How to get started in mixology
Are you ready to get started in mixology so you can make amazing craft cocktails at home? I got tired of disappointing and undrinkable cocktails from random internet recipes and decided to learn mixology. Now my wife and friends rave about my craft cocktails. They always want me to be the bartender when we get together.
To get started in mixology, you need a cocktail recipe, quality ingredients, basic bar tools, and glassware to serve your cocktails in. Pick your recipe first as it may determine what tools you need to buy. You don’t have to spend a fortune. Basic bar tools cost less than $50, and you may already have glassware you can use.
Start with a classic recipe
It’s fun to wow your friends with an original recipe or dazzle them with a drink that flames, smokes, or changes color. However, when you get started in mixology, I recommend that you start with the classics for two reasons:
- They became classics because they taste good to a great many people.
- Making the classics will develop your skills and techniques.
I recommend starting with one of these classic recipes that will expose you to basic concepts and techniques.
The Old Fashioned
Arguably the first cocktail, the Old Fashioned is a classic that has inspired thousands of different riffs and variations. The Old Fashioned is a simple combination of whiskey, sugar, and bitters.
Making the Old Fashioned will teach you the techniques of measuring, stirring, straining, and garnishing with citrus peels.
If you like strong whiskey drinks, the Old Fashioned is a great cocktail to start with.
See the Old Fashioned Recipe…
The classic Daiquiri is a simple three-ingredient cocktail that has big, approachable flavor. It’s the perfect drink for sipping with friends on a hot summer night.
The Daiquiri is a great introduction in to the sour category of cocktails. Making the Daiquiri teaches you how to balance the sweet and sour flavors, and how to shake a cocktail properly for chilling, dilution, and aeration.
See the Daiquiri Recipe…
Use Quality Ingredients
Your cocktail is only as good as the worst ingredient.
When you cut corners on ingredients, you sabotage the whole cocktail. The perfect recipe and the best technique can’t save a cocktail made with poor ingredients.
Spirits are one of the biggest investments when you get started in mixology. Cocktails are built around a base spirit – whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, or brandy – and may contain additional flavoring spirits. Flavoring spirits include liqueurs, cordials, and fortified wines like vermouth.
The best spirits aren’t always the most expensive and taste is subjective. However, price can be an indicator of quality for bourbons, whiskeys, rums, and tequilas.
Vodka is a notable exception. There is very little difference between most vodkas, and vodka prices are more about the brand image than the taste.
Flavoring spirits, like cordials and liqueurs, make or break a cocktail. Avoid cheap brands and knock-offs. For example, if the recipe calls for orange liqueur, using Dry Curacao over generic triple sec in a plastic bottle will greatly improve the end result.
Use fresh fruit juice whenever possible, especially for citrus like lemons and limes. If the recipe calls for lime juice, squeeze a lime. Using store bought juices won’t have the same flavor and texture. Nothing beats freshness.
Sometimes, juicing a fresh pineapple just isn’t practical for the home mixologist. In this case, you can use store-bought juice. Look for brands that are 100% juice, not from concentrate, and have no sugar added.
Syrups add sweetness to cocktails. Simple Syrup is the most common, and it is simply sugar and water. You can buy this in stores, but I advocate making your own simple syrup. That way the preservatives don’t end up in your cocktail.
Other types of syrups include honey syrup, maple syrup, ginger syrup, and agave nectar.
Bitters are alcoholic flavoring agents characterized by their bitter flavor and aroma. You add a few dashes to cocktails to add depth and complexity.
If you can only buy one bottle of bitters, get Angostura Bitters. It will work for everything.
If you buy a second bottle, get orange bitters. Fee Brothers is a good brand.
Invest in basic bar tools
You don’t need to spend a fortune to get started in mixology. A basic starter set is less than $50. While there are always new and exciting tools to buy, you will depend on these basics for 90% of the drinks you’ll want to make.
You measure liquid with a jigger. You will use this for every single cocktail you make, so invest in a good one. My favorite is the Barfly Bell Jigger in dishwasher-safe stainless steel. It’s easily my favorite jigger out of the 5 different ones I own.
Don’t try to estimate measurements or “time your pours” by counting seconds. Consistency is key – you want to recreate your cocktails perfectly every time.
