I am not a bartender and therefore have no business instructing. Instead, I’ll provide a few tips on things I’ve learned while mixing thousands of drinks.
I will mention, however, that it’s very important to understand that, just like finely prepared food, a perfect cocktail should appeal to as many senses as possible, taste being the last. Before drinking, one must feel the glass and its temperature (hot, cold or room temperature), one must visualize the beauty of the prepared drink and the smell of the citrus garnish, bruised rosemary, spritz of orange blossom essence or wedge of fruit on the edge of the glass. Lastly, of course, the drink must taste great, be the perfect temperature and appease the various taste sensations (sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami). It’s one of the reasons I find molecular cocktails so intriguing, as there is no other subculture within cocktails that works harder to appease all the senses.
The Cocktail Gadabout Tried & True Tips
- Never ever use ice more than once.
- Stir when using only liquor components and shake when you’ve added other ingredients (such as juice or muddled fruit).
- When stirring cocktails, use stainless mixing vessels, not glass, so that you can actually feel the temperature drop with your fingers while you stir. When you think it’s cold enough and your fingertips can’t take much more, stir for a few more seconds.
- Shake a drink with both hands and do it vigorously for at least ten seconds. The exception to this is if you’re using small cubes that melt fast (like those out of freezer’s ice maker). In this case, fill the shaker with ice and shake for only five seconds. Watching a wimpy cocktail shake brings tears to my eyes. Develop a unique technique (sway a bit, swing your elbows, jive, rock…). As Harry Craddock said, you’re trying to wake the drink up, not put it to sleep. I was lucky enough to visit Kazuo Uyeda’s Tender Bar in Tokyo, as well as the famous High Five Bar and the bartenders in both use only three piece cocktail shakers to shake cocktails. They believe the Boston shaker adds too much space to the shake, meaning the drink is not in contact with the ice for much of the shake. Their cocktail shakers are actually pretty small and meant to keep the ice in contact with the drink at all times. Uyeda feels pretty strongly about it, and explained his feelings in detail to me through a friend who speaks Japanese. He shakes very vigorously and then jerks the shaker as he pours. He’s kind of patented the term the hard shake. Check out the details in his amazing book called Cocktail Techniques or watch the video below. It’s nothing short of mesmerizing.
- Develop hygienic technique that keeps fingers out of vessels, off spoons and away from anything that will come in direct contact with liquids.
- Chill (or for hot drinks, heat) all glassware and shakers five minutes beforehand by adding ice and tap water or by putting them in the freezer. Make this the first step to preparing any drink and the glasses will be perfect by the time you pour. I prefer the ice and water method after breaking a number of glasses getting them in and out of my freezer. If you’re really keen, you can purchase a glass chiller. In winter, you can throw them out in the snow as well if you live in a country like Canada, especially if you have a big group (I do this all the time). Just don’t forget where you put them.
- Peel citrus for garnish over the glass so that released oils end up in the drink. Twist by basically pinching the outside surface of the citrus over the surface of the glass. If you look closely, you will see the citrus oil spreading out on the surface of the drink. This is a good thing. I then always rim the glass with the peel for added effect. Depending on the cocktail, you can drop it in the glass or, better, clip it to the rim with a mini clothespin.
- Don’t keep spirits in the freezer. Mixing with frozen alcohol is actually dangerous to a degree, as the spirits dehydrate in the freezer, and become concentrated. Additionally, mixing with ice not only chills the drink but also intentionally dilutes. Super chilled spirits won’t dilute and drinks end up being overly boozy (not to mention already overly concentrated).
- Do not add ice to your mixing vessel until you and your guests are sitting and ready to drink. Once you stir or shake, the drink must be poured and consumed immediately. Harry Craddock was once asked what is the best way to consume a cocktail. His answer was simple and to the point: quickly. Nothing drives me crazier than when I mix a drink, pour and then find my guest has gone to the bathroom or run upstairs for something. Their first sip must be when the drink has just entered the glass. I cannot stress this enough.
- Encourage your guests to consume the cocktail somewhat quickly. Cocktail novices who are used to lazily sipping a glass of red wine (my whole family) don’t understand that a cocktail becomes increasingly nasty the more it warms and dilutes.
