Food & Drink

Doing Fancy Bartending Techniques at Home Is Easier Than You Think

How to “fat wash,” infuse delicious syrups, make clear, nearly-perfect ice cubes, and more.

bartending tricks
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Doing “fancy” techniques at home can be daunting. If you follow bar and drink culture, you’re bound to see some geeky bartender flashily displaying their proficiency with contraptions like roto-vaps, klinebells, centrifuges, and hydrometers and throwing around terms like “fat washing,” “directional freezing,” and “brix.” 
 
Using those tools to create cocktails can be super fun and lead to tremendously innovative and delicious results. But as lofty as these terms can be, they rely on fairly straightforward principles that can be approximated with basic kitchenware like blenders and insulated mugs.

Directional Freezing

Have you ever wondered how fancy cocktail bars get their ice so clear and dense? Camper English has a great explainer, but here’s the tl;dr: When water changes from liquid to solid, dissolved gasses get pushed out. In most situations, ice freezes from the outside-in, trapping the gas inside creating a cloudy blob. But what if you froze ice from one direction? Then, the gasses pushed out by the ice crystals would be pushed aside, and you would have clear ice. 
 
Ice sculptors have been using a machine called a Klinebell, but you can do this at home with an insulated mug. You probably have one lying around from some conference you went to three years ago and forgot about. Just make sure it has straight sides. 
 
To make clear ice chunks line an insulated mug with a plastic bag and fill it halfway with water. Freeze for 36 hours. After 36 hours, let thaw at room temperature for about four hours, until you can slide the bag and the ice chunk out. You’ll probably have some rough edges from the crinkling of the plastic bag—just run the ice under cool water to polish it.

Infused Syrups and Brix-Adjusting

Simple syrup is, unsurprisingly, one of the most fundamental and basic cocktail ingredients. It lets you add sweetness to a cocktail in liquid form, giving you a smooth texture. Most common simple syrup recipes call for 50/50 sugar and water by volume, and cocktail recipes will be balanced if you use this ratio. 
 
But what if you want to make your simple syrup less…simple? Infusing it with fruits and herbs is an easy way to add an extra dimension of flavor to your drinks. Plus, it can help capture and preserve these ephemera far past the point when they would go brown and moldy. 
 
I like to make blackberry syrup because they’re commonly available, sturdy, and relatively consistent (raspberries are fragile and strawberries’ ripeness is too variable). Don’t even get me started on blueberries—they taste like nothing and are a scam.

Blackberry Syrup
Fruit’s sweetness can vary, so how do we get a fruit syrup with the same level of sweetness as 50/50 simple syrup? Make a baseline simple syrup to taste alongside, and add sugar or water to the fruit syrup until the two syrups have the same sweetness. If you were a fancy bartender you’d use a hydrometer to measure the brix (sugar content) of these syrups, but we have a sensitive scientific instrument built-in—a mouth. Just be sure to taste back and forth a few times: start with the simple syrup and then the fruit syrup, and then one more time the reverse. Sip water to reset your palate. 
 
Ingredients:

  • 2 cups fresh blackberries
  • 1.5 cups filtered water
  • 1.5 cups granulated sugar
Combine all ingredients in a blender, blend on high for 90 seconds, let settle for another 90 seconds. Pass through a semi-fine mesh strainer (a gold coffee filter is too fine). Let chill before using—the blender will have warmed the mixture. Syrup will keep for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator and frozen for about six months when stored in an airtight container.

Basil Syrup
Infusing syrups with herbs is slightly different. You aren’t adding any sugar, so you don’t have to worry about brix. Instead, you have to worry about bitterness. When you break plant leaves up, it releases a ton of chemicals, many of which are bitter. To minimize this, move fast when making an herb-infused syrup: mix the sugar and water first, and then quickly add the herbs, and make sure to strain out the solids immediately. 
 
Ingredients:

  • 15 leaves Fresh Basil
  • 1 cup filtered water
  • 1 cup sugar
Combine sugar and water in a blender and blend on high for 90 seconds. Add basil leaves and blend again on medium for ten seconds. Strain immediately with a fine mesh strainer such as a gold or paper coffee filter. Let chill before using—the blender will have warmed the mixture. Syrup will keep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator and frozen for about six months when stored in an airtight container.

Fat Washing

This sounds esoteric, but it’s one of the easiest “advanced” techniques there is. It’s used in the iconic PDT cocktail the Benton’s Old Fashioned that infuses bourbon with bacon fat, maple syrup, and bitters. Fat washing uses alcohol’s solvent properties to “wash” aromatic compounds off the fat. Here is a more animal-friendly version:

Olive Cognac

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup VSOP Cognac
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Combine Cognac and olive oil in an airtight container. Let sit at room temperature overnight, or ten hours. Then, move to freezer until the oil solidifies. Strain mixture through a fine strainer use a gold coffee filter or paper towel. Discard solids. Infused Cognac will keep for three months in a cool dry place.

Extra Virgin Old-Fashioned

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Olive Cognac
  • .25 oz. Basil Syrup
  • 3 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice and stir gently for 20 seconds. Strain into an old fashioned glass filled with a tempered big ice cube
 
Cerulean Margarita

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Blanco Tequila
  • 1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
  • .75 oz. Blackberry Syrup
  • .25 oz. Blue Curacao
Combine all ingredients in a shaker, and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into an old fashioned glass with a tempered big ice chunk. Garnish with a mint sprig.

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John deBary is a cocktail and bar expert with over a decade of experience working in award-winning New York City bars and restaurants. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grantmaking, and impact investing. John is also the creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic drinks.
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