How to make good cocktails at home: A beginner's guide
(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Rachel Duggins got interested in cocktails early, from watching old movies in which the glamorous witty women and debonair men always seemed to have a drink in hand. When she was little, her family visited the iconic Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul; Duggins was transfixed by the beautiful bar there. She asked her mother if she could get a drink, and her mother agreed, with rules on what she could order. So Duggins climbed up and politely asked for a Shirley Temple, with extra cherries.
She was five. And those early stars in her eyes never went away.
Everyone starts somewhere different, with different goals. Maybe you want to be a good host, ready for any drink request. Or maybe there’s just a particular cocktail that you wouldn’t mind having at home from time to time.
We can help. Starting up doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You don’t have to become a temple of mixology, creating your own syrups, infusing your own bitters, sending out drinks that would fit in on a Paris runway. You don’t need a graduate degree in potions or enough money to afford a booze collection that requires its own wing. Just take it step by step.
That’s how Paul Clarke, author of The Cocktail Chronicles and executive editor of Imbibe magazine, did it when he first got into cocktails around 2003, via a dinner party where everyone was laying claim to making a dish. Clarke figured he could either make a cocktail or wash dishes. He found a punch recipe, and everyone at the party liked it. It felt great, he says, joking that “the heavens opened and the Jesus light came down”.
With a birthday coming up, he allowed himself a present: William Grimes’s classic cocktail book Straight Up or On the Rocks and bottles of rye whiskey and sweet vermouth, because “I realised I had probably never had rye whiskey in my entire life, and I don’t think I’d ever had a proper Manhattan”.
He laughs recalling his early creations: “I dutifully measured out my Wild Turkey rye and my Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, shook the (hell) out of it, got ’em nice and foamy…” (The Manhattan, properly prepared, is a stirred cocktail.)
Frothy Manhattan notwithstanding, Clarke was in. But he was also a responsible working dad, and so he set limitations: Each paycheck, he would allow himself one new bottle. “The idea was expansion - with this check, I’ll look for a nice bottle of gin. Next check, I need to explore daiquiris, so I’ll go look for a white rum.”
These days, even his broom closet is filled with bottles. “The only places I have not stored it in my house are in the bathroom - that’s gross - and the kids’ rooms. Though I did think about that when they were littler and I was like, ‘Hmm, maybe on the top shelf…?’ ”
(“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told Clarke, eyeing the ever-expanding mass of bottles that threatens to become autonomous and roam, bloblike, through my home, absorbing the couch and the dog.)
But if Clarke were to start over, he would reclaim his broom closet. I heard the same from several passionate cocktailers who went down the rabbit hole in the early days, acquired hundreds of bottles, then realised they didn’t really need all of them. Some have kept collecting, but they are more disciplined in curating what they acquire. Others have downsized.
You don’t need 50 bottles of booze, and you don’t need hundreds of bitters, says Brian Robinson, a financial adviser who serves as the review editor for the Wormwood Society, a nonprofit group that provides education about absinthe. Robinson is a serious collector of spirits, but, he says, “you can build out a nice, versatile bar with 15 or 20 bottles”. In his bar area, he keeps a his go-to mixing spirits, and he can access a mini-fridge for perishables such as vermouth.
You don’t need umpteen kinds of glassware, either, Duggins says. You probably need three kinds: a Collins glass, a rocks glass and a coupe. She’s built out her collection of glassware and cocktail tools amply over the years, “but before then, I would mix cocktails in a Mason jar. That was good for stirring and for shaking because you can just put a lid on it”.
Lawyer and longtime cocktail blogger Marshall Fawley gave away a lot of his extraneous liqueurs when he and his family moved. The way he drinks now is a shift from the early days. “Once we were being as complicated and fancy as we could be, because we were excited that we could do the same things at home as these fancy bars were doing,” Fawley says. “But these days, I’m not necessarily going to spend an entire weekend macerating 60 different herbs to make my own bitters. A good Old-Fashioned is one of life’s simple pleasures.”
Here’s a recommended course to grow your home cocktailing collection in a way that each round of purchasing will enable you to make new drinks. This list doesn’t include such items as sugar/simple syrup and fresh citrus fruits, which you’ll want to keep on hand. It’s also smart to keep a decent bottle of Brut-style sparkling wine chilled for whenever you need it. By the end, you’ll have a versatile, guest-friendly and manageable collection - and hopefully, a good sense of whether you want to expand it further.
You need: A cocktail shaker (which can double as a mixing glass), a measuring jigger, a long spoon, a julep strainer
You could also get (but can manage without): a mixing glass, a muddler, a fine-mesh strainer
Glasses: A Collins glass, a rocks glass and a coupe (I’d advise against V-shaped “martini” glasses, which seem to be designed to spill drinks.)
A good mid-price rye (such as Dickel or Redemption) or bourbon (such as Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark); Angostura bitters; club soda
Budget: $50 (S$68)
You can now make: Whiskey & soda, Old-Fashioned
A good dry gin (such as Beefeater or Plymouth); sweet and dry vermouth (Dolin Dry, Cocchi vermouth di Torino for the sweet); tonic water (Fever Tree is good); orange bitters
You can now make: Manhattan, Martini, Gin and Tonic, gimlet, Tom Collins, Gin Rickey, French 75 (assuming you have sparkling wine)
A good white rum (such as Banks 5 Island or Havana Club)
You can now make: Daiquiri
Campari (if you like it); a good silver or reposado tequila (such as Siembra, Ocho or El Tesoro)
You can now make: Negroni, Americano, Margarita
Orange curacao (such as Pierre Ferrand); maraschino liqueur (such as Luxardo), grenadine
You can now make: El Presidente, Hemingway daiquiri, Martinez (usually made with sweeter Old Tom gin, but works with dry gin)
A good rye or bourbon (whichever you didn’t get in Round 1), absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters
Budget: $80 (good absinthe is expensive; a small bottle will last a long time)
You can now make: Sazerac