We recently collaborated with High Spirits Distillery to create a cocktail program around their Gin and Vodka with an emphasis on simple, accessible cocktails. Head over to High Spirits social channels to see the cocktail rollout. Today we want to talk about how you can start making quality cocktails with barely a trip to the shops. Here are our favourite cocktail tips, tricks and ideas:
Use items already in your kitchen
A trip to your local hospitality supply store will give you well priced bar essentials like bar spoons, jiggers and cocktail shakers, but what if it’s 6pm and you want that Tom Collins pronto?
We’ve all seen the DIY approach to cocktails exemplified through expensive converted mason jars, but the jam jar in the back of your fridge is just as perfect a cocktail shaker after a quick rinse, and the lid, cocked slightly ajar, becomes the perfect strainer.
If stirred cocktails are more your style, we honestly can’t tell the difference between cocktails stirred with a fancy bar spoon and those stirred with a takeaway chopstick. And what about all that cocktail ice? Even if you’re missing ice mould, any tupperware container half filled with water will give you a great chunk of cocktail ice the next day: Wrap it in a tea towel and drop it a few times outside for great shaker ice, carve it into long strips with a serrated knife for impressive highballs, or crush it with a rolling pin for drinks needing pebbled or crushed ice.
Master the garnish
Don’t be put off by melon ballers and channel knives, all you need to make beautiful garnishes is any small, sharp knife and a bit of practice. Start with citrus twists, cutting small lengths of peel and trimming off the jagged edges. A coin or semicircle of citrus standing on the rim of the glass is perhaps the simplest of all garnishes, and still looks great. Just cut a wedge, coin or semicircle, and cut in a small slot for the glass.
It’s worth looking at glassware the same way you would garnishes. It’s true that the right glass will elevate the taste and feel of a drink, but there’s no reason you should abandon the cocktail you want to make just because you don’t have the “correct” glass. We love hunting through op-shops and antique stores for interesting and unique glasses, but as you start out, you’ll be surprised at how adaptable the wine and water glasses at your home will be for the majority of cocktails.
How do I shake? How do I stir?
Shaking a cocktail dilutes, mixes, aerates and cools your drink. Some pretty in depth testing by Dave Arnold suggests that you hit a point of diminishing returns after shaking for more than twelve seconds. What matters is that those twelve seconds are of hard shaking. Technique doesn’t matter, just make sure you don’t let go of your shaker.
Stirring is usually applied to cocktails without a fruit juice element. As alcohol bonds immediately, stirring a cocktail simply dilutes and cools it. When stirring, try to stir in a quick circular motion, agitating the ice as little as possible. Around 50 rotations or 30-40 seconds of stirring should suffice. If you’re making your cocktail for yourself, taste your bar spoon to determine if your cocktail needs more stirring.
For both shaking and stirring, be sure to use plenty of ice- around 2/3 of your vessel should be filled with ice. It’s also good practice to keep your glassware in the freezer while you stir or shake.
Where do I start?
To start making cocktails tonight, a good amount of citrus and simple syrup will play with almost anything in your liquor cabinet. Never buy simple syrup, just heat equal parts sugar and water over a stove, stirring until clear and fully combined. For some of the cocktails in our High Spirits program, we found ourselves running out at the last minute, and would mix a cup of water and a cup of castor sugar in a blender on high for a couple of minutes. The result is cloudy, but similarly delicious in cocktails.
By now it’s time you started learning some cocktail recipes. Like all recipes, cocktails are just a combination of balancing flavours, and the best way to get a handle for balancing flavours is with those is with three classic ratios:
Great to start out with and to introduce friends to new cocktails. Highballs let fizz and citrus take centre stage, with just enough alcohol backbone to keep the drink from feeling flabby. Many highball cocktails can even have the shaking stage omitted, and for the High Spirits cocktail program, we exchanged the shaking step for a gentle stir once the drink is built, in order to make the drink as easy to make as possible, without any specialty equipment required.
Sours are really popular on cocktail bar drink menus, and might be closer to what you have in mind when you think of making cocktails. A shaker or at least a shaking vessel is a must for sours, which need a lot of motion to coax together alcohol, sugar and cirtrus. Some sour recipes will use egg white to give the drink a fluffy head and a syrupy thickness. Others will also use a fine-strainer (a tea strainer often does the trick) to get rid of pesky ice shards (Sometimes you want ice shards, we're not going to tell you how to drink your drink, so if you're on the fence, try doing a side by side with one fine strained cocktail and one regular one)
While not technically a category, a lot of classic cocktails are derived from one original recipe for a stirred drink we now call the Old Fashioned. Here's a ratio which can make many a delicious and sophisticated drink. Stirred drinks are almost always a blend of alcohol and alcohol, only softened by their interactions and the gentle dilution and chilling from the stirring. High quality spirits are key.
Follow High Spirits to see more of their cocktail program.