This World Cocktail Day (13 May), we have put together your guide to making the best cocktails you can at home. Our tips selection covers the equipment you’ll need, how to garnish and spice up your drinks, and top recipe books to try.
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The right gear
Proper cocktails demand proper equipment, so it’s time to take stock of your at-home set-up. There are a few fundamental tools with which you can accommodate most cocktails: a two-piece shaker; a mixing glass; a fine strainer; a spirit measure (also known as a jigger); a citrus juicer; a bar spoon; and a good paring knife, or peeler. This may seem like a lot of equipment, but you may already have most of these items in your kitchen. More specialist items, such as shakers, can be picked up from good homeware retailers. Or, why not see if your favourite gin distillery makes branded cocktail-making equipment? If you’re unsure which brands or particular pieces to purchase, your friendly neighbourhood bartender can help.
Better with bitters
Bitters are made by mixing a high-ABV base spirit with flavourings such as herbs, spices, and fruits. They have a highly concentrated flavour, so you only need to add a few drops to a drink. Many cocktails call for them, but you can also use them to spice up a G&T. Angostura and Peychaud’s are probably the best-known bitters brands, but there are many others out there now – and this has led to a staggering variety of flavours. For floral, try hibiscus and rose petal bitters from The Bitter Club or Dashfire’s lavender bitters. If you want fruity, try Bittermens hopped grapefruit bitters or Regans’ orange bitters. For something savoury, there’s the black truffle bitters from Bitter Bastards or The Bitter Truth’s olive bitters. Go herbal with Scrappy’s celery bitters or The Bitter Truth cucumber bitters. Or for a sweet twist, try the Aztec chocolate bitters from Fee Brothers or Angostura cocoa bitters.
Ice, ice, baby
No, it’s not all just frozen water. The kind of cocktail you’re making should determine the ice you use. For example, if you’re making a spirit-forward cocktail which needs some dilution, like a Martini, Negroni or Gimlet it’s best to smaller cubes of ice. The smaller the ice cube, the more surface area is in contact with the liquid, and thus the more dilution there will be. If you’re mixing something longer, like a G&T or Tom Collins, it’s alright to use larger cubes or spheres of ice. The gin has already been diluted by the mixer, so using larger-format ice that melts slower ensures that the drink doesn’t get over-diluted and become unbalanced.
Maximise your garnish
Leafy, dried, frozen, marinated, syrupy, charred… there are so many ways to garnish a cocktail! Most of the classics will have their own recommendations (for example, lemon peel on a French 75 or a brandied cherry on an Aviation). However, for others, there is more wiggle room depending on the individual components you’ve used. For example, if you’re making a Negroni Blanco with dry vermouth, the traditional Negroni garnish of an orange peel may not be appropriate. The Martini is a prime candidate – its various garnishes are so eponymous they have become separate drinks (a Gibson if garnished with a pickled onion, a Dirty Martini if made with olive garnish and brine). As a rule, if you choose a garnish that has similar or complementary flavours to the drink, you can’t go far wrong. If you’re sticking to a G&T (or gin and soda), most gin brands suggest ideal garnishes for their gin if served with tonic.
Read up on recipes
The vast majority of cocktails are built around four components: strong (your spirit), sour/bitter (e.g. citrus juice), sweet (e.g. syrup), and weak (ice or mixer). For example, a Southside contains gin (strong), lemon juice (sour), simple syrup (sweet) and ice, with mint to garnish. Getting this balance of flavours right is important, so it’s useful to follow a recipe, at least at first. There are tons of great cocktail books out there now, catering to novices and experts. Classic ‘all-rounders’ include The Joy of Mixology by Gary Reagan, The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff, The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock, and Imbibe! by Dave Wondrich, while there are also collections catering to individual drinks (Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, Negroni by David T. Smith and Keli Rivers, Gin Tonica by David T. Smith).
And, of course, you can always find plenty of inspiration through our Cocktail of the Week recipes!