Alcohol is the oil that lubricates the engines of social interaction. People like to have fun and alcohol gives them an excuse to have more fun than is normally socially acceptable. Therefore it is not much of a stretch to assume that alcohol, in general, is fun. Now if cocktails are one of the highest artistic expressions of drinking culture, then cocktails have to be a lot of fun, n’est-ce pas?
But let’s face it, cocktails are indisputably bourgeois. Alcohol requires an inordinate amount of grain or other fermentable, agricultural product to produce, which if developed into a food product, could feed many more people than it could refresh with a tasty libation. So we, as conscious drinkers, should keep this in mind. We should be respectful and only consume spirits and cocktails of a quality that warrants this grossly inefficient utilization of the world’s agricultural produce.
So now that we feel guilty and want a drink, let’s figure out how to make something really good. Most people are terrible at mixing drinks. We have all been to parties where homemade libations are making the rounds and they typically taste just awful. They are made with the best of intentions but are either too sweet, too strong or too overwhelming (oh yeah, I bet triple sec, whipped cream vodka, orange juice, Kahlua and gummy bears tastes REALLY great, thanks!). So then if we know what not to do, what should we?
Turns out, good cocktails aren’t that hard to make. All you need is a few key, inexpensive ingredients and the proper hardware. And make sure to start small. You might really like a Blue Blazer, but a drink like that takes a lot of practice to make well. Why don’t you start with something easier, like no more than 3 ingredients, like a Martini? Don’t like Martinis? Too strong? Well maybe you should learn to like them.
The word cocktail is now synonymous with short, punchy, boozy drinks like the Martini, the Manhattan, etc. Why? There could be numerous reasons, but I think it’s because it is the easiest way to showcase one to two ingredients to their fullest potential. And as nascent cocktail engineers, it would behoove us to start with these simple, easy to make, wonderfully tasty drinks.
So we know what we want to make, now let’s figure out how to make it. We have the inspiration, but what do we need to make it a reality? First, and most importantly, spirits. The cost vs. quality debate is never-ending, but the hard truth is there is almost always an inexpensive, high quality version of any ingredient, save some esoteric, impossible-to-attain-without-an-archaeologist liqueur or vermouth. Money is not required to make a good drink, save a small amount of start-up capital to get your home bar stocked with ingredients and the necessary tools of the trade. Which is a great way to segue to the next topic: barware.
You have a bar full of modestly priced, yet absolutely delicious spirits and mixers that you were able to acquire because you are so smart and able to use the vast resources made available to you by the wonderful world wide web. But how do you turn them into a drink? With only a few, good tools, it’s possible to make almost any drink. So what do you need? First, a cocktail shaker with a built-in strainer. Admittedly not the most sophisticated option available, but it will quickly become the workhorse of your home bar. Most cocktail shakers follow a similar three-piece design, comprising a large mixing container, a top with a built-in strainer, and a nice little cap that works great as a measuring device in a pinch. After a cocktail shaker, it is highly recommended that you acquire a good mesh strainer. Why? Because sometimes you don’t want fruit pulp or herbage in your drink. Also it is really annoying when a drink that’s been shaken has little chunks of ice in it, but that’s another post. After that, all you really need is a vegetable peeler. And not even a very nice one at that. With that you can zest almost any fruit and garnish almost any cocktail you could wish to make. Seems like a weird list of essential tools, a basic shaker, a mesh strainer and a veggie peeler, I know. No muddler? No Julep strainer? No jiggers? Those are all very useful tools, indeed, but are only used to their full potential by someone with at least some mixing experience. If you’re just starting out, you’re better off saving your money to expand your home bar. Need an exact measurement? Forego the jigger and just count your pour or eyeball it, I guarantee your audience won’t notice. It’s Kentucky Derby season and you need a muddler? Use the handle of any good wooden cooking spoon, it works just fine.
We’ve stocked our bar, we have our spirits and we have our hardware, so let’s talk about presentation: glassware. Glassware is unimportant. It’s fancy and cool and fun to have nice, very formal looking glasses for your cocktails. But it’s not overly important, so don’t stress it. Each cocktail shines in the right kind of glass, true. But learn to make the cocktail first, then contemplate your favorite method of delivering it.
Oh and as far as impressing strangers and getting them drunk is concerned, most people sadly do not know a damn thing about cocktails. If you have a preferred gin to vermouth ratio memorized for your Martini, or you have an informed opinion of what should be served up and what’s better over ice, you’ll impress most people you meet in a bar. And then they will follow you like the Pied Piper down the merry road of inebriation.