Four Ways To Make Better Cocktails At Home
The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has forced craft cocktail lovers to abandon their nightly reverie in bars. With Covid-19 cases on the rise, in thousands of cities in America, it’s unsafe — if not impossible — to go out for a cocktail.
Our battle with the virus doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy great drinks in this last season of the year. In this article, I’ll show you four ways to make better cocktails at home.
Add Ice Last
“Ice is the soul of the American Cocktail. “ — Dale Degroff, The Craft of the Cocktail
American cocktail godfather Dale Degroff taught us to add ice to cocktails as the last ingredient.
This is a radically simple step with a massive return: You have time to mix and chill your drink before it becomes watery.
When we shake or stir a cocktail, we’re essentially performing four tasks:
- Incorporation: mixing the ingredients together.
- Dilution: adding the appropriate amount of water.
- Chilling: bringing the temperature of the drink (usually below the freezing point of water).
- Aeration (for shaken cocktails): creating a tight structure of air bubbles.
The dilution and chilling comes exclusively from the ice melting into the other ingredients.
For our drinks to simultaneously achieve the proper temperature and water content, though, the ice and liquids need to be in motion.
If you add ice to your drink before you’re ready to mix it, you’re watering down your cocktail before properly chilling it.
Measure your spirit and mixers first. Add ice last.
Use Quality Ice
One of the founders of the cocktail Renaissance, the late Sasha Petraske, taught that you can make better ice in your freezer at home than most cocktail bars get from their ice makers.
The volume of water in a cocktail is almost equal to the volume of the base spirit. Since that water comes from the ice, your ice is nearly as important as your base spirit.
It’s easy to make fantastic cocktail ice at home. Follow these steps:
- Clean your freezer. Ice, much like cheese, takes on the flavors and smells of the surrounding food. If you want your ice to be neutral with smell and taste, make sure your freezer is clean and any food inside sealed.
- Use filtered water. Any impurities or off flavors in the water you freeze will become impurities or off flavors in your cocktails. If you want a better cocktail, use better ice. If you want better ice, use filtered (or boiled) water.
All you need is a pan filled 2" high with filtered water. Let it freeze, and use an ice pick to cut it as needed.
It’s rare that you’ll need more than one good-sized rock for a drink. If you’re shaking a daiquiri, one large rock (roughly 2"x2") will give you enough chilling, diluting, and aerating power. If you’re making an old fashioned, using one large rock will increase the life of the drink several times.
Squeeze Fresh Juice
As soon as citrus comes into contact with air, it starts to oxidize. This means it loses some of its quality.
Oxidized citrus juice is less bright and acidic. It tastes stale compared to fresh juice.
The best way to get fresh citrus juice for cocktails is to squeeze your own lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. You don’t need a fancy juicer; you can simply cut the fruit in half and squeeze the juice out with your hands.
Sasha Petraske recommended juicing your citrus as needed. If making more than one cocktail, you can squeeze juice from several fruits into a pitcher. Petraske advised using the citrus within 15 minutes.
Most modern American cocktail bartenders aren’t as stringent, but they agree juice should be used the same day as it’s squeezed.
Measure Your Ingredients
“Cooking could be considered an art form. Making cocktails is more akin to baking: everything is carefully measured before being put through a calculated transformation.” — Jeffrey Morgenthaler, The Bar Book
Cooks can eyeball ingredients, taste as they go, and adjust recipes. A dash here and a pinch there works fine in the saucepan but not in the mixing tin.
In the bar, you must measure your ingredients. We’re aiming for consistently hitting the exact marks of a drink recipe every time.
I don’t say this to throw shame on the free-pouring bartenders. They’re professionals. They are mentally measuring each pour. They have “eyeballing” skills trained through years of working in the craft and building thousands of drinks. Make no mistake, whether a trained bartender is measuring into a jigger (the metal measuring tools used by most craft bartenders) or directly into their mixing vessels, they are measuring.
If you don’t have a jigger, you can use a medicine cup, a tablespoon, or anything that will give you a consistent single part.
After that, following a recipe is as easy as “1 part lime juice, 1 part simple syrup, 2 parts rum or “1 part gin, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1 part Campari”.
It might be a long time before it’s easy to walk into your favorite bar and order a drink again. No amount of reading, researching, or perfect execution of mixology will replace the magic of standing in a bar “shoulder to shoulder” with old and future friends.
If you’re sentimental for your favorite cocktail bar, it’s alright to admit you can’t replace it. It’s normal to mourn the thousands of bars and restaurants that have closed their doors for good during our repeated regressions into quarantine.
If you’re reading this, please take a minute to show support for our struggling industry. Order takeout food and cocktails from your neighborhood bar. Join a favorite bartender’s virtual happy hour (and tip!). Sign the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s petition for relief.
While you’re taking those actions, though, you might as well imbibe with a proper cocktail.