Making cocktails like a seasoned bartender can seem daunting, but once you have these skills down, you'll be mixing up perfect drinks every time.
Sometimes the smallest details, like having the right ice or using a homemade simple syrup, can make all the difference.
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The right ice can make or break your drink because of the difference in how quickly different shapes of ice melt and thus dilute your drink. Some drinks, like the caipirinha, rely on faster-melting crushed ice, which helps mellow out the spirits. Others, like a martini, just need a few stirs with a standard ice cube to chill the drink before straining it into your glass. And if you want a super-trendy jumbo ice cube but don't have the mold, no worries — you can simply make ice cubes in a muffin tin.
The quality of the alcohol needed for a drink really depends on what you're making. For a martini or Manhattan, where the spirit is the star, you want to go with something of higher quality than you would for a Sex on the Beach or a pitcher of margs, where fruit juices are the dominant flavor and meant to mask the taste of the alcohol. If you do find yourself with a harsh bottle of cheap spirits that's ruining even your sweetest drinks, you can try running it through a filtered water pitcher a few times to improve the taste.
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Just like different wines and beers are at their best when sipped from a specific glass, cocktails and spirits can benefit too. For fizzy drinks, use a highball glass. The tall, cylindrical shape will keep your bubbles movin' on up while leaving plenty of room for ice. For more serious drinks, a rocks glass will do, though there are specialty glasses for everything from brandy to frozen margs that can help bring your cocktail game to the next level. Or you could go for a theme and just serve everything in hard candy shot glasses.
Lukewarm drinks are a surefire way to start your party with a sputter. If you have last-minute guests, there are a couple of ways you can try to cool down drinks fast. Place your bottles and cans in a bowl or bucket with water, lots of ice and some salt. In just a couple of minutes, your drinks will be nice and cold. If you have more time, you can simply wrap a wet paper towel around your bottle of booze and freeze for 15 minutes to rapidly chill.
Plain ice cubes melt, sometimes leaving you with a drink that's watery. Instead, freeze your mixer of choice into ice cubes, or create your own custom cubes that will add a new layer of complexity to the drink as they melt. Try hot chocolate cubes for your next white Russian, frozen fruit nectar to sweeten up a vodka tonic or white wine spritzer or Kool-Aid cubes to make any cocktail taste like something you'd drink in college.
Premade mixers are usually full of junk — high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and lots of dye. But making your own can be so simple. Sour mix, which you can use in everything from margaritas to Long Island iced tea, just takes lemon, limes, sugar and water. Premade grenadine is basically just corn syrup and red dye, but you can easily make your own much-more-flavorful version by reducing pomegranate juice and sugar. And when you make your own bloody mary mix, you can customize the flavor balance to your preference, whether that means lots of horseradish or toning down the hot sauce.
Rather than buying a weird flavored vodka to try out in just one cocktail, pair neutral spirits with homemade simple syrup. By steeping different fruits and aromatics in a basic sugar-water solution, you can create any flavor under the sun while keeping your collection of spirits versatile (that cotton candy vodka is only good for, like, one drink). You can even try using your leftover herbs to make refreshing syrups that pair perfectly with anything from gin to whiskey.
For perfect cocktails every time, you really should use a jigger or even a basic measuring cup to ensure you have the right balance of ingredients. Barring that, you can even use a Solo cup — the lines on the cups roughly correspond to an average serving of spirits (first line, 1 ounce), wine (second line, 5 ounces) or beer (third line, 12 ounces). It's pure coincidence, but chances are, if you're at a party and in a pinch, you'll be able to find one of them lying around.
Barrel-aged cocktails are all the rage right now, but actually procuring an oak barrel that is small enough to fit in your house without breaking the bank is surprisingly tricky. Instead, you can create a burnt sugar syrup that will impart the same roasted caramel flavor as the finest toasted French oak. Well, maybe not the finest, but it can take a drab, cheap whiskey or rum and majorly boost its flavor, giving it a depth that usually only comes with age.
When it comes to wine, spirits and beer, a lot of people hold pretty strong opinions about what's "right" and "wrong." But forget them — mixing drinks at home is just like cooking. The creativity is what makes it fun and what makes your drink uniquely you. So whether you want to experiment with bacon cocktails or beer shandies, feel free to get wild.
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