Category Archives: For Beginners
Have you ever felt intimidated by the constant arguments over “the right way” to prepare a martini? Wonder no more, thanks to this excellent video by master bartender Ms. Charlotte Voisey. Not only are the techniques (both practical and presentational) that she describes useful for a number of cocktails, she describes them all in an adorable British accent, and she uses Hendrick’s gin. Really, how can you go wrong?
While a common ingredient in cocktails, grenadine these days is most often found in the shape of a Rose’s bottle on the shelf at your local liquor store for some outrageous sum (hint: you can replicate the product easily simply by adding red food coloring to a far cheaper bottle of corn syrup). Its origins were not always so ignoble, however; once upon a time, the stuff was made from pomegranate juice. Indeed, if you’ll excuse the quick bit of language pedantry, grenadine’s name comes from the French grenada; our term for its source fruit likely comes from their pomme-grenada, “seeded apple”.
One could argue that, given the extremely small amounts generally used in a given cocktail, grenadine suffers no particular loss from its gradual cheapening into what is effectively red syrup. The Rebel Bartender, however, being a bit of a snob, suggests that you make your own classic grenadine – it’s surprisingly easy, and lends a vibrant color to whatever infusion you happen to adulterate it with.
1 cup 100% pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar
Put juice in saucepan and heat on medium for a minute or two; whisk in sugar. Continue whisking until thoroughly dissolved, then cool and funnel into clean container of your choice. Cover and refrigerate; should keep for at least a month.
Photo of Rose’s Grenadine stolen from BevMo’s website.
And here we come to the seventh and final installment in this series, and possibly the most enjoyable one. Tinkering with a recipe is fun, and showing off your technique is great, but it’s that moment where the recipient first lays eyes on the completed product that differentiates between the ultimate assessment of “That was tasty” and “Wow!”. People may be able to fall in love with each other slowly, true, but when it comes to drinks it’s love at first sight or not at all. Or, to paraphrase Megamind’s best line, what’s the difference between a drink and super-drink? Presentation!
We’ve already addressed the first step in the process – having proper glassware handy. And while this might seem to go without saying, the Bartender will emphasize it anyway – your serving glass should be clean, dry, and free of chips or cracks. Always hold the glassware by the stem, if you can – it keeps unsightly fingerprints off of the part that actually displays the drink.
The next part of the equation is the drink itself. If it’s a shaken cocktail, things are pretty simple – although a popular trick is to add a dash of egg white to create a pleasant white froth at the top. (Pro tip: For more tropical-flavored drinks, coconut milk will do the same without the danger of salmonella poisoning.) Certain drinks, however, will create a layered effect when you build them over ice; as you learn the relative densities of different ingredients, you can add them in the proper order to create that graduated-color look that’s always impressive. (Just remember to offer the recipient a straw or a swizzle stick!) If you’re making a drink with herbs of some sort, be extra-enthusiastic with your muddling – smaller pieces that tear off will float in the liquid and often look quite striking.
Finally, however, there is the pièce de résistance, the part where the aspiring bartender can really show their creativity – the garnish. From the classic maraschino cherry to a mouse painstakingly carved from a single radish, the garnish is often the most visually interesting part of the cocktail, and therefore what really grabs the recipient’s attention. Invest in some toothpicks (or, even better, long metal cocktail picks), and start experimenting. For tropical drinks, chunks of fresh fruit are always pretty, especially when speared on a paper umbrella. If the flavor is more herbal, try floating pieces of fresh basil on the surface, or garnishing with a sprig of rosemary. Candy is also fun and eye-catching, especially for sweeter drinks: There’s the classic peppermint stick in a cup of hot chocolate; you could try floating a sour gummi on the surface of that liquid Jolly Rancher, or spearing a fun-size Snickers bar for that chocolatini. Even purely decorative garnishes still add visual interest to your creation.
When you have a frothy surface (either from a cream-based ingredient or whipped cream topping), you can sprinkle a spice atop it: freshly-grated nutmeg or ground cardamom both look emininently classy. Be careful, though – spices will add a surprising kick to your concoction, so don’t overdo it, and make certain that the flavors are complementary!
