Watching a skilled bartender at work – gracefully moving from backbar to ice well, throwing splashes of liquids into mixing glasses and shaker tins, silently stirring drinks or shaking them with vigour – is part of the pleasure of going to a cocktail bar. But this theatre serves to obscure a fundamental truth about bartending: making a good cocktail isn’t necessarily hard work.
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Home bartenders have a few advantages over their professional counterparts when it comes to making high-quality cocktails. Firstly, home bartenders are beholden to nobody’s budget but their own. If you want to make, say, a Chartreuse swizzle at home, nobody’s going to stop you – whereas the reality of what customers are willing to pay keeps such drinks off most bars’ lists.
Home bartenders are also able to deep-dive into the things that interest them. If you discover that you love aquavit, for example, you can collect as many different examples of the spirit as you please – a luxury most commercial bars can’t afford.
With practice and finesse, the drinks that you make in your home bar can equal the drinks you’ll find at your local watering hole. Here are a few tips to help take your home bar game to the next level.
1. Buy high-quality ingredients – but don’t go super-luxe
There’s a truism in the cocktail world that a mixed drink is only as good as its worst ingredient. While it mostly holds true – as anyone who’s had a Manhattan made with cheap bourbon and spoiled vermouth can attest – that doesn’t mean you have to spend a packet on ingredients to make good drinks.
There isn’t always a strong correlation between price and quality of liquor. Of course, the very cheapest bottles are more likely to be dreck, but that doesn’t mean that the very expensive stuff is amazing. When you buy a bottle of liquor, you’re not just buying the juice inside – you’re paying for the packaging, the marketing, the product’s rarity, and the social prestige it endows.
It’s also worth thinking about whether the product is a “team player” when put in mixed drinks. For example, I adore the Catalonian producer Casa Mariol’s sweet vermouth on its own as an aperitif, but have found that it doesn’t work very well in most cocktails that call for sweet vermouth.
This kind of knowledge comes down to trial and error, but one simple way to tell if a product might not be a team player is if the product advertising emphasises its novelty or unusualness. The trendy new gin laden with obscure botanicals may taste wonderful in a G&T, but could also ruin your Negroni.
If you’re looking to fill a gap in your home liquor cabinet and don’t know what brand to buy, pop into a local bar and ask them what brand they use. The “first-pour” spirits used at good cocktail bars are usually great value for money and will work in a wide variety of mixed drinks.
Make it at home: Manhattan
The Manhattan is one cocktail that benefits from some thought put into its ingredients. Made with average ingredients according to the now-standard “212” recipe ( two ounces whiskey, one ounce sweet vermouth, two dashes aromatic bitters) hardly wows.
Upgrade to a high-proof or cask-strength whiskey, match it with an equally impressive vermouth, and tweak the ratios so the vermouth plays an equal role to the whiskey – and suddenly you have a seriously delicious cocktail.