The cocktail world can feel daunting; but learning about cocktails shouldn't be intimidating. Cocktails offer a way to unwind, and you can also discover some fascinating history while enjoying the process. The journey should begin with the clink of an ice cube.
Cocktails and Cocktail Culture
Where are you supposed to start? Is it going to be bonkers expensive? Why should cocktails matter at all? All of these questions are important and valid. There's no wrong way to begin, but it can be helpful to start with the history of cocktails.
The Golden Age of Cocktails
Dubbed the Golden Age of Cocktails, Americans were ready to celebrate the end of Prohibition, or at least outwardly celebrate and enjoy drinks publicly once again. Prior to Prohibition, martinis, daiquiris, and other spirit-forward cocktails were the go-to beverage during the Golden Age. Many of these recipes were a result of what was available and allowed bartenders to get creative as they whipped up new creations until other ingredients became more accessible to them.
The Cocktail Renaissance
The 1990s saw a dramatic rise in cocktails and a return to the classics. This time can be traced back to the start of what many call the modern or contemporary classic cocktails. Many classic American cocktails from this era are mistaken as classic cocktails, including the Aperol spritz, the cosmo, the Paloma, the appletini, and the espresso martini. All of these cocktails may have that old-world taste, but they're a product of the modern age and are the kind of drinks often ordered at a bar.
Today, people are devouring any cocktail information that's available, both for making cocktails at home and trying new and unusual drinks at the bar. There's even been a shift in the name for bartenders at craft cocktail bars: mixologist. A mixologist is a step above your average bartender. They're not only responsible for crafting cocktails, but also for assisting in writing a menu, as well as creating tinctures, syrups, and mixes.
This phrase soon spread to those who wanted to craft their own cocktails at home, giving rise to the home or amateur mixologist.
Learning the Ropes
Bartending, or mixology, comes with an arsenal of tools. From bar spoons and mixing glasses to a cocktail shaker, several types of strainers, and swizzle sticks. Don't worry if you have the perfect glassware, it'll all work out as you learn and grow. Each plays an important role, but as with everything in mixology, it doesn't need to be an exact science. Should you come up against a missing ingredient or you lack crushed ice, necessity is the mother of... the cocktail riff. Not only that, but many modern classic cocktails are a result of swapping ingredients in a classic cocktail.
If you're out of gin, swap in vodka-it may not be the same cocktail, but you've made a variation. If you're out of Angostura bitters, you can use old fashioned bitters. Name your variation, love your variation, and make it your own. A hammer can be a great way to (safely and responsibly) make crushed ice, and orange juice can work in a pinch if you're out of orange liqueur.
Building With Ingredients
Cocktail ingredients are best if they're fresh, be it vermouth that hasn't been long forgotten in the back of the refrigerator, or lemons that aren't moldy. Keeping key ingredients on hand isn't difficult, as so many are used for cooking as well, such as egg whites. Consider ingredients appropriate for the season, such as mint in the summer or warm cocktails for the winter, and a cucumber beverage in the spring.
Not Just for Cooking
Most chefs will drill home the concept of mise en place, which loosely means "everything in its place." It can be daunting to make a cocktail with a long list of ingredients, but if you prep your station before you begin building, the cocktail will be wrapped up and garnished in no time. Don't squeeze your juices or make simple syrup as you go. Have them ready for action.
Similarly, be neat. Cocktails will splash and you'll inevitably dribble simple syrup down your cabinets, wipe up as you go to keep your bottles clean, and keep any bugs or unwanted pests away.
Let Go of Perfection
Let go of your idea of how a cocktail should look. Not all mojitos look alike or even taste the same, but they're all delicious. Cocktails are meant to be enjoyed, not stressed about. Don't worry about learning all the cocktails available to you. Start simple and trust the process. Soon you'll know that a Negroni is 3 equal parts, but you'll also learn that you like a splash more of Campari than the recipe calls for- and that's okay.
Shake It Up
The cocktail community can seem a bit highbrow or offputting if you're new, and it can feel stuffy if you're here for fun and not to be serious. But cocktails aren't rigid. Some recipes should be followed closer than others, but there's always room for interpretation, and there's always room for you at the bar.