In this endless garden of possibilities, do keep in mind that not every garnish has to be fancy or complex. Indeed, there’s a reason some of the simplest creations are the most iconic – serving a Manhattan with anything other than a single maraschino cherry might well make you a victim of mob justice in certain circles. The Bartender recently was impressed by a drink designed to taste fruity, spicy and Christmasy; the garnish was simply a pick strung with small dried cranberries and golden raisins. Simple, striking, elegant.
But there’s also nothing wrong with letting your inner Lady Gaga go hog-wild. Maybe incredibly elaborate and colorful garnishes will be your trademark. Maybe you’ll be known for your riffs on the classics. Perhaps you’ll find ways to create minor works of art out of common household objects. Experimentation is fun – but when you unveil your creations to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the recipients, you’ll start to see where the real joy of bartending lies.
It’s nearly impossible to find an alcohol-oriented blog without drink recipes, and there’s a reason for this: inventing, tweaking and sharing recipes is one of the most rewarding parts of participating in cocktail culture. Be forewarned, however, that many bartender-bloggers pride themselves on posting lots of recipes using particularly expensive or arcane ingredients – it’s an easy way to show originality in a crowded field. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, it can be frustrating for many newbies, as hunting down and buying a whole bottle of something unusual and pricey just to try out one drink isn’t a time- or budget-efficient way to get a good grounding in mixology. (The Rebel Bartender doesn’t promise to stick entirely to grocery-store ingredients, but the majority of the recipes here should consist of relatively easy-to-find and easy-on-the-budget items – in large part because the Bartender’s budget doesn’t stretch that far in the first place!)
Now that you’re familiar with some of the classics, you can start branching out – the Internet is a wonderful resource for new drink recipes. Here also you will see the benefits of your course in the classics: because you’re familiar with a lot of flavor combinations, you’ll be better able to pick and choose recipes that are likely to be good. This is the Internet, after all, where filters and objective standards are minimal; and while there’s no shame in trying a recipe, discovering it’s crap, and pouring it down the drain, reducing those incidents to a minimum is helpful to one’s liquor budget.
During your hunt for new recipes, chances are you will see a few different measurement systems. The Bartender writes her recipes in fluid ounces, because she’s an American and that’s what she’s used to; however, you’ll likely find recipes written in centiliters, milliliters, or just generalized “parts”. People do the latter in order to make their recipe easily scalable; usually, for a standard-size drink, a “part” is 1 fluid ounce (American) or 2 centiliters/20 milliliters (metric, about 2/3 a fluid ounce), although of course it depends on who’s writing the recipe. Google is an excellent tool for converting between systems – just type “25 ml to oz” in the search bar and it’ll pop right up with the equivalent. If you don’t have internet access at that moment, however, you can just go with a bartending rule of thumb – three centiliters (or 30 milliliters) is about equivalent to one fluid ounce. Sometimes, in more casual recipes, you’ll see an ingredient given with no measurement (i.e. for a screwdriver: 1.5 ounces vodka, orange juice); that’s usually an indication that you put the other ingredients in first, then fill the glass with the last one(s).
Branding (using specific brand names such as “Cointreau” instead of generics like “triple sec”) can also cause some confusion, largely because of the differing reasons behind the practice. Sometimes a recipe’s author will put in specific names simply because it’s what they’re used to or because they’re trying to promote a specific product. Other times they’ll put it down because the flavor of the cocktail actually depends on that specific ingredient – Grand Marnier, for instance, qualifies as a triple sec but has a very different flavor from DeKuyper or Patron Citronge. Generally speaking, the more distinctive (and, often, expensive) the ingredient, the bigger a difference a substitution will make to the flavor of the drink (with certain exceptions) and therefore the more likely it will be called for by name. If you don’t have a particular brand of liquor handy, it’s perfectly okay to substitute, but just be aware that the effect on the resulting drink can be anywhere from subtle to dramatic – so try the substitution yourself before serving it to a friend. (As you experiment with different ingredients, the knowledge gained will serve you well here; a drink might call for Absolut Citron, but if you dislike the medicinal flavor of Absolut and find Skyy Citrus to be sweet and pleasant, swapping it in is a no-brainer.)