The most important measurements are 1/4 oz, 1/2 oz, and 1 oz. With those, you can measure anything. Want 3/4 oz? Add 1/4 to 1/2. Need 2 oz? Pour two 1 oz measures.
However, it’s much more convenient to have a jigger that can easily measure 1/4 oz, 1/2 oz, 3/4 oz, 1 oz, and 2 oz. It saves you a lot of time, and prevents mistakes when you’ve had a few.
If you live in a country that uses milliliters, just think of 1/2 oz as 15 mL. In other words, look for a jigger that has measurements for 7.5 mL, 15 mL, 22.5 mL, 30 mL, and 60 mL.
A mixing glass, sometimes called a mixing beaker, is for stirring cocktails. You add the ingredients and ice cubes, and then stir the mixture with a bar spoon.
Stirring is used for cocktails made entirely of alcohol, like the Old Fashioned. Stirring chills the cocktail with minimal aeration.
If you’re trying to save money, you can skip the mixing glass and stir in one half of your shaker.
The shaker is the most iconic of bar tools. You add the cocktail ingredients with ice and shake vigorously. There are several varieties available, and the choice is largely personal preference. I use weighted tins from Barfly, but relied on an old cobbler shaker for many years until I lost the cap.
Shaking is used for cocktails that contain juice, like the Daiquiri. Shaking rapidly chills the cocktail and aerates it to enhance the texture and flavor.
The strainer is used for pouring your cocktail from the mixing glass or shaker into the serving glass. The strainer allows you to transfer the liquid to the glass without the ice.
The three varieties are the Hawthorne strainer, the Julep strainer, and the fine mesh strainer. The Hawthorne strainer will work for shaken and stirred cocktails, so it’s the one to buy if you’re on a budget. The Julep strainer works well for stirred cocktails, but won’t let tiny ice crystals through in shaken drinks.
The mesh strainer is used in a technique called “double straining,” when you want to remove fruit pulp or other particles from the cocktail.
Don’t neglect the mighty bar spoon! It stirs, it measures, it cracks ice, and it’s essential for floating one liquid on top of another. A kitchen spoon, with its big bowl and short handle, is a poor substitute.
You don’t have to spend a lot on a bar spoon – one may even come packaged with your mixing glass or shaker set.
Citrus Squeezer or Juicer
Save yourself a lot of time and effort and purchase a handheld citrus juicer.
Cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Boulevardier call for an orange peel as a garnish. When you garnish the drink, you’ll be expressing some of the oils from the skin of the orange.
While you can make do with a knife or potato peeler, buying a dedicated Y-peeler for your home bar will give you better results with less hassle.
The right glass enhances your experience of a cocktail. The wrong glass ruins it. Would you want a Manhattan served in a mason jar? Of course not.
Glassware can be one of the biggest investments in your home bar. I recommend starting with one or two types of glasses, based on the drinks you want to make. Then you can purchase additional glasses over time as you build your collection.
There are three types of glasses I would recommend when you get started in mixology.
The Old Fashioned Glass (or Rocks Glass, or Lowball)
The Old Fashioned Glass is a stemless glass about the height of your hand, usually with a heavy base. They are usually 12-14 oz with some “double old fashioned” glasses holding 16 oz. This will be a go-to glass for many cocktails that are served over ice cubes.
Avoid glasses with designs, etching, or logos. Clear glasses show off the colors of your cocktail.
The Coupe Glass
The Coupe Glass (pronounced coop) is a small stemmed glass that holds 5-6 oz. This is the preferred glass for the Daiquiri, Manhattan, and other small cocktails served without ice.
The Coupe allows you to hold the stem of the glass while you drink, so the warmth from your hand doesn’t heat your cocktail.
The Martini Glass
The Martini Glass is the familiar Y-shaped cocktail glass, named after the iconic Martini cocktail. I include it here because many people already have them, but I would buy coupe glasses before I bought Martini Glasses.
If you already have a Martini glass, you can use in instead of the coupe to save a few bucks in your initial investment.
After you’ve picked a recipe, bought your ingredients, and invested in basic tools and glassware, you’re ready to make your first craft cocktail!
It will take a while to master the techniques, but practicing is fun because you get to drink the results.
Let me know in the comments what drinks you’d like to learn to make!