Unless you are a student, at a music festival or have been recently dumped, then there really is no excuse just to fling a spirit or two in a glass, add an optional mixer and call it a cocktail. If you are passionate about gastronomy – really passionate – then the art of bartending should be akin to creating a wonderful plate of food, and you wouldn’t cut corners there, would you?
♣ Use the proper tools
To effectively make any kind of cocktail, an arsenal of bartending equipment is needed. Most of this is fairly cheap and readily available. A decent shaker is a must; a Boston-based shaker is more versatile than a 3-peice ‘capped’ shaker, but can be more challenging to use. If you opt for a Boston, go for half glass, half can. Boston cans require strainers; hence a decent Hawthorn strainer is a must. A fine strainer (like a mini-sieve) is necessary for many drinks so the bartender can filter out fruit bits, flecks of ice and other debris that can otherwise spoil a perfectly crisp, clear cocktail.
Consider investing in a decent measure or jigger; one with straight sides ensures greater accuracy if you measure out quarter / half shots. A bar spoon enables laying ingredients and makes stirring drinks a lot easier. A muddler (like a pestle) enables the bartender to crush and bruise fruits and herbs in the shaker, and a paring knife and chopping board are essential. Consider buying a special glass cleaning cloth to keep glassware looking like new. All the above equipment can be bought for no more than £50 / $80 for the lot.
♣ Keep the fridge stocked up
Having a wide range of mixers to hand is just as important as a disparate selection of fantastic spirits and liquors. Most mixers can keep for a very long time, such as fresh fruit juices, honey, sodas / softs and sugar syrup. Basic essentials include the ‘big’ juices such as lemon, lime, orange, apple, pineapple, pink grapefruit and cranberry. Ginger ale, cola, lemonade, tonic and soda water are also important.
♣ Use the right glasses
The glass makes the drink and never forget it! Despite this, building (and maintaining) a classy glass selection can get expensive but the bare essentials should include short (‘old fashioned’), highballs, shot glasses, wine glasses and martini glasses. It is definitely also worth looking at slings, toddy glasses and hurricanes. Always look after your glassware; clean it separately from plates and other kitchen stuff, polish it and never stand them upside down as the lips will become damaged.
Only muddle fruits using your Boston glass as other glassware will not stand up to the pressure needed to pummel ingredients. Chilling glasses (see later on) is very important but be aware that rapidly increasing / decreasing the temperature of a glass may cause it to shatter, swiftly turning your cocktail party into a traumatic trip to A&E.
♣ Use shakers with caution
Boston Shakers give a better result but are more difficult to use; seal them with a thud of your wrist and release them with a tap to the side of the tin. Always keep them pointed away from guests when shaking, and keep the glass half pointing down just in case they shatter. With any kind of shaker, keep two hands on it as these things can open by surprise.
Finally, don’t overfill a shaker as the drink will not mix properly and will likely leak everywhere. A standard 70cl Boston tin will hold about 8 measures of liquid; ice will take up the rest; anymore is too full.
♣ Skimp on quality
Quality spirits are so important as they tend to be smoother, much easier to mix and balance a drink, but also never underestimate the importance of good quality mixers. Freshly squeezed orange juice, pressed apple juice, fresh fruits and homemade sugar syrup are vital to making a great quality cocktail. You will taste the difference!
♣ Underestimate the importance of ice.
Ice is as vital an ingredient as you are ever going to get in cocktails. Firstly, it is a great idea to pre-chill glasses in the freezer.
When serving a drink over ice, fill the whole glass with ice. When shaking or stirring a drink over ice, use a lot; usually, half a Boston can will do it. Good quality ice must be chunky and almost ‘sticky’ to touch. Never use the same ice twice, even if making the same drink twice in a row.
♣ Act like Tom Cruise (unless you can)
No-one likes a show off… and there really is no reason to throw bottles around or toss shakers in the air unless a) you are really good at it or b) you work at TGI Fridays. Messing around with bottles and glass is obviously not the safest thing to do in the world so use caution. On the same note, try not to mix drinks when you are drunk. For obvious reasons.
OK, so using measures is a bit of a hassle, but sticking to using them (rather than just guess-timating how much hooch goes in a drink) has two distinct advantages; firstly, the cocktails will be better-made and well-balanced. Secondly, you won’t get all of your guests smashed after the first round, which is usually frowned upon in most social circles.
♣ Final Thoughts…
Commit to the cause! If you are serious about creating your own bar; do it properly. On face value, doing everything as mentioned above is not cheap but consider building your bar bit by bit, a month at a time. By far and away the biggest expense will be ingredients and the most commonly used are the base spirits such as rum and vodka. Shop around for these as they can be found cheap in many stores. Keep these basics stocked up and treat yourself to lesser used ingredients every now and then and you will find that you will have respectable bar in no time! Mixers and fruits are not too difficult to keep stoked up and treated well, glassware can last for years.
So have fun, drink well, play safe and enjoy!