This probably feels like a lot to take in all at once, but honestly it’s not hard to keep in mind once you’ve played around with mixing for a while. The joy of mixology is that it’s less a science than an art. Once you’ve got the basics down, start tinkering! Try adding your favorite ingredient to a drink, or swap out a disliked component for one you enjoy better, or just toss together a bunch of liqueurs that seem like they’d complement each other and see what happens. Many of your favorite recipes will likely be discovered this way, so experiment, compare, take notes, and write down your discoveries. Keep a notebook or a card-file full of your favorite recipes. Develop a signature drink (or three). Take risks, and have fun!
We’ve now covered every topic necessary to send the beginning mixologist out into the world, and if you’ve stuck around this long, both your future guests and the Bartender thank you. However, there’s one more entry planned in this guide; and (as is appropriate for a finale) it’s simultaneously the most frivolous and the most important one. Tools, technique, knowledge, and showmanship will get you making decent (and hopefully, eventually, fantastic) drinks. But remember, humans are visual creatures, and much like in cooking, the difference between “Huh, this is a good drink” and “Holy crow, this is amazing!” is often nothing more than a shade or two of color and a pretty garnish. And since one of the purposes of The Rebel Bartender is to address the artistic value inherent in mixology (read: to make drinks that really impress our friends), this guide would not be complete without at least a peek into the wide variety of presentational touches that can really make that “Wow” factor happen. And that, dear friends, is what’s in store – if you’ll bear with us for one more week.
One of the best goals for the aspiring mixologist is to attempt to make as many different classic drinks as they can. Doing so might seem an obvious step, as it familiarizes you with the touchstones of cocktail culture as well as ensuring you have a good range of basic ingredients on hand. But it also has a number of other benefits.
Think of it as building a toolbox. As discussed in the last article, there are a number of different ways to actually combine ingredients; if you make a Cosmo, a Martini, and a White Russian, you’re now familiar with the three major methods to make a cocktail (shaken, stirred, and built over ice respectively). Not only that, but you’ve also got an idea of what three different flavor categories taste like: fruity/citrus, herbal/savory, and rich/sweet. As you make more diverse drinks, you learn what flavor combinations tend to work well, and you train your palate to discern the variations between different recipes in the same general flavor category.
Many forms of alcohol are an acquired taste, which is part of the point of this exercise – once the flavor of whiskey in general is less surprising, you’ll be able to differentiate between types of whiskey, levels of quality, and (eventually) methods of production. Almost inevitably, however, you will come across a classic drink (or even a whole ingredient) that you can’t stand. Don’t be discouraged; everyone is different, and very few people enjoy everything in a given category. The experience of tasting it, however, will serve you well – both in terms of advising you as to what to avoid ordering, and in familiarizing you with its general flavor profile. The latter is useful when you have a guest whose tastes run toward that particular drink or ingredient: even if you don’t have the ingredients for their favorite on hand, you can still offer something in a similar vein. (And do remember that one of the great things about alcohol is the endless variety even within a very specific definition – chances are there’s a far better version out there that you might appreciate more.)
Be forewarned that, while a drink’s “classic” status indicates it’s worth trying, it also means that the drink likely has several different variations, any of which might be labeled with the same name as the original (the Martini is the biggest offender here, but there are others). Fortunately, the International Bartender’s Association maintains a list of their official cocktails, these being the most frequently-made cocktails by bartenders around the world; this makes a great starting point for newly minted mixologists. (Note that IBA standards are written in centiliters. If you’re American and your measuring device has no markings for metric, just remember – three centiliters is about one fluid ounce.)
Once you’ve gotten a good grasp on the classics, you can start tinkering some of the better-known variations, or strike off on your own and start searching for (and inventing your own) recipes, which is where the real fun comes in. But long after that first Manhattan or Harvey Wallbanger is behind you, the tastes you’ve developed and the techniques you’ve perfected during this period will be of great use.
All right. You’ve decided what drink you want to make. You’ve chosen your ingredients, tasted them, and found them up to snuff. Your tools are all clean and ready to use. The appropriate glass is chilling in the freezer. You’ve put on some nice mood music in the background. You, my friend, are ready to start mixing.