- Measure accurately. My wife’s good friend bakes by eye, which blows me away, because everything turns out well. Mixing drinks, however, requires precise measurement. A quarter ounce here or there will turn an otherwise balanced drink into a sour or sweet or bitter or watery or boozy mess. By all means experiment, but there’s a reason a drink calls for a full 1 oz of lemon and only ¾ oz of simple syrup. Unless you like wasting valuable spirits, stick with the recipe and you won’t go wrong.
- Plan ahead. If you’re hosting a party, plan what you would like to serve. Don’t start off with a heavy, liquor-forward cocktail to blow everyone’s socks off. I always start with light, low octane drinks and go from there as people consume food and become better able to tolerate alcohol. One or one and a half ounces is a good starting cocktail. Also check ahead if there are non-drinkers or designated drivers. There usually are. Include them by mixing non-alcoholic drinks. As I’ve mentioned, I prefer using tea as the base for non-alcoholic drinks as juice makes the end product too sweet.
- Be aware that a lot of people loathe the taste of anise, which includes absinthe, pastis (Ricard, Pernod), Sambuca, arak, ouzo, raki and anisette. I don’t mix drinks with any of these ingredients until I’ve cleared it with my guests beforehand. Also, a fair number of people (women especially) don’t like the taste of whiskey. You might also run into people who say the same about gin (the horror). I make every effort to extricate such individuals from my social circle as quickly as possible, or, more politely, reassure them that once gin is mixed they won’t notice the juniper. Choosing the correct cocktail can be stressful and hard to get right every time. I keep lists for the different people in my life so that I remember what to serve the next time. Once you’ve mastered the art of making a good drink and amassed a solid inventory, the next step will actually be knowing what to mix and when. It’s probably the most difficult step of all. Just ask a bartender.
Strategies for Bringing Spirits Across the Border
If I can offer any advice, it’s on how to amass as many spirits from south of the border as possible. I’m pretty fortunate, in that the vast majority of my extended family live in the US. I strongly recommend shipping all spirits ahead of time to your US destination from any of the main online sites listed in the Resources section of this blog. This includes to hotels. I always list my name as Scott Mathison (FUTURE GUEST arriving xx/xx/xxxx). It’s worked every time and you won’t waste a minute of your trip driving around to crappy liquor stores in the city you’re visiting. I keep an ongoing list of what I need most and order about ten to fourteen days ahead of time.
To do this, you’ll need the following:
Brings as many bags as bottles ordered. Wrap the bottles in the bubble wrap and then slide into the dry bag and seal. If the bottle breaks en route, it will not leak in your luggage. Anyone wanting to know how bad this can be should speak to my wife about the ‘Heering Cherry Incident’, as it has become known in our marriage. The clear bag also allows Customs to see that what you’re carrying without having to open the bag.
I also strongly recommend being COMPLETELY honest with Customs when coming back into the country. I always push the limit a bit on the allowance and as long as you’re honest, I’ve NEVER had an issue or had to pay duty. This is even more important if you are a Nexus card holder as you will lose it with even one lie. I’ve been told that if you’re caught lying, you go on a registry for seven years and will be fully searched every time you come into the country. I’m not sure if it’s true but I don’t have much interest in finding out.
I think the Customs agents appreciate the honesty. For example if the limit is 1.14L of spirits, which it is for all trips greater than 48 hours into Canada, I will bring back two full bottles. On a few occasions, I’ve even declared three and not had an issue. I really believe, however, that anything greater than three bottles will be seriously pushing the limit. Remember that it is the combined volume, not number of bottles. Therefore, a 750ml and 375ml half bottle are basically within the allowable limit.
For Americans, the limits are much more generous. Lucky you.
Let’s all collectively pray to the cocktail gods that they someday relax the restrictions on allowing liquids in the cabin. If we ever go back to those glorious days, I would be able to ask even more friends and family to bring spirits back from the US as so many people no longer check luggage.
Lastly, I strongly recommend keeping all your recipe files in a Dropbox (or equivalent) folder that you can access from your smartphone or tablet anywhere. Carrying around a notebook or unorganized folders is burdensome and prone to be left on a subway somewhere. Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive are excellent mediums with which to keep all your cocktail info at the ready anywhere. I presently have over 700 recipes and other files on my phone that I use constantly. Very handy.