Food & Drink

Bartenders on the One Cocktailing Skill You Should Know

It’s easy enough to master basic bartending techniques. But once you know your way around a cocktail shaker, it can be tricky to know where to go next. There are a lot of advanced techniques out there, but not a lot of direction on which are worthy of your learning time. So we asked bartenders about which skills are actually worth studying. Heed their advice, and you’ll be mixing like the pros in no time.

How to Reverse Dry Shake

If you already know how to dry shake, step up your game by reversing the steps. “This is particularly useful when you're making cocktails with egg whites and you want a thicker, longer-lasting layer of foam,” says Renato Brignardello of Telefèric Barcelona. Begin by vigorously shaking all of the liquid ingredients with ice but without egg whites for about 10 seconds. Strain the mixture and discard the ice, and only then add the egg whites and dry shake for about 15 seconds. “Pour the drink [into] the glassware of your choosing and you will end up with a beautiful cocktail with a thick layer of foam that will allow you to try more elaborate garnishing such as drawing or writing with bitters,” he says.

How to Whip Shake

Lynnette Marrero of Speed Rack and Brooklyn’s Llama Inn suggests another, lesser-known shake: the whip shake. "This is adding a little crushed ice to the tin of a drink that you are going to serve over crushed ice,” she says. The smaller ice won’t completely cool or dilute the drink as standard ice would, but Marrero explains it will ensure you’re not pouring warm ingredients and melting the crushed ice in the glass. “Use this technique when making Swizzles or other delicious drinks served over crushed ice.”

How to Use a Microplane

A microplane grater can upgrade blasé garnishes by adding lots of different finishing notes to a mixed drink. “Always keep a microplane handy for last minute additions to any cocktail,” says Yana Volfson of New York’s Atla. “I love how such a simple tool can change the dimension of a cocktail with zest or spice. Experiment with different variations to put your own spin on your go-to drink.”

How to Take Care of Your Guests

Kenneth McCoy of Public House Collective (Ward III and The Rum House) wants to remind bartenders that they’re in the business of hospitality. “Too many times lately I’ve been in bars and I’m not greeted, I have to ask for water, I’m just handed a menu with nothing said, no smile, no hello, no goodbye, no inflection,” he says. “There are too many great places to go, so let’s remember we are in the business of taking care of people.”

Taking care of your guests, whether you’re bartending at work or at home, is as important as the drinks you make. But even as you put in the effort to make guests feel welcome, you shouldn’t show just how much work you’re doing, notes Jeremy Allen of MiniBar Hollywood. “An important and overlooked skill of hosting is ‘making it look easy,’” he says. “If you convey that you are at ease, and comfortable, it's easier for your guests to enjoy what you’re serving. ‘Never let 'em see you sweat’ applies to bartending and hosting as much as it does any part of hospitality. You want people to remember your parties for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.”

How to Talk While Working

As you master more and more skills behind the bar, it’s necessary to learn how to put all those skills together through multitasking. Ivy Mix of Speed Rack and Brooklyn’s Leyenda points out that talking and mixing at the same time is absolutely essential. “Practice multitasking,” she says. “You should be able to talk about the latest baseball game or White House drama while cranking out four to five drinks at a time.”

How to Improvise on Classics and Build New Drinks

Anyone can memorize a classic cocktail recipe, but aspiring bartenders take those recipes and play around with them. “Knowing some basic cocktail recipes to use as a template for creating your own cocktails is super helpful,” Sarah Mengoni of LA’s Double Take says. “Combine that knowledge with an understanding of what the ingredients in your home bar taste like, and you’ll be unstoppable.” She points to the classic Old Fashioned as an example. “You can easily swap the whiskey out for pretty much any aged spirit (tequila, rum, etc.), replace the sugar with a liqueur, and then the bitters for an amaro or other bitter spirit,” she says. “Now you have your own customized cocktail, utilizing the ingredients you have on hand! A great beginners guide to understanding this is Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology.”

Once you establish a deeper sense of how flavors go together, you can begin building better drinks. “For an at-home bartender creating a cocktail, it’s important to know how to pair flavors and have a basic knowledge of the different flavors of fruits, vegetables, spices and liquors,” says Thierry Carrier of Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey. “Knowing how things taste allows you to get creative in your combinations and produce a delicious cocktail.”

How to Take Advantage of Bitters

William Frost of Tampa’s Blue Harbour believes bitters are one of the great next steps you can take in the cocktail world because they are so key to understanding how cocktails work. “You cannot make a true cocktail without it,” he says. “The definition of a cocktail is anything with spirit, sugar, water and bitters.” He also uses the Old Fashioned as an example, pointing out how the bitters erase the burn of the whiskey, the sugar cancels out the bitters, and all that’s left is the elevated flavor of the base spirit. “Bitters add that certain something that is hard to define in a drink,” he adds. “If a drink is tasting a bit flat or blasé, a dash of bitters will usually do the trick and showcase all the flavors of your creation. There are so many different fantastic bitters now. There is one for every occasion.”

How to Use Frozen Fruit

Fresh fruit is an obvious choice for seasonal cocktails, but Amanda Streibel of Spyglass Rooftop Bar in New York sings the praises of frozen fruit. “I love frozen fruit,” she says. “It is an incredible cocktail ingredient in order to make a drink cold without adding water dilution, and it doubles as your garnish. A Gin Martini stirred with frozen watermelon will add a light fruit flavor to the gin without being overpowering and will keep your Martini cold as you sip it.”

How to Properly Chill a Glass

It seems simple, but it can be difficult when you’re in a rush to remember to chill your glassware. “To create a perfect Martini, intermediate bartenders must first master properly chilling the glass,” says Michael Torres of Scroll Bar in Redwood City, California. He suggests always filling the glass with ice and water six minutes before pouring a drink.

How to Make New Syrups and Shrubs

Streibel, Frost and Rebecca Smoyer DeLeon of Checker Hall in Highland Park, California all suggest that aspiring bartenders should experiment with flavored syrups by mixing in new herbs and spices to learn how to take advantage of their flavors. Frost takes it one step further by recommending shrubs. “If you add vinegar, apple cider or red wine to [a] syrup, you get a shrub,” he explains. “Shrubs are amazing and add a wonderful pizzazz to your drinks. Also, shrubs can chill in your refrigerator for quite a while without going bad. Just remember, there are no rules and have fun!”

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