Now, mixology is a complicated subject, but the Bartender is here to tell you a secret: The actual act of mixing? Totally easy. There are really only a few techniques you need to know, and none of them take more than a few minutes to learn. But the great part is, each and every one is an opportunity to inject a little showmanship into your bar routine. For instance:
Building. This is the simplest method, usually done in a rocks or highball glass. Measure each ingredient, then pour it over ice in the glass. But if you want to get a bit showy, you can buy some inexpensive pour spouts and practice with them (using water!) until you can pour single ounces reliably, then pour two ingredients at once into the glass. A small straw will work fine for the traditional swizzle stick, but if you find some nifty blown-glass or ceramic-headed ones at your local art show, even better.
Shaking. The traditional, iconic method of cocktailing, shaking is one of the quickest and most fun techniques as well. Front-to-back? Side-to-side? Up-and-down? At an angle? A bit of a swirl, or no? What kinds of different sounds can you make with the ice? And can you strain with a flourish? Can you do two at once? Practice in front of the mirror (without the ice, unless you have Thinsulate fingers) so you can show off to your friends.
Stirring. An alternative to shaking, for when the drink doesn’t need to be quite as cold, or when over-dilution is a concern (such as in a Martini). Pour the ingredients over ice in a mixing glass, then use a chopstick or a bar spoon to stir it all together. Strain into the glass, either over ice (if a rocks glass) or without (if a cocktail glass).
Muddling. Some drinks contain ingredients that are solid – fresh rosemary, mint leaves, an orange rind, etc. Muddling bruises these ingredients and allows them to release their flavor into the drink. Put the solid ingredients in the bottom of the shaker or mixing glass, along with a small amount of liquid. Then, using either a muddler or something with a similar broad flat bottom (the Bartender uses a wooden spoon-handle), gently mash them up until their oil mingles with the liquid – you’ll be able to smell it when it does. Then pour in the rest of the ingredients and shake or stir normally. Don’t worry about the solid bits, they’ll strain out along with the ice.
Layering. This is one of the few bartending techniques that can require a bit of know-how. For instance, you have to know the relative densities of the liquids you’re layering. (Fortunately, this step is usually included as part of the recipe – every set of instructions for a Harvey Wallbanger has you layer the Galliano on top of the orange juice, not the other way around.) Pour the first ingredient in, then hold a spoon upside-down over it. Slowly pour the floating ingredient over the back of the spoon (and onto an ice cube if you can manage it) – it will dip down into the base ingredient, but if you do it right the majority of it should sit on top. Just remember, the key words here are patience and consistence – pouring too quickly or inconsistently is the easiest way to ruin the effect. But if you can pull it off, it never fails to impress.
There are other, more dramatic techniques as well (flaming in particular comes to mind), but with a little bit of practice these basics should get any bartender through day-to-day. And, in fact, an excellent way to practice them happens to be by working your way through your classics…but we’ll save that for next week’s lesson.
A glass functions rather like a stereotypical unappreciated sidekick – it’s invisible, and yet its entire function is to make the drink look good, as well as to keep it from being messy and difficult to consume. (Admittedly, there’s always the option of drinking it directly from the bottle of shaker, but one takes advice from Foul Bachelor Frog at one’s own peril.) The flavor of a cocktail suffers somewhat less than wine when put in an inappropriate container, but that still doesn’t justify serving a Cosmo in a beer glass – unless, perhaps, you’re a rural Alaskan bar and don’t know any better. Remember, half the battle in serving an impressive drink is the presentation, and your glassware choice is the first step in that battle.
Fortunately for the aspiring bartender’s pocketbook, there’s a little more wiggle room in glassware than in tools. Tall drinks can usually be scaled down to rocks size; therefore, there are only three types you really need to have stocked:
Shot glass. Used to serve hard liquor straight up, or to build shooters in, these are a pretty basic bar staple. They come in all kinds of novelty shapes and styles, but it’s pretty hard to beat the plain glass ones – they’re thick enough to be tough to break, and dense enough (unlike plastic ones) to hold a chill when you put them in the freezer.
Rocks glass. Also known as an “old fashioned glass”, a “short glass” or a “lowball glass”. These are traditionally used to serve drinks “on the rocks”; most whiskey-based cocktails are served this way. They also come in any number of styles; however, the Bartender favors the traditional look; it’s simultaneously timeless and also perfect for getting in touch with one’s inner Don Draper.
