A “cocktