13 Mixology Secrets to Improve Your Cocktail Craft
Have you ever seen two bartenders make the same drink with drastically different results?
Sitting at the lobby bar at the Aria hotel in Las Vegas, I ordered Boulevardiers from two different bartenders on the same night. Although it’s a simple cocktail, one was among the best I’ve ever had and the other was sadly forgettable.
With the same recipe and the same ingredients, the difference came down to the bartender’s technique.
When mixing drinks at home, your technique matters too. As I’ve honed my craft, I’ve picked up a number of small tips and tricks that really make a difference.
Whether you’re just getting started in mixology, or striving for perfection, these 13 mixology secrets will make your life easier and your cocktails better.
1. Warm the ice
When making a drink “on the rocks,” put the large ice cube(s) in the glass before you make the cocktail in your mixing glass or shaker. While you’re making the drink, the surface of the ice will warm a few degrees and the ice won’t crack when you pour in the cocktail. This is especially helpful if you’re making a drink like an Old Fashioned that you want to serve with a single large ice cube.
2. Add the most expensive ingredient last
We all forget what we’ve already measured, or accidentally add too much of one ingredient. Sometimes you have to throw the drink out and start over.
If you add your most expensive ingredient last, you minimize the chance you’ll have to pour out “the good stuff” because of a mistake.
For example, if you’re making a Whiskey Sour, add the simple syrup and lemon juice to the shaker before you add the whiskey.
3. Keep stirring or shaking until the cocktail is properly chilled
One of the biggest novice mistakes is not shaking or stirring long enough to properly chill the cocktail.
Drinks served “up” (without ice) will never be colder than when they’re poured in the glass. Make sure you shake it long enough to get it ice cold.
For stirred drinks served on the rocks, stir for 30-45 seconds in the mixing glass before you pour and serve. The ice in the glass is there to delay the warming of the drink, not to further cool it.
4. Alternate glasses when pouring multiple cocktails
I frequently get asked, “Is it ok to double the recipe and make two cocktails at the same time?” Yes, absolutely! This is called batching cocktails, and I do this all the time to be more efficient. However, when you’re pouring the drink, alternate between the two glasses.
Pour a little in the first glass, then pour that much plus a little more in the second glass. Alternate between the glasses until they’re both full. This way, you equally distribute the ice melt that happens while you’re pouring.
If you poured them one at a time, the first one would be stronger than the second one.
5. Add ingredients before ice
I am inevitably interrupted in the middle of adding ingredients, and this trick prevents watered-down cocktails from unwanted ice melt.
6. Always measure everything
Measuring is critical to consistency, and consistency is a sign of mastery. I’m not a fan of “timing your pours,” though some professionals can develop very good accuracy. At home, we simply don’t make enough drinks to practice and maintain this skill.
Beware of recipes that call for “half a lime” or other arbitrary amounts. Unfortunately, many of the classic recipes from books throughout history call for half a lime, or a teaspoon of sugar. Limes come in different sizes. If you’re making a sour drink, the balance of acid and sugar makes or breaks the cocktail, so always measure the ingredients.
When working with raw ingredients, you can’t help it if one lime is more sour than another. That’s where the garnish comes in – the lime wedge allows the drinker to adjust the acidity of the cocktail if needed.
7. Refrigerate vermouth
Refrigerate vermouth after opening. It’s wine, and exposure to oxygen will spoil it. Refrigeration slows this process, and vermouth will keep up to a month in the fridge.
I hated vermouth for years, and couldn’t understand why it was in so many classic cocktails. Then two things happened: I discovered good vermouth, and learned to refrigerate it.
8. Taste your drinks
Keep a shot glass out on the bar in case you want to taste a drink before serving it to your guest.
You can pour a little from the shaker or mixing glass and taste it before pouring and serving the cocktail. This way, if you made a mistake or forgot an ingredient, you’ll taste it and can remake the drink before serving it.
Just don’t take a sip from your guest’s glass before passing them the cocktail. That’s gross.
9. Organize your workspace
Whether you have a wet bar in the house or you’re making cocktails in the kitchen, organize your workspace before you start mixing. Get out all the tools and ingredients you’ll need and arrange them where they will be easily accessible.
Organization helps your efficiency if you have to make a lot of drinks quickly, like when your company arrives. Nothing is worse than rummaging for a peeler while drinks are waiting and ice is melting.
10. Manage your ice
Ice is the unnamed ingredient in most cocktails, and the way you use ice directly impacts the quality of your cocktail. You may need large cubes for rocks drinks, small cubes for shaking and stirring, and crushed ice for tiki drinks.
Make a strategy for having easy access to the ice you need, especially if your bar is far from the ice maker. In that case, I recommend buying an ice bucket so you can keep ice on hand at your bar area without having to dash back and forth to the kitchen.
If you’re having company, make sure you have enough ice and buy bagged ice if you have to.
11. Muddle mint gently
As your reputation grows among friends and family, the day will come when you are asked to make Mojitos. Your loved ones won’t understand the gravity of what they’re asking, and won’t notice or appreciate your toil as you pluck each mint leaf one-by-one and add them to each glass. Making 4 Mojitos? That’s 36-40 mint leaves you’ll be plucking, not counting the sprigs for garnishes.
When you go to muddle the mint, you may be tempted to mash and grind those leaves to a lovely green pulp. Don’t take out your frustration on the mint!
Muddle mint lightly to release the oils into the glass. If you crush it too much, you’ll release a bitter chlorophyll flavor that will ruin the drink.
12. Don’t shake a cocktail in the direction of your guest (or yourself)
It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.
Your shaker will leak, or one end will fly off, or you’ll lose your grip. It’s less embarrassing to clean a cocktail off the wall than your guest’s little black dress.
The traditional shaking technique is to have one hand on the bottom of the shaker and one hand on the top, and to shake it in an arc over one shoulder. If the unthinkable happens, you’ll be throwing the cocktail over your shoulder, not in the direction of your guests.
13. Repurpose old bottles for simple syrup and juice
When you finish a bottle of liquor that has a pleasant and functional shape, clean it and repurpose it for your home bar. Top it off with a pour spout for good looks and greater efficiency.
If you’re having company over, you can also juice limes and lemons in advance and store the juice in your repurposed bottles.
These bottles will save you time and impress your guests.
I love making cocktails because each drink is an opportunity to start from the beginning and craft something to the best of your ability.
Each of these mixology secrets has made my technique slightly better. I hope they are valuable for you too.
What secret techniques have you discovered?