Martini glass. Occasionally referred to as the more generic “cocktail glass”, this is the classic triangular shape made famous by a thousand glowing neon signs. Lately there have been trends to spice up the design a bit with funky stems or patterned bowls; these touches can add visual interest to your drinks, but are by no means necessary to pay extra for.
Once you have a good stock of those, you can start looking at additional glassware to give yourself more flexibility in presentation. These are less necessary, but can really add an artistic flair to your drinks:
Highball glass. Taller than a rocks glass and a staple for making tall drinks – Bloody Marys, for instance, or any kind of booze-and-soda combination (Jack & Coke, Cuba Libre). Note that while the shape is similar to an iced tea glass, they’re not quite as big. A highball generally holds 8 to 12 ounces, while an iced tea glass can be anywhere from 12 to 20 ounces.
Irish Coffee glass. These are made from tempered glass and have a handle to make it easy to drink hot liquids – hot toddies, mulled wine and hot chocolate with rum, as well as the eponymous Irish Coffee. The flared lip especially lends itself to whipped cream topping.
Hurricane glass. Hot out today? The sight of one of these, filled with a frozen daiquiri or a melange of fruit juices, is enough to make anyone feel refreshed. Pro tip: Keep a reserve of the little paper umbrellas. You’d be surprised how tough they can be to find.
Cordial glass. Probably not necessary if you already have shot glasses, these are nonetheless handy if you plan on sipping liqueurs. At the very least, they’re a touch more elegant, and they definitely beat a screw cap for tasting.
With the exception of hot drinks, it’s a rare cocktail that can’t be improved by being served in a frosty glass – hello, freezer! If you need day-to-day space for your groceries you can get away with just sticking them in for fifteen minutes beforehand. A tray of some sort is helpful, as many freezers use wire-mesh racks that make it especially easy to knock over cooling glasses (cold glass is brittle!). You can use a cookie sheet if you don’t have a proper dish rack.
If you don’t have time to properly chill your glasses, you can use the bar trick of sticking a scoop of ice in one and letting it sit for a minute or two. The Bartender has had mixed success with this method, as the glass never seems to get as cold as a proper freezing would make it, but if you have a party-style setup with an ice tub or ice machine this might be easier and quicker. NEVER PUT A GLASS IN THE ICE TUB or ice maker to chill; if the glass breaks then you’re out an entire tub of ice. (God help you if you break a glass in the ice machine; having to sit and wait for the entire bin of ice to melt will ruin just about any party plan.)
Now that we’ve got the support system out of the way, it’s time for the fun part! Mixing a drink might seem simple – and, really, it is – but it’s the showmanship aspect that can really make a difference between a pedestrian potable and a classy cocktail. Next week we will look at techniques, but also personal touches, embellishments…and possibly even a flourish or two.
See you then!
As the contents of many a suburban guest-bedroom closet will inform you, every hobby has its own specific tools; and as any hobbyist can tell you, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a project and then being stalled for want of the proper gadget. Mixology is no different, although it has an advantage over some in that the home bartender can get by with relatively few items on hand. There are, however, certain pieces that no cocktail-maker should be without:
Shaker. The majority of popular cocktails are shaken, as it’s a quick way to simultaneously combine ingredients and cool them over ice. There’s some debate over the superiority of the Boston-style shaker, versus the more common cobbler shaker. So far as the Bartender has ever noticed, the Boston shaker has a slight edge in versatility (as both sides can be used as mixing glasses at once), which is likely why many professional bartenders use them. But the built-in straining capabilities of the cobbler shaker are rather more convenient to the home bartender, and preclude the necessity of buying a separate cocktail strainer.
One other point of note: shakers, like many items designed to hold liquid, come in single-walled and double-walled varieties. Either will work just fine, but the insulation of a double-walled shaker will simultaneously keep your drinks cooler and your fingers from getting cold while you’re shaking them. On the other hand, some mixologists judge a cocktail’s readiness by the amount of condensation on the outside of the shaker; obviously, a double-walled version would prevent that. Ultimately, it’s up to your personal preference.
