What To Do With That Bar Kit You Got For Christmas

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So you got a kit of bartender tools for Christmas. Great! Good for you.

Now, make me a drink.
A good one.

Right. Now that you’ve gotten some proper tools, it is time to set aside the Long Island Iced Teas and Rum and Cokes and develop a new repertoire of offerings to show that your knowledge has been upgraded just as much as your equipment.

My nephew/apprentice suggested I do a quick rundown of easy, classic drinks that can give you an idea of what you can do with those new bar tools. You can find all of these all over the web, and in books of course. But this is a good list that covers the major spirits, and gives you a quick overview of the sort of flavors sophisticated, well-made cocktails can offer you and your friends.

The Simple Daiquiri

Spiffy New Tools Used: Shaker, Juicer, Jiggers (Hawthorne Strainer)

Make this guy first. Yes, I know a blender wasn’t included in your bar kit. You don’t use a blender to make a real Daiquiri. I suggest you start with a real Dauquiri because virtually everyone will like it, and it teaches the most essential home-made ingredient you will need to “master” to make great cocktails: Simple syrup.

To make simple syrup, put 1.5 cups of refined white sugar in a small pot on the stove. Add 1 cup of water. Do not stir at any time. Bring the pot just to a clear, roiling boil, and kill the heat. Once it is cool, you are done. For a few cents, you’ve produced something that people pay eight bucks for. You can increase or decrease the amount of sugar you use in the mix as you get used to using simple, and decide how sweet you like your drinks. Simple will last quite a while in your fridge. If you add in an ounce of vodka as a preservative, it will last every bit as long as you need.

DAIQUIRI

  • 3 parts light rum
  • 1 part fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 3/4 part simple sugar

Pour all ingredients in your shaker and add plenty of ice. Shake it until the tin is very cold in your hand. Use whatever strainer you received to strain the frothy, icy mix into a cocktail glass. The garnish is traditionally a wedge or wheel of lime.

All the recipes in this post will be in “parts” rather than specific measurements. What matters when you make a cocktail, any cocktail, is the ratio between ingredients. How big a part is depends on how large your glasses are, and how many drinks you are making at once. More importantly, you can easily adjust any recipe to your personal taste by modifying the ratios. Many people like a 2:1:1/2 Daiquiri, which will be much more sour. The point is, put in some effort to determine what ratios you like. And since you are putting in this effort to get those ratios right, measure your ingredients. That’s why you have those fancy jiggers or measuring cups in your kit!

The Mighty Manhattan

Spiffy new tools used: Stirring pitcher, bar spoon, jiggers, julep strainer

Learn to make good Manhattans to impress the older, very experienced drinkers in your life. Show skill in making these, and a significant portion of the people who employ people in the world will take you just a bit more seriously. And while you are at it, slip one to your younger friends as well. You will open their eyes.

The Manhattan can be made with most any North American aged whiskey. But you will likely only be happy with one made with either bourbon or American rye whiskey. This is a bold drink, and benefits from the bolder flavors in those spirits. While you are learning, I’d use bourbon, as you can get a drinkable call brand (e.g. Maker’s Mark) for less than an equivalent rye. Once you know what you are doing, buy a bottle of good rye. Lots of us think it makes the superior Manhattan.

MANHATTAN

  • 4 parts quality American whiskey
  • 1 part Italian vermouth (the sweet, red stuff)
  • Angostura Bitters, dash to taste

Combine ingredients in mixing vessel. Add ice and gently stir a good long time. Strain into a cocktail class and garnish with a single brandied cherry.

There are three things to learn from making this drink.
First, the vermouth makes this drink. And with vermouth, you generally get what you pay for. Spring for the good stuff like Dolin, or Antica Formula if you can get it. And buy it in the smallest bottle you can, because vermouth is a wine, not a liqueur. It goes bad after opening… fast. Keep it in the fridge, and you may get a month out of it before it turns on your drink. As a home bartender, you will pour out a lot of vermouth. Get used to this. The ratio of whiskey to vermouth will vary greatly from drinker to drinker.

