The idea of mastering mixologist-grade cocktails at home can be maddening, appearing both glaringly simple (it's just cold gin and vermouth, for God's sake) and hopelessly convoluted (what the hell's a phosphate?). But before you throw your embittered, bitters-stained hands up in despair, consider that eliminating just a few common mistakes can make up the lion's share of the difference between your home bar and the bar that you hit when you leave home. Here are seven common mistakes, and how to fix 'em.
1) You don't measure your pours
You've got this. You finished watching Cocktail for the 18th time, loaded up an '80s playlist with Starship's Wild Again appearing no fewer than four times, and are ready to start slinging drinks to a mob of attractive women throwing money at you. But then reality kicks in and you realize you're the only one who likes Starship, the "women" are just your friend Todd, and your cocktails taste like the runoff from a Long Island Iced Tea factory because you think you can just eyeball everything. With something as delicate as a cocktail, upsetting the balance even an iota can throw off the entire flavor profile, so make like a pro and use a jigger to actually measure out your ingredients.
2) You don't use proper glassware
No disrespect to the Solo cup — it's both a keg party chalice and an easily disposed relic of picnics past. But Ester's coming by tonight, and she's a beau monde kinda girl who won't appreciate the cheap feel of plastic on her lips. And neither should you. A proper cocktail or martini glass, for instance, releases a drink's aromatics and allows the drinker to hold one without warming it. A rocks glass has a wider brim than a highball, in order to release flavors. Knocking out the basic categories of glassware will allow you to properly serve 90 percent of drinks in the cocktail canon.
3) You don't use a strainer
You've locked down the pour measurements and ingredients, and by God, Ester's going to go apesh*t over this Cosmo. But even if you manage to produce the nectar of Aphrodite, a Cosmo that explains the cosmos, it won't mean squat if there are tiny chunks of broken ice floating around in it. Instead of winging it, drop five bucks on a Hawthorne strainer and get it right.
4) You stir when you should shake, and vice versa
All drinks are not created equal — some are neat, some shaken, and some are stirred, though preferably not with a finger. Vigorous shaking provides aeration and also dissolves more water, which can be helpful with higher-proof alcohols. Stirring prevents over-dilution for more delicate drinks, which is why a proper dry martini is usually recommended stirred (though how many times depends on the size of your ice). Either way, a bar spoon, a mixing glass, and a shaker set are all worthwhile investments.
5) You use store-bought ice
If not having ice at your bar banishes you to the seventh circle of hell, buying store-bought ice probably throws you in around the fifth. One option is to buy a block of ice and a small, preferably unused chisel, then spend hours painstakingly chipping away like a modern day Michelangelo minus the talent, grace, and understanding of the secrets of the ooze. An easier option is to acquire a tray that allows you to freeze hefty blocks like the ones you get in cocktail bars.
6) You aren't garnishing right
Garnishes provide the perfect accent to a cocktail — without them you've just got liquor, ice, and, considering you aren't bothering with garnishes, probably some Gatorade powder. That doesn't mean you have to give your glasses an absinthe rinse. Just taking to time to pick up some olives, wedge some limes, or zest some oranges makes all of the difference not just in presentation, but also in flavor and aromatics.
7) You're flairing. Why are you flairing?
After finally pouring a few rounds of successfully mixed cocktails, the urge to flair will be irresistible. You'll confidently and suavely grab the most plastic bottle available (vodka), call upon the spirit of Brian Flanagan to impregnate Jordan gain '80s montage-style confidence, and then attempt some behind-the-back toss-up that, in one instance, will both sprain your rotator cuff and send the bottle flying haphazardly across the room, hilariously knocking over an expensive vase or Ester's friend. Probably both. Just don't do it.
Knowledge is power, but it's not going to stir, shake, and strain your cocktails. Pick up the gadgets that will, right here...