When I turned 21, my mother tasked my father with teaching me about alcohol. She left for her weekly bridge game, and my father opened what I still consider to be the most well-stocked home liquor cabinet I’ve seen.
“What would you like to try?” he asked.
Somehow, I don’t think this was what my mother had in mind. She came home to find us both stumbling drunk after sampling just about everything. On a Tuesday evening.
While that lesson may have landed us both in a lot of trouble (nothing is worse than the wrath of an Italian mother), it taught me an appreciation for learning to be a skilled home bartender. Over the years, I’d watch as guests would try to stump my father with their drink requests. Rusty Nail? Coming right up. Gin Fizz? You got it. Martini? Served how they liked it.
I eventually developed my own comfort level slinging cocktails for friends. Yet, I’m still no expert. To help perfect both my bartending skills and yours, I turned to some of Charlotte’s top mixologists for essential bartending basics to learn before you’re 30. I also tossed in a few of my own as I’m pushing 40.
(1) Learn when to shake and when to stir.
Apparently, James Bond was right. That martini should be shaken, not stirred.
“When to shake or stir a cocktail is a question that confuses many at-home bartenders,” says Tamu Curtis, president of Liberate Your Palate, which hosts hands-on mixology classes for the at-home enthusiast. “Stir cocktails that only contain alcohol. All-liquor drinks are about clarity. Shaking aerates them, makes them cloudy, and creates foam. Shake cocktails that call for juices, cream liqueurs, and other thick mixers. These cocktails need a little help to combine the ingredients.”
“Most people tend to shake and stir their drinks too long or not long enough,” she adds. “After the first few seconds of shaking – count to 12 – or the first 30 seconds of stirring, the drink is already as cold as it’s going to get. Go any longer, and you will water your drink down.”
(2) Learn the classics.
Yes, that smoked Old Fashioned makes for an Instagram-worthy table presentation and tastes delicious, but you should probably start by learning how to perfect a classic Old Fashioned.
“A great place to start is the beginning,” says Amanda Britton, beverage manager at Bardo and the 2017 NCRLA Mixologist of the Year. “Learning the classics is necessary for an at-home enthusiast or a professional bartender. Once you’ve mastered those, you can build your own variations.”
Here’s one recipe.
(3) Pre-batch cocktails ahead of time.
Sometimes when entertaining, it’s helpful to have some pre-made drinks so that you can be free to welcome guests. Curtis suggests preparing a punch and serving it in a garnished bowl.
“Punch comes from the Indian word paunch, which means five. A classic punch is comprised of five different ingredients: alcohol, a sweetener, tea or spices, citrus, and water. When searching online for the perfect recipe, be sure to find one that incorporates a variation of these five ingredients, and you’ll be able to create a complex punch with an interesting flavor profile.”
This same pre-batch concept can work for straight-spirit drinks like a Manhattan. Make it ahead of time, store it in a bottle in the fridge, and then pour when ready, remembering to stir before serving.
(4) Stock your bar beyond the basic spirits.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to try a new cocktail but end up stumped, settling for a basic gin and tonic. I have all the basic building block spirits but lack the proper finishing touches that complete the cocktail.
“Invest in key ingredients beyond the spirits like sweet vermouth, bitters, etc,” says Britton. “These are used across a wide variety of classic cocktails.”
Here’s a list to help get you started: Curaçao, sweet and dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, chartreuse, Campari, Aperol, absinthe, Angostura bitters, orange bitters, and Peychaud’s bitters
(5) Herbs can be used for more than just decorative sprigs of mint.
Today, cocktails are as seasonal as food. Raid your herb garden and brainstorm ways you can incorporate seasonal freshness into your bartending repertoire. I’m not just talking about for a decorative finish like the absurd amount of parsley seafood restaurants deem necessary on their plates.
Find ways that herbs can play with and enhance other flavors in your cocktail. A good example is my interpretation of Fig and Olive’s Summer in Provence, which uses a rosemary and thyme syrup alongside fresh, muddled blackberries.
(6) Use fresh-squeezed citrus.
“Always use freshly squeezed citrus such as lemons or limes when preparing a cocktail,” says Curtis. “Nothing you can buy in the store can take the place of fresh citrus. Fresh citrus juice brightens and sweetens everything. Its acidity complements when paired with simple syrup.”
As an example, Curtis offers up a classic margarita. “Instead of buying that florescent, overly sweet sour mix, you can make your own in less time that it will take to drive to the store. To make a sour mix, mix equal parts of freshly squeezed lime juice and lemon juice and add the same amount of simple syrup.”
You just elevated your Sunday Funday.
(7) Use cold-pressed cranberry juice and not Ocean Spray.
Speaking of using quality ingredients, leave that jug of Ocean Spray cranberry juice for your breakfast, not your cocktails.
“Always use cold-pressed cranberry juice,” says Ryan Nolen, creative director of bar operations at The Ritz-Carlton. “Not only is it more nutrient-dense, but it tastes fresher without the added sugars.”
It’s how you make classics like Cosmos and Cape Cods better.
(8) Tequila is your frenemy.
We all have bad memories of that one night on spring break when we may have blacked out from too many shots of something we were told was tequila. The medicinal taste lingered at the back of our mouth for days and still haunts us years later. Try to put those memories behind you like you have all those other “learning experiences” you had south of the border. Or maybe your college kryptonite was a night with rut gut whiskey.
Those weren’t quality spirits and you shouldn’t stock your home bar with them. Instead, opt for mid- or top- shelf spirits (depending on what your budget allows). Yes, give tequila a second chance. You’ll find that a premium tequila doesn’t require salt and a lime.
(9) Don’t be afraid.
This is a great lesson for cooking and for bartending.
“Everything feels awkward until you get your reps in,” says Britton. “It’s the same in making cocktails as it is in life. The more the you do it, the more natural it feels. If you have an idea, give it a try. The worst that could happen is you have to drink an okay cocktail.”
(10) Mix it for yourself first.
Once again, this is another tip that works for both cooking and bartending. When trying something new, always, always, always, try it on yourself first. You don’t want to have a house full of guests and find out that your signature cocktail is a flop.