Second, learn to dash bitters. Do not tentatively tip the bottle over the vessel and jerk back when the first hesitant drops seep out. Similarly, don’t just let it pour. A dash is a big, swift, sweeping motion, followed by a quick return to upright. Bitters a cheap. Practice. And clean up the inevitable spills at once, or you will need a scouring pad, because it stains. Start with three dashes in your Manhattan until you know what you like.

Third. Do not ever shake a Manhattan. Don’t make me come over there.

The Quintessential Martini

Spiffy New Tools Used: Stirring pitcher, bar spoon, jiggers, julep strainer

This is a gin drink, padawan. Put down the vodka. If you’ve never drunk gin before, I suggest that you try a different gin drink to learn to love the spirit. And if you do drink gin, but have not had a Martini you like, try it again, made right, with fresh, good vermouth. Everything I said about sweet vermouth above, goes double for dry vermouth.

DRY MARTINI

  • 3 parts gin
  • 1 part French vermouth (the dry, white stuff)
  • Orange bitters

Combine ingredients in your mixing vessel and stir you long time, Joe. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with either an olive or a long twist of lemon peel.

Making your Martini is very similar to making a Manhattan.

James Bond and Goldfinger discuss lasers“Do you expect me to talk?
“No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to stir your damned Martinis!”

Martinis are the diamonds of the cocktail world. Like diamonds, the freer they are of inclusions, the more valuable. Shaking a Martini leaves bubbles and shards of ice on the surface. This would be great if your intent is to drown Leonardo DiCaprio in there, but not if you want to drink it. Not only is a stirred Martini more beautiful, it will taste better, as the bubbles injected by shaking will mask and muddle the flavors.
And yes, a really good Martini should have a dash or two of orange bitters in it. You won’t be able to taste them, but you will be able to taste the difference. People who don’t drink Martinis will happily drink your Martinis.

The Sumptuous Sidecar

Spiffy New Tools Used: Shaker, Juicer, Jiggers (Hawthorne Strainer)

This is a drink every bartender knows how to make, but since few have any idea how to make one well, it is one you can really show off with. It is a brandy drink, so be careful about what you use. Good brandy (sorry America, that usually means French cognac) gets pricy fast, and will be wasted in a Sidecar. But crappy brandy is just a shame in any terms. Keep a bottle of something French with the letters “VS” on it around, and you’ll be golden.

SIDECAR

  • 3 parts cognac
  • 1 part Cointreau or other high-end orange liqueur
  • 1 part fresh squeezed lemon juice

Combine in the shaker with ice and give it a good shaking until your hands are cold. Strain into a cocktail glass half-rimmed with superfine sugar.

Wait!
You told them shaking is all bad n’ stuff!

It is… sometimes. Other times it is essential. Here is a general rule that will go further to make you a cocktail expert than any other:

If all the ingredients in your drink are clear, then you stir it. If anything is cloudy or viscous (e.g. dairy or citrus) then you shake it.

As with the lime in the Daiquiri above, the lemon juice will make the Sidecar cloudy anyway. And opaque ingredients can leave the drink mottled in appearance if you only stir them.
Squeeze your own citrus juice. You will quickly learn there is a noticeable difference.
Sidecars traditionally have a sugared rim, but some people don’t like the extra sweet. Whenever you rim any glass with sugar, or salt as with a Margarita, rim only half to two-thirds of the way around, so drinkers who don’t want the rim won’t have to partake.

The Not-Really-So-Girly Cosmopolitan

Spiffy New Tools Used: Shaker, Juicer, Jiggers (Hawthorne Strainer)

This is probably the greatest vodka cocktail ever invented. And no, a well-made Cosmo is not necessarily a girly drink. Listen guys, if you aren’t manly enough to enjoy a pink drink that is this good, well, you are no man.

COSMOPOLITAN

  • 3 parts vodka
  • 1 part Cointreau
  • 1/2 part fresh lime juice
  • 1 part cranberry juice cocktail

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake gently until chilly. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wedge.