Measurer. It takes years to develop a trained eye for pours, and even then it’s a good idea to measure out portions for any drink involving more than two ingredients – it can only take one mis-poured ingredient to ruin a cocktail and waste the alcohol involved. The Bartender’s first measuring device was a shot glass with measurement indicators; now, she uses a small angled measuring cup for convenience when pouring from above. If you wish to go the more traditional route, there’s always the jigger, named after bartending slang for a 1.5 ounce measurement. Be careful, however; jiggers come in varying sizes, and not all of them even measure a proper jigger (or pony, the slang for a 1 ounce pour). Given the potential for confusion and the fact that lots of cocktails require more esoteric measurements, the Bartender recommends that the beginner find something properly demarcated.
Mixing glasses. Also known as pint glasses, they’re used for mixing drinks, but can also serve as beer glasses, water glasses, collins glasses, or half of a Boston shaker. Plus, they’re a popular promotional item with breweries, so if you have a favorite you want to demonstrate your support for, you can buy from them.
Bamboo chopsticks. You can get a fancy bar spoon with the swirled stem if you like, but plain ol’ chopsticks are super-cheap (especially if you can get them from a nearby Asian store) and work just as well for stirring drinks.
Small, sharp, serrated knife. This is one area where you don’t want to skimp on quality. A good knife will last you damn near forever, especially if you hand-wash and remember to sharpen it now and then. The Bartender has personal experience with Wusthof, who make some of the best kitchen knives in the world; their 4.5″ serrated utility knife isn’t too pricey and will likely be bisecting citrus fruits and cutting garnishes long after you’re gone from this planet. Use that for a few weeks, and then just try going back to your usual K-mart specials. (Straight-edged knives will work too, but serrations are of particular help when cutting citrus peel, which you will be doing quite often.)
Cutting board. Here, on the other hand, cheap is just fine. A small plastic one will work quite well, and can go through the dishwasher, besides.
Juicer/Strainer. The Bartender prefers the ergonomics of a handheld reamer with a separate strainer, but there are plenty of all-in-one options as well. Remember what we discussed in the post on ingredients? Make certain it’s strong enough and comfortable enough to withstand constant use.
Dish towel/Bar rag. Glasses need drying, and spills happen. Anything soft and absorbent will do, but you can get lint-free cotton diaper cloths if you’re feeling particularly classy.
There are many other tools advertised for the use of the home bartender, many of which we will likely examine in the future – and some of which may even be useful. But this list should get all but the most ambitious home bartenders through the actual drink-making process. Make certain everything is clean and ready before you start, as leaving a half-full shaker to go and wash your juicer will land you with an overly diluted drink.
As for what happens after the drink is ready…well, presentation is almost as important as content. And while we’re not quite ready to dive headfirst into the subject, a good discussion on glassware should make a nice scratch in the surface. Next week: the difference between hurricanes and highballs, when to use shot glasses and when to use cordial glasses, and why your freezer will be your new best friend!
This was originally meant to go in the post on ingredients, but it was getting a bit long. And since there’s technically some mixing going on, here’s a recipe!
Syrup is to mixologists what white paint is to an artist – it has no flavor of its own, but it lightens and sweetens any mixture you add it to. Given its usefulness and convenience (no stirring like crazy to dissolve sugar in a cold drink), no home bar should be without it. And it’s likely for these reasons that fancy liquor stores will often sell tiny bottles of it for outrageous sums, despite it being the easiest thing in the world to make.
Really, this is all the recipe involves. The hardest part is finding a classy container; the Bartender uses a swing-top Grolsch bottle, but any sort of food-storage container will do.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Bring water to boil in a small saucepan. Add sugar, stir until dissolved. Let cool and pour into a clean container of your choice. Refrigerate up to three months.
Facing down the liquor aisle for the first time is a task to test the will of any aspiring mixologist. So many different bottles! An endless variety of colors and shapes! Where do I look first? What on earth is “framboise”? Is there a difference between liqueur and schnapps? Why is there a Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle and a Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch? Jesus, did they misplace the decimal on the price? How do I know that I’m not shelling out $30 for something horrid?
