Tips for Making Cocktails at Home, From Top Bartenders

By: Melialani James
Traditional wood swizzle stick

Every year, the cream of the bartending crop descends on New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, a weeklong series of events and seminars on everything related to crafting the perfect libation.

It’s not only a showcase for newly released spirits (like a delightful chai tea liquor) or how to perform age-old mixing techniques (such as how to “swizzle”) but it’s also a chance for those behind the bar to share their expertise for making exceptional cocktails. If you’re interested in attending, Tales of the Cocktail 2012 is happening July 25-29.

Here are their Top 5 Tips for making your next cocktail party a rousing success …

1. Use Decent Ice

For chilling shaken or stirred cocktails, it all begins with the first ingredient: ice.

"Don't buy the bagged ice from supermarkets.  You're unlikely to use it all and it comes in weird sizes" not fit for cocktail making, says Chaim Dauermann from 'inoteca in New York City.  "Always use FRESH ice," Chaim continues.  "Old ice picks up the smells from your freezer" and it will end up contaminating any drink with delicate flavors.

Make a cache of your own in big, deep, square ice molds shortly ahead of time, and store them in freezer-safe containers until you are ready to mix.

2. Make Your Own Simple Syrup

For the best cocktails, the top bartenders don't mess around with mass-produced, off-the-shelf ingredients, they make their own.  And nothing could be simpler than simple syrup.

For the most simple of simple syrups, place 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water (called a 1-to-1 mixture) into a pot and heat until the sugar dissolves completely, stirring occasionally.

"Simple syrup can be kept a few days in the refrigerator," and because it’s so easy to make, there's no excuse for not having some on hand.

3. Have Some Fresh Citrus Standing By

"A plethora of drinks can be made with just the juice of these two citruses, along with bar staples such as vodka, gin, bourbon and Cointreau," advises Chaim.

The juice is equally welcomed in your cooking too. Drizzle a little lemon over a pan-sautéed fish, or add to your cocktails, like in a Bee's Knees (gin, lemon juice & honey) or a White Lady (gin, Cointreau & lemon juice).

4. Grab the Proper Tools

If you've ever made a drink at home, you probably have some of the most basic tools, such as shaker and strainer.  You may even have a "Boston Shaker", the combination of a heavy pint glass and a metal cup or tin.

Beyond a shaker, "essentially [every] home needs 3 tools: a measuring device (jiggers), a bar spoon and tasting straws," says Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina in San Francisco and producer of Encanto Pisco.

5. Taste for Balance

"Tasting for balance ... is essential if the home bartender wants to arrive at his or her style of cocktail," says Duggan, "and the only way to get there is to properly balance then tweak, if need be, a recipe."    Keeping a stash of tasting straws nearby will allow you to take a quick sample of your creation, and adjust the flavors with any additions, before serving your guests.

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