This is a good drink to examine to understand that ratios are guidelines. Depending on the cranberry juice brand you use, all of these numbers can change. And of course, your desires for color, sourness, and cranberry-ness will also affect how you put this one together. My ratios here will give a pretty tart, colorful Cosmo. That said, the recipe is pretty bullet-proof. Just understand that the ingredients matter here. Cheap vodka will taste like crap. (Super-expensive vodka will taste exactly the same as the twenty dollar stuff in this and most other drinks.)
Do not use Rose’s or sourmix instead of fresh lime. Do not use triple sec instead of Cointreau. Use good cranberry.

Do not let the sweet pink color and gentle alcoholic impression make you forget that this is a full-power cocktail. Be safe.

The Old-Fashioned Old Fashioned

Spiffy New Tools Used: Bar spoon, jiggers, vegetable peeler

The Old Fashioned is a drink that is actually easier to make well than it is is to make crappily. Yet every day, thousands of crappy Old Fashioneds are offered to hapless drinkers. Why has this become the norm? Bad booze, that’s why. Don’t let bad booze happen to you.
The first thing you are going to notice about my recipe is that there are no orange wedges or maraschino cherries to be seen. A disgusting mass of crushed fruit is not part of a true Old Fashioned Cocktail. People started adding all that fruit because they were making the drink with liquors like Early Times. Booze like that needs something to cover it up. But if you are using good liquor, why not appreciate it?

OLD FASHIONED COCKTAIL

  • 4 parts high-quality brown liquor
  • 1 part simple syrup
  • several good dashes of Angostura or other complimentary bitters

Pour ingredients over ice in a low glass. Stir in the glass to get a good melt on the ice. Garnish with a long slice of orange peel, removed from the fruit with your veggie peeler.

That’s it! No muddling, no useless soda water. This is a quick, easy, extremely high-quality cocktail. After a few years of drinks learning, you may well settle on this as your “Gawd! I’m in no mood for crap, but I need a drink now!” tipple.
Most people use bourbon in an Old Fashioned. It is an American invention, and bourbon is the American spirit. But most any good quality aged spirit will make a delicious Old Fashioned. For my part, I make a slight majority of my Old Fashioneds with good quality rum. Knock the sugar down a bit when using rum, or if your bourbon is of the sweeter variety.

The Merry Mojito

Spiffy New Tools Used: Bar spoon, jiggers, muddler

One last suggestion, since you may well have gotten a muddler in your tool kit, and as just noted, it should not be used in making Old Fashioneds. This is actually the most complex of these drinks for your first bar kit, but if you make a killer Mojito, and if you do it with style, you will be King come Summertime.

MOJITO

  • 3 parts white rum
  • 1 part fresh lime juice
  • 1 part simple syrup
  • 4 mint leaves per drink

Drop mint and simple syrup into bottom of highball glass. Muddle briefly. Add lime juice and rum, then ice. Top with soda water and give a quick stir. Garnish with more mint and a lime wheel.

Be careful with muddling. Unlike you may have seen in certain rum ads, you need neither arms like Thor’s, nor a half an hour’s free time to muddle one Mojito. You are merely bruising the mint, not crushing or tearing it. If you do crush or tear the mint, you will release not only the essential oils you need for flavor and aroma, but also other, less appetizing chemicals.

Er, the hotties in short dresses dancing on the tables in the video? Also not required… but recommended.

Now, you have your kit of real bar tools. Go out and make yourself some real drinks with them!

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

2 Comments

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  • Nice Article!

    For the mojito, i was converted to ‘slapping’ the mint years ago and have not looked back. You place the mint in one hand and literally give it a good slap (clapping your hands together) to express the oils. No muddling required.

    With that technique and simple syrup (as you have above) instead of sugar, these come together much easier than they used to when i was muddling granulated sugar and mint in the glass. I’ve seen people use a mint simple syrup as well, especially for larger batches.

    I like to use a nice mineral water (Pellegrino) instead of soda water, and i measure out 3 oz instead of ‘topping up’, but otherwise my favorite recipe is very similar to yours (assuming 1 ounce per ‘part’, lighter on sugar and heavier on mint).

      (Quote)  (Reply)

    • I slap mint around a lot, generally when using it for a Mai Tai garnish, though. I’ll try it in a Mojito like you say when I next have some live mint. I do wonder if you aren’t going to get most of the released oils on your hand and in the air, since the moment of release isn’t in the glass.

        (Quote)  (Reply)

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