While cocktailing is an ever-evolving art that requires patience and practice, there are a few things you can do to improve your drinks immediately. Here, the most common mistakes home bartenders make, which, after reading through, you’ll never make again (right?).
Like baking, cocktailing requires precise measurements. You may have seen bartenders free pour spirits into a mixing glass, but their bottles often have speed pour spouts attached to control the flow, allowing them to measure by counting. Don’t go dumping high octane booze into your glass all willy nilly. Get a proper jigger and use it.
Not Using Fresh Juice
There’s a reason prepackaged citrus juice containers resemble grenades—they’ll blow up your cocktail with their artificially tart flavor. Do your body and your palate a favor, and squeeze some real fruit instead. And don’t just stop at lemons and limes; fresh pineapple, grapefruit and orange juices will vastly improve any fruity cocktail. Plus, packing your bar with colorful, fresh produce will impress guests and make even Martha Stewart proud.
Dumping Ice from the Mixing Tin into the Glass
It’s no strain to strain your cocktail. If you think the ice in your mixing tin is no different than a fresh handful from the freezer, take a good look the next time you dump everything straight into the glass. Ice gets pretty beat up as it rattles around that shaker, and the chipped, broken pieces will melt way faster than fresh cubes. That’s not to say ice never goes from shaker to glass. Sometimes a recipe will call for the ice to be “dumped” in with the drink, while other drinks like the Bloody Mary benefit from rolling the cocktail back and forth between two shaker tins, leaving the ice relatively intact. If the recipe says strain, though, you should definitely break out the Hawthorne or julep strainer and follow orders.
Not Shaking Enough
Take your time with each drink, and give it the 30-second shake it requires for proper aeration and dilution. On the other hand, if a “friend” asks you to make a Ramos Gin Fizz with its infamous 12-minute shaking time, you can go ahead and chop off a few minutes—you’re already a champ for controlling the impulse to slap your friend with a strainer.
Grabbing the Wrong Glass
For every type of cocktail, there’s an ideal type of cocktail glass: Coupes keep your precious Martini in the glass instead of all over the floor. Hurricane glasses hold an unholy amount of a glorious, slushy sugar bomb. Highballs allow for a generous pour of fizzy tonic in your Gin & Tonic. If you lack the cabinet space (or budget) to outfit your home bar with all species of glasses, start with lowballs, highballs and coupes, which will see you through the vast majority of beverages.
Shaking When You Ought to Stir (or Vice-Versa)
James Bond might have known his way around esoteric exotica on the backbar like Kina Lillet, but the spy ordered his Martinis all wrong. Unless a drink includes juice or eggs in the mix, there’s no reason to shake it. In the same way, stirring when you ought to shake won’t give your drink the right frothy, ethereal texture.
Using Spoiled Vermouth
An untold number of Martinis have been ruined by spoiled dry vermouth. Although vermouth is fortified, its ABV of 16-18 percent isn’t quite enough to preserve the aromatized wine outside of the fridge or even in the fridge for longer than a month. Think of it as an excuse to have one more drink before it goes bad, and be sure to keep other mildly fortified bottlings in the fridge too.
Keeping Anything But Vodka in the Freezer
You shouldn’t throw any old spirit into your freezer. The cold can restrain the volatile compounds in spirits like whisky, which contribute to the spirit’s taste and aroma, making the freezer a chilly grave for flavor. Vodka, which is distilled to be pure and clean, is fine in the deep freeze, and the cold can actually help thicken the texture of the spirit for a pleasingly rich sip—but anything else should remain securely on your bar cart.
Serving Inferior Ice
Unless you plan to chug the contents of your lowball—don’t do that—the ice in your drink will at least partially melt before you finish your drink, so you’ll be tasting that run-off along with everything else. There’s a discernible difference between ice that tastes like it came from a fresh mountain spring as opposed to your moldy bathtub. Improving your ice is the quickest way to improve every drink you make.
Forgetting to Chill the Glass
This one isn’t a huge deal, but a frosty glass really improves the drinking experience. It’s also helpful if you’d like to chill a neat spirit just a tad without diluting it with ice. Just pop your intended tumbler in the freezer before you start mixing your drink and it’ll be nice and chilly by the time you’re ready to strain.
Disrespecting the Power of Bitters
“What difference can a few dashes make?” wondered the allegorical contrarian. A lot, dear figment. Bitters may be dashed into a cocktail in minute quantities, but their power far surpasses their liquid weight. Plus, bitters are integral to several eternal classics, like the Angostura in a Manhattan. Make sure your bar is stocked with Peychaud’s, orange and Angostura bitters at the very least, then dash with confidence.
Never Trying Anything New
Everyone should feel confident making their favorite, go-to drink. If a Negroni is yours, go ahead and stock your bar with eight bottles of Campari so you’ll never find the bar dry. That said, you should also get out of your comfort zone, expand your palate and mixing abilities, and concoct something new once in awhile (we have a few ideas).