A Beginner Mixologist’s Guide to Making Great Cocktails At Home
While pouring yourself a glass of wine or cracking open a craft brew at home offers a certain sense of instant gratification, there’s a unique feeling of accomplishment that comes along with making your own cocktails. Whether you like them shaken or stirred, being your own mixologist requires effort, time, and of course, a touch of creativity — and the moment your handcrafted libation touches your lips, chances are, you’ll know it was worth it.
The good news? For many of us, more free time spent at home offers the perfect opportunity to pick up this buzzy new hobby (literally), much to the delight of Malibu Beach Inn Bar Director Josh Curtis. “I think it’s so cool that people are interested in making cocktails at home,” he says. “They don’t want just the regular old thing [like a generic mixed drink or beer] — they want something better.”
And that “something better” doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Complete with Curtis’s expert recommendations, here’s simple guide to making fantastic cocktails at home, from the perfect arsenal of barware to inventive cocktail recipes.
The Basic Formula for Great Cocktails
In cooking, there’s the phrase “salt, fat, acid, heat,” which refers to the key elements that make something taste good. In mixology, there’s a similar blueprint: Sugar, citrus, dilution, cold. (And, of course, alcohol.)
This particular formula is specific to the “sours” category, but that doesn’t mean it applies to a narrow number of drinks. Curtis explains, “90 percent of drinks I find are actually sours, and some of those would be, say, margaritas, daiquiris, whiskey sours, mojitos, French 75s, Mai Tais…” the list goes on. Think of a classic, popular drink, and chances are, it’s a sour in nature.
There are exceptions, of course — take aromatic libations like martinis, Manhattans, and old-fashioned cocktails, for example, or dessert drinks like white Russians — but when it comes to your standard at-home cocktails, it’s a great place to start.
Now, back to the formula. The sugar in a drink comes from either a syrup (such as simple syrup or honey syrup) or a liqueur, adding liquid content to the drink. Citrus is a bit more self-explanatory — you’re going to need some lemon or lime juice. The dilution comes from mixers like club soda, tonic, or even prosecco or ginger ale, and it can also come from the same thing that brings cold into the equation: ice. Just as chefs cook with heat, Curtis jokes, “bartenders ‘cook’ with ice!”
Using this equation, here are the basic measurements for a standard sour cocktail.
- ¾ oz liquid sugar (i.e. simple syrup or liqueur)
- ¾ oz citrus (i.e. lemon or lime juice)
- 2oz liquor
- 2oz mixer (i.e. club soda or prosecco)
Getting Creative With Mixology
From here, the bar is your oyster. “Think of using different sugars for your cocktails,” suggests Curtis. “Let’s say you make a mojito and you don’t want to use simple syrup, you want to use cherry liqueur, like Luxardo Maraschino. That would make a really tasty drink, like a cherry lime ricky-mojito sort of thing!”
You can also infuse your own simple syrups with herbs and other ingredients to add another dimension of flavor. Simply boil one cup of water with one cup of sugar along your flavor of choice (such as basil leaves or jalapeno slices), and once the sugar’s been dissolved, reduce to simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat to let it cool completely, and voilà — you can use your flavored syrup in place of whatever liquid sugar is in your cocktail.
Similar to using different syrups, bitters can also add additional flavor (without the liquid content). “It’s going to add another level of complexity, and it’s going to make it a little bit bitter, which can be really cool if you’re doing, say, a tiki drink. Just think about what flavors are in the drink — you could put a lime bitter in a margarita, or vanilla bitters are really good in a piña colada.” Bitters can elevate a drink with a touch of je ne sais qouis — even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, you’ll know it’s there.No matter what twists speak to you, don’t be afraid of a little trial and error. Once you’ve mastered the basics, half the fun of mixology is the chance to get creative — and the other half is tasting the final product.
How to Stock Your Bar
As far as ingredients go, Curtis suggests stocking your bar with a good bottle of tequila and vodka (as well as any other spirits you like, such as rum or gin), as well a bottle of Licor 43 (a vanilla-flavored Spanish liqueur), Cointreau (the original orange liqueur), and surprisingly, falernum. “I always have some falernum ready to go,” says Curtis. “If you think of clove and allspice being the base for Angostura bitters, this is the same thing, but it’s a syrup.” He also suggests having a bottle of Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur, which pairs well with citrus. (Speaking of, stock your fridge with lemons and limes as well.)
While your ingredients will vary based on the drinks you like making, this offers a good start for making both classic and unique cocktails. Next, build your cocktail toolbox: Curtis suggests investing in a set of Koriko Weighted Shaking Tins and a mixing glass from Cocktail Kingdom, a Viski bar spoon, a large ice mold, as well as a peeler, a fine mesh strainer, and a Hawthorne strainer (OXO is his brand of choice for these). A double-sided jigger also comes in handy for measuring ingredients.
Three Cocktail Recipes for Amateur Mixologists
The final ingredient for beginners? A good base cocktail recipe. Curtis suggests keeping a classic cocktail book on hand, such as the 1930s-era Savoy Cocktail Book or Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology, which features plenty of illustrated charts and instructional sections on straining, stirring, muddling, and more. “You can kind of just start going through those books and making those drinks the best you can, and then coming up with your own recipes and spin offs,” suggests Curtis.
And, of course, he’s got a few beginner-friendly recipes of his own up his sleeve. Here are three to start with.
- 2 oz Casamigos Blanco Tequila
- ¾ oz simple syrup
- ¾ oz fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz fresh juiced cucumbers
Place all ingredients in cocktail shaker, add ice and shake five times. Strain into a chilled coupe glass (with just a kiss of salt on the rim) and garnish with a skewered cucumber wheel.
- ¾ oz honey syrup
- ¾ oz lime juice
- 1.5 oz rum
This twist on a French 75 highlights lime and rum, rather than lemon and gin. Make the honey syrup by boiling together a 1:1 ratio of honey and water until honey dissolves, then cool completely. Add cooled honey syrup, lime juice, and rum to a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake. Strain into a champagne flute or collins glass and top with Prosecco.
Josh Curtis’s Easy Aromatic Cocktail
- 1 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey
- 1 oz Appleton aged Jamaican rum
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- Orange, lemon, or grapefruit zest
Using a cocktail spoon, stir together all ingredients in a mixing glass (or tall pint glass or jar) with ice. Strain over a large rock into a rocks glass and zest an orange, lemon, or grapefruit over the cocktail.