) substitution. This method helps introduce you to new spirits and flavor combinations. After a while, you’ll start to figure out what works well together and be more adventurous with your concoctions.

There are two things I take into account every time I put together a new cocktail (which, in the bar I work for, happens nearly every night): flavor matching and balance. I take what I know from my past experience about what flavors tend to work well together and add one or two variations to the mix, a different bittering agent or sweetener, or a different split base, a different citrus, etc. Then, when I have decided what ingredients to use, I strive for a balance of sweetness, bitterness, tartness (sometimes) and spirit base to make the drink work.

I realize, if this is your first foray into drink creation, these may seem like somewhat nebulous concepts so I’ll give you a real world example to make things a bit more concrete and then conclude this (very long) post.

The other day a guest asked for a spicy, gin-based cocktail. There are a lot of routes I could have taken but based on what she’d had (and liked) previously, I decided to go floral and citrusy. I decided to base the cocktail on a classic called the Aviation which is composed of gin, maraschino liqueur, creme de violet, and lemon juice. I decided to change the maraschino liqueur to elderflower to increase the floral nature of the drink, add some orange bitters and a couple drops of some extremely spicy house-made habanero-infused tequila, and top the drink with Sprite.

I knew the flavors would work together because of past experience and my familiarity with the Aviation so all I had left was to ensure the drink was balanced.

The first few times you try to balance a cocktail it’s a lot of trial and error but over time, as you get more familiar with the ingredients you’ll be more confident in your ratios. That said, I still taste as I go along and adjust on the fly if need be.

So I added everything except the Sprite to my shaker tin and increased the amount of lemon juice over what the Aviation calls for to counteract the added sweetness of the soda and elderflower liqueur. I shook it with Kold-Draft, strained it into a Collins glass, added some pellet ice, and topped it off with Sprite. I called it the Kitty Hawk Express as an homage to its foundation, the Aviation, and finished it off with an orange twist. She loved it, which was a pretty good feeling.

These moments of success, of having a happy guest love your creation, are what hospitality and bartending are all about. Everything else, the mechanics, the product knowledge, the creation process, is merely the groundwork for the ultimate goal of a satisfied you if you’re making cocktails at home or a satisfied guest if you’re behind a working bar.

I hope this overview has given you a taste for bartending. If you want to explore further click any of the links in this post.

If you are reading the lessons in order, click here for the next one, on measuring, or here to see the lessons landing page. Happy mixing!