Cocktails at Home Part 1 – Essential Kit
Drinking a well-made and delicious cocktail need not be isolated to visits to an upmarket cocktail bar. With a little preparation, some basic kit, and a willingness to learn, everyone can learn to make great drinks in the comfort of their own home. This series of articles will provide a step-by-step guide to setting up a home bar and creating your first drink, right through to learning how to make your own infusions and using some of the more advanced techniques currently making their way into bars across the country.
It is in fact entirely possible to make some cocktails with nothing other than common kitchen implements. Indeed I quite enjoy the challenge of mixing up a tasty libation with nothing more than a bag of ice and the contents of a friends larder. Despite this, the purchase of a few bits of essential kit will have such a significant impact on the quality of drinks that you are able to create that it really is worth the effort. It need not cost the earth either, so here’s what you need.
To make great cocktails you need great ice, simple. To be absolutely correct, to make great cold cocktails, you need great ice. And with the exception of the relatively small category of hot cocktails, you will want your cocktails to be cold, ice cold. I really can’t stress this enough, good quality ice is as essential to cocktails as oxygen is to life. ‘Good’ ice is fresh, cold, and of a decent size. Bags from the supermarket are fine for emergencies but they really don’t cut the mustard for those wanting a truly great drink. The reason for this is that instead of some nice solid cubes, what you will usually get is a mushed up bag of broken ‘cubes’.
Fortunately the solution is easy, as good quality ice is cheap and easy to make at home. You will need to furnish yourself with some ice-cube trays, which should make the largest cubes possible. Those bags you pour water into and pop in the freezer are out of the question, as are ‘novelty’ trays which make cubes in the shape of dolphins or body parts. I still use trays I picked up for about a pound from a supermarket a few years back. Ice does have a tendency to pick up smells/flavours from whatever else you have in your freezer so either make ice fresh (which can result in running out in my experience), or keep a good stock at all times by sealing them in zip-lock bags.
Many cocktails are in fact made by stirring the ingredients with ice and so it is possible to do without a shaker. However, for the sake of a few pounds, you can have all the kit you need to make almost every cocktail ever invented! There are three main types of cocktail shaker, which can be used interchangeably and the one you choose will ultimately depend on personal preference.
The Boston shaker comprises a glass and metal container that fit over each other to create a seal before shaking. This is my preferred shaker for a couple of reasons. First, the glass section is really handy for drinks that need stirring, dispensing with the necessity to own a separate mixing glass. Whilst the base of a Cobbler, or French shaker (see below) can be used as for stirring, there is something about the sensation of stirring against metal that brings out that feeling of nails down a chalkboard in me!
The three-piece shaker, or Cobbler shaker is all-metal and comprises a large base unit for mixing the ingredients and holding ice, a lid with straining holes, and a cap to make sure nothing comes out when you shake! This is the style commonly sold in high street cocktail packs and is fine but the cheaper versions are often quite small and do not hold sufficient volume to fit enough ice in to get your drink nice and cold. Unless you double-strain (see below), the holes in the lid are usually large enough to let large ice chunks into your finished drink as well.
The two-piece or French shaker is again an all-metal contraption but this time with only a base and lid without holes, thus requiring a strainer to serve the drink. This is my least favourite, largely because I find them dammed difficult to open once both metal base and lid have contracted with the cold of the ice!
If you are using Cobbler shaker you can get away without a strainer, but these are essential kit if using a Boston or French shaker. A hawthorn strainer is what you need to look out for. This is a metal disk with a handle and (usually) a couple of prongs that sit over the top of your shaker. Underneath is a spring that curves around the edge of the disk to allow the liquid to pass through whilst holding the ice back.
A Julep strainer is a rather nifty-looking slotted spoon that tends to be used to strain drinks that have been stirred. Originally it was used to put on the top of a mint julep cocktail (a drink served with crushed ice) so you could drink the liquid without getting a load of ice in your mouth! I use mine all the time but the Hawthorn strainer will work perfectly well if you don’t have one.
Another extremely useful strainer is a simple tea strainer. Many of the Hawthorn strainers commonly available have a spring whose coils are not quite tight enough to hold back all the shards of ice, and thus using it on it’s own will result in a small amount of ice floating on top of your drink. If you don’t want shards of ice in your drink then you will need to ‘double strain’. This involves fitting the Hawthorn strainer over your shaker and pouring the liquid through this, and holding the tea strainer between the shaker and your glass in order to remove the last few bits of ice.
Making cocktails is a bit like baking, accuracy is the key to success. The art of free-pouring, where a bartender pours the ingredients direct from the bottle without measuring is an extremely advanced skill to do properly and I would be extremely suspicious of a bartender who I didn’t know to be at the top of their game who free-poured a drink for me. It might look like fun, but I would urge you not to even think about when getting started at making your own cocktails at home. What you need instead is a jigger. These come in various shapes and sizes, using both ounce and milliliter scales. The simplest varieties are usually a double ended device with a single measure on one end and a double on the other. I find these particularly difficult to use as many cocktails call for ingredients in different proportions to whole ‘shots’. My favoured jigger is made by Oxo and contains a graduated scale in both Oz and ml that can allow for the most careful measuring.
Technically not essential as these are used for stirring drinks, and anything long and thin will do the job reasonably well. However, for the sake of a couple of pounds its worth doing things properly so get yourself one of these as well. They do come in various styles but there is no need to go for anything fancy when starting out.
Many cocktails require the muddling (effectively crushing) of fruit before the rest of the ingredients are added. This not only releases their juices, but also in the case of citrus fruits releases the oils from the skin. All sorts of fancy muddlers are on the market these days and I’m sure they work just great, but I stick to my trusty wooden muddler I’ve had for years.
Of course to make a cocktail you will need some ingredients! This is a rather large topic so will be dealt with separately in part two of this series but in the meantime I would recommend picking up a nice bottle of your favourite tipple and enjoying it neat. Once you get into the mixing ‘thing’ it can be hard to stop!