A Simple Guide to Making Cocktails Easily

Updated January 28, 2022
woman preparing cocktail

Making cocktails shouldn't be a drawn-out or complicated process, especially when you're stirring them up at home. Whether you're worried because you don't have the right tools or you're certain you can't make a margarita without orange liqueur (you can!), there's more than one way to shake a cocktail.

Building Cocktails for Both Beginners and the Curious

ingredients for cocktails

When faced with an ingredient you don't have on hand, the best thing to do is to think of a comparable component. If you're building a margarita and you don't have orange liqueur, a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice can easily take its place, just as simple syrup can stand in for agave. Think of similar flavors; if you're out of whiskey, then scotch makes an excellent spirit for an old-fashioned, and vodka holds up well in a Negroni. But don't add an ingredient just for the sake of adding an ingredient. Adding brown sugar as a sweetener isn't the same as simple syrup.

The resulting cocktail may not be exact, but making cocktails isn't an exact science. It's a process and hobby to enjoy. Overall, keep it simple and consider other ways to achieve that missing flavor or ingredient that still complement the cocktail as a whole. If you're missing a sour ingredient, use another sour ingredient with a similar flavor profile; most of the time, you can easily interchange lemon and lime. You can swap tonic and club soda can fairly often, as well as scotch and whiskey. If you're unsure, make a smaller version of the drink similar by using half the required amount of ingredients to avoid wasting much. But starting with classic cocktails provides a solid framework.

When you start building cocktails, a good idea is always to add your spirit last. This way, if you spill anything, add too much juice, mixer, or liqueur, you aren't losing the most expensive part of the cocktail. The same goes when working with egg whites, add your egg whites first-- if you need to toss the drink because you can't get the eggshell out or you break the yolk, you won't lose an entire drink, you'll only lose the egg white.

Using What You Have

muddle citrus cocktail

There's no need to stress if you don't have the exact right tools when you're building a cocktail.

  • No cocktail shaker? Anything with a secure lid can become a shaker. Think a protein shake bottle, a mason jar, or a clean pasta jar. Try and use something with a wide enough opening for ice, but if you can't avoid it, then a repurposed glass maple syrup or salad dressing bottle can work well, too.
  • What about a mixing glass? This might be the most manageable problem, as you can use a mixing tin, a pint glass, or a pitcher in its place.
  • Don't own a bar spoon? This isn't the end of the world either! Use a long iced tea spoon or regular spoon to get the job done.
  • So you don't have a jigger? A shot glass works well, so long as you know how many ounces it has. A small measuring glass will often have ounce measurements, too. If all else fails, one tablespoon is equal to a half-ounce.
  • Are you stressing about the proper glassware? Cocktails can be served in atypical types of glassware. You can serve martinis in coupes, rocks glasses, or wine glasses. Try to avoid serving a mojito in a martini glass, but you can enjoy it in a wine glass in a pinch, even a rocks glass. And don't serve your hot Irish coffee in a Nick & Nora or other glass that could cause burns. So long as you keep your cocktails that require ice in sturdier glassware with room for all of the ingredients, you can use any glassware within reason when enjoying a cocktail-even that trusty coffee mug.
  • What to muddle drinks with? You can use a mortar and pestle or the blunt end of a spoon in a pint glass. All muddling comes down to is releasing the oils or juice of herbs and fruit, and it doesn't need to be complicated.
  • But how do you strain things? If you strain your pasta or vegetables by leaving a small gap between the pan and the lid, you can do the same with glassware. With a Boston shaker, you can pull the tins just the tiniest bit apart to allow the liquid to flow out, but not the ice. Don't overlook your pasta strainer either, but maybe strain over the sink to help any clean up along a bit faster. Truly no options? Shake your drink without ice! No ice to strain.

Easy Flavor Pairings

flavor pairing cocktails

Putting flavors together isn't rocket science, but it does require some common sense. Don't pair strawberry with muddled parsley or add grape liqueur to a chocolate martini. Consider food pairings. Would you eat chocolate and strawberries together? Add a splash of strawberry liqueur to your chocolate martini. Cinnamon and apples often pair together, meaning you can consider using those flavors in a whiskey, vodka, or rum cocktail. A flavor pairing book is great both for cooking and building cocktails. After a time, using a popular cocktail recipe and making minor adjustments can help you explore new pairings. You may know gin pairs well with lemon, but you may not have considered basil or pomegranate as a possibility.

Proportions

cocktail mixed drink jiggers

Often thought of as "The Golden Ratio" by bartenders, a recipe that follows a 2:1:1 is likely to yield a well-balanced cocktail. The ratio calls for two parts spirit, one part sweet, and one part sour. Think gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice. Top off with a bit of club soda, and although the proportions aren't quite the same, you have the outline for a Tom Collins. While this rule doesn't apply to all cocktails, you couldn't want a 2:1:1 ratio in an old-fashioned, it does make for an easy place to begin. Think of using it for margaritas or margarita riffs, gimlets, daiquiris, and sours, as well as a sidecar and lemon drop. Follow the golden ratio and add a carbonated ingredient, and you have a French 75, too. It is also helpful to learn standard drink measurements.

Spirits and Mixers to Have on Hand

home bar alcohol liquor collection

The leading players are vodka, whiskey, rum, gin, tequila, and scotch when it comes to spirits. It can be overwhelming and pricy to fully stock a home bar with these spirits all at once, so start with your favorite spirit and then one or two others. Keep in mind that vodka is one of, if not the most, versatile spirit when it comes to making cocktails. You want your spirits to cover as many bases as you can. A light rum will give you more drink options than coconut, a plain vodka has more options than raspberry, and a blended scotch pairs better than a single malt. Keep it simple. Silver tequila, London dry gin, and a traditional bourbon or rye can round out your spirits easily.

As for mixers, club soda, tonic, sweet and dry vermouth, as well as freshly squeezed citrus juices can get you pretty far. Add bitters, aromatic being most popular, and simple syrup, and you have dozens of cocktails at your fingertips. With sparkling wine, liqueurs such as Campari, orange liqueur, or chartreuse, and some fresh herbs, you have several dozen more at your disposal. It helps to start with knowing your favorite cocktails or the most popular ones, as they use tried and true ingredients that have withstood the test of time.

Starting Small While Dreaming Big

Don't be put off by the world of cocktails. At its core, making a cocktail is about matching flavors that blend well and determining the right ratio. Once you get the hang of classic cocktails, you'll quickly find your footing and realize you're making your own riffs without much effort at all.

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A Simple Guide to Making Cocktails Easily