That last question is often foremost in the newbie’s mind, as liquor doesn’t come cheap. Sure, you can just poke around and buy whatever bottle catches your eye, but if you’re serious about this mixology thing, over time you’re going to be investing quite a bit of cash in your liquor collection. Therefore, it’s a good idea do some research on which items will give you the best return on investment. Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, but buying the bottom-shelf version of everything isn’t the way to go, either – the only person that Winner’s Cup Vodka is making a winner is the person pocketing your hard-earned $8.
So before you go stare at the pretty bottles, look up recipes for the type of drinks you’re most interested in trying. What ingredients get mentioned the most often? What brand names do people recommend? Visibility is often more a matter of marketing than quality – Malibu is probably the most widely-mentioned coconut rum, despite being thin, watery and harsh in flavor – but if enough people refer to a brand by name, chances are it’s at least mixable.
Liquor reviews can be helpful, especially if you can find an individual reviewer whose tastes align with (or diametrically oppose) your own. Sadly, the Internet has not yet provided us with a good centralized crowdsourced liquor-reviewing website a la Yelp or Amazon (seriously, Internet, what’s with that?), so finding out the general opinion of a particular product is a bit of a haphazard undertaking – liquor-oriented discussion communities and Google will be your friends here. Be on the lookout for paid promoters writing overly positive (or negative, for the competitor’s product) reviews; generally, these aren’t hard to pick out due to their overly effusive or venomous content.
Once you’ve made your selections and brought them home, the fun part begins. The first thing to do with a product you haven’t tried before is to open it up and pour yourself a small sip (cordial or shot glasses work well for this, but you can also use the bottle’s screw-cap in a pinch). Give it a whiff – taste and smell are very closely linked, and given how quickly alcohol evaporates, most liquors aren’t at all shy about expressing themselves through scent. Note any components that are noticeable or overpowering. Then, close your eyes and take a sip.
Don’t swallow right away – this is the part that differentiates the enthusiasts from the amateurs. You’re not looking to get drunk, you’re looking to get an idea of the flavor – is it herby? sweet? fruity? sour? Is the smell similar to the flavor, or misleading? Does it remind you of one thing in particular (vanilla extract? banana Runts?) or is it a combination of tastes? Get a notebook to keep by your liquor cabinet and use it to jot down your impressions. Even if you don’t look at them again, taking the time to sit and identify flavor notes keeps them fresher in your mind. Additionally, the discipline of paying attention to what you drink helps expand and refine your palate, which comes in handy once you start mixing up your own recipes.
Now that we’ve addressed the booze, it’s time to think about the non-booze ingredients. This might seem a little overkill, but consider – per unit of volume, most cocktails have equal or larger amounts of nonalcoholic ingredients, and, just like alcohol, these can vary in flavor. Don’t believe me? Try two different brands of tonic water, or cranberry juice. The more expensive one may or may not taste better to you, but they’ll certainly taste different.
Fortunately, finding a favorite type of juice or soda is a little easier – they’re less expensive, for one thing, and chances are you already have a favorite type of cranberry or orange juice. If a recipe calls for a fruit juice you’re unfamiliar with, try to find a not-from-concentrate version – a lot of subtleties of flavor are lost when it’s boiled down and reconstituted.
Some recipes may refer to seltzer or sparkling water; others to club soda. Be aware there is a slight difference in flavor between the two (club soda has a small amount of mineral salt added), but it’s not strong enough that you can’t substitute the one for the other in a pinch.
The only hard-and-fast rule the Rebel Bartender will lay down is this: Resist the temptation to buy the little plastic bottles of lemon and lime juice. They may look convenient, but if you try them next to fresh-squeezed, there’s just no comparison – and the fruits themselves are inexpensive enough that you can generally have several on hand at any given time.
But, the Bartender hears you ask, how do I get that proper fresh-squeezed flavor from a lemon? How much will I be shelling out for a stir-stick or a shaker? What on earth is that doohickey that looks like a large flat spoon with holes and a spring around it? Will I need a jigger? Am I even allowed to say “jigger” in polite company?
Never fear, young pupil. Join the Rebel Bartender next Saturday and learn all about the tools of your new hobby!
The Rebel Bartender thanks LiveJournaler Fivecats for permission to use his photo of the Perth Tesco’s breathtaking liquor aisle.