Before we go any further, let’s reflect on some simple but incredibly important words of encouragement: you can do this. And by that, we mean you can build a home-bar program at a time when going out for cocktails isn’t on the horizon.
It’s doesn’t matter if your only prior bartending experience is popping the top on a Pabst Blue Ribbon at a pre-end-of-the-world Kits beach. Or if you’re convinced that the only way to margueritaville is to dump a three cups of Jose Cuervo into a blender with a pound of ice cubes and half a container of frozen Limeade.
Assuming that you’re not one of those covidiots who can’t seem to stop themselves from flocking to Kits Beach every time the sun is shining, you’re going to be spending a lot of hours at home over the next little while. And with that in mind, it won’t hurt to get good at something.
Bartending is one such skill. At some point, you’ll have a social life again, and nothing impresses guests like a host who knows what to do with a fully stocked liquor cabinet, a shelf full of bitters, and a jar of housemade cardamom simple syrup.
A quick confession: I’m not, and have never been, a professional bartender. I have, however, spent a lot of time on barstools in places like the Keefer, Shameful Tiki, and La Mezcaleria, all of which have cocktails more than worth venturing out for once this pandemic blows over.
And what I’ve picked up is that, while bartending is a pursuit you can never fully master, it’s something you can do at home passably enough to impress your fellow amateur liquor nerds.
From this point moving forward, we’ll delve into all sorts of practical tips and tricks, from the fact that simple syrup doesn’t need to be simple if you’ve got a cinnamon stick or a bunch of rosemary, to the way throwing a chipotle pepper into a mason jar of tequila can take your margarita to places that would impress Bobby Flay as much as Fátima León.
First, let’s deal with the essentials. The beauty of learning to tend bar at home is that either you’ve got everything you need, or you’re going to be able to improvise.
You’ll mix most drinks in a cocktail shaker. While we’d all lover an Art Deco Napier Penguin handed down through family, chances are you picked on up at Pier One imports before it shut down forever.
If you don’t have one, there’s nothing to prevent you from embracing your inner hillbilly with a mason jar or a washed-out pickle jar. Or your kid's lunch thermos. With apologies to Professor Jerry Thomas, all that really matters to get the job done is that you’ve got something that you can get a lid on.
To make a cocktail, you almost always need a second essential ingredient: ice. And unless you’re going to be going the stirred not shaken route, no lid means that your ingredients are going to be flying everywhere.
The role of ice? That would be not only to chill the cocktail, but, just as importantly, to dilute it—think of it as taking the edge off, while playing an essential role in marrying a drink’s flavours. That means you’re not using cubes that have been sitting in the freezer since Stephen Harper was prime minister.
You know what’s crazy? As much as you’ll make used use of a good bar knife, cocktail stirrers, metal straws, ice scoop, wooden muddler, and tiny mesh strainer as we move forward, you’re ready to go right now.
Here, prove it to yourself. Let’s make a Manhattan.
If you’re at all into drinking, chances are good you’ve got a bottle of whisky around the house. Canadian Club is best (an essential for hard-core traditionalists), but even Jack Daniel’s or Knob Hill bourbon will do if you want to mix things up.
Odds are equally good that you’ve got sweet vermouth on hand (a Carpano Antica if you were feeling flush before everything went south, the dust-covered Martini Rosso if you’re like the rest of us), and a bottle of Angostura bitters. If you don't have Angostura bitters on hand right know, grab some off the grocery store shelf the next time you do a Walking Dead-like run for milk and Pringles.
Pour all of the below into a shaker filled with ice.
- 1 3/4 oz whisky
- 2/3 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
Purists will rightly argue that you stir and then strain it all into a cocktail glass, but we’re making our own rules at a time when the old rules don’t apply. I like a less boozy Manhattan (if there is such a thing), so shake vigorously for 30 seconds and strain into a martini glass.
The final step? We’re going dry Manhattan here, so cut a two-inch strip of lemon peel and then twist it over the drink. You’ll see the oil hit the surface and then dissolve.
Just like your problems right now.
There. You did it.