The Cardinal Rules of Cocktail-Mixing

Mimi Kerbin

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they decide they want to make a better cocktail than whatever they used to drink in college. But besides upgrading from a red plastic cup to, you know, glassware, most folks are a little lost on where to start. Fortunately, cocktail pro Karl Steuck had some sage wisdom for anyone looking to step up how they put together a drink, whether that’s better ice, fresher ingredients, or sparkling water that pulls double duty.

Mimi Kerbin

Experiment with syrups

People avoid making their own flavored simple syrups because it sounds like a culinary undertaking — but it’s easier to pull off than making mac ’n cheese. “Once you make your own flavored syrup once or twice, it’s like, holy moly, you just opened a huge gate to your cocktails,” Steuck says. “I do equal parts organic cane sugar to water. You put that in your pot, and you can add anything you want. I’ll put cloves, star anise, and cinnamon for fall flavors. Put that on high heat, cover it, and boil, then 30 minutes on low heat so it doesn’t caramelize. It’s so easy, and your house is going to smell delicious.”

Once your syrup is made, it’ll last two to three weeks in your fridge, and you can use it to do anything from make your coffee more interesting to create flavored Old Fashioneds. “If I’m making a tequila Old Fashioned, why would I use agave when I can make a vanilla-cardamom syrup?” Steuck asks. “The syrup is there to complement the other flavors, whether it be the alcohol, the juice, or the flavored sparkling water. Everything has rhyme or reason.”

Mimi Kerbin

Pick a better sparkling water

There’s only so much room in your glass; don’t spend that real estate on something that doesn’t contribute to the flavor of your cocktail. Steuck recommends AHA Sparkling Water, since each can has two bold, unique flavors — think peach and honey, strawberry and cucumber, blueberry and pomegranate — and gives him a wider range of cocktail profiles to experiment with. “I think AHA adds a nice backbone of flavor to your drink,” Steuck says. “Whether you’re a vodka soda drinker or a whiskey soda drinker, something like the Strawberry + Cucumber is going to add this beautiful backdrop. [AHA] uses those yin and yang flavors that go so well together. Everything in the glass can be used to highlight the AHA.”

Mimi Kerbin

Get the nice ice

Not all ice is created equal, and that’s especially true when you look at the ice that comes out of your freezer’s ice machine versus the ice at a good watering hole. Sure, you can go the extreme route and buy a mini cooler dedicated to freezing big blocks of ice to carve yourself, but a simple, big-cube silicone mold will do you just fine. “If you have the capability to get nice ice, it really helps the drink,” Steuck says. “They melt at a slower pace, so your drink is gonna stay colder longer without dilution.”

While the big cubes are great for things like Old Fashioneds, crushed ice works great for your highballs and effervescent drinks. “I’ll put ice in a shaker and crush it with a muddler,” Steuck says. “But you can also get a [cloth] bag, put your ice in that, and crush it with a hammer. The tin’s great; the hammer’s three times easier.”

Mimi Kerbin

Always go with fresh produce

Yes, there are plenty of bottled mixers you can buy at the grocery store. But it’s just as easy to go over to the fresh-foods section and get yourself a bag of limes, or a bunch of basil or mint, and actually taste the difference. “I like to try to drink as clean as I can; it’s a reflection of how I treat my body,” Steuck says. “I like using the freshest things available to me because they taste better, they’re better for you, and they use less sugar. It’s really an opportunity to highlight the flavors in the proper way.

“That was the point of using AHA in my drinks,” he adds. “It doesn’t have added sugars, so if you can get that freshness, why wouldn’t you?”

Lastly, Steuck says to be true to your taste. Don’t order Scotch if you just want a vodka soda (with AHA, obviously); go fruity if that’s the mood you’re in. “It’s about finding your own voice and how you like cocktails,” he says. “Drink what you like and highlight those flavors. And if you mess a cocktail up, practice will only make you better.”

If you’re looking for more cocktail-upgrade ideas, Steuck whipped up 10 recipes you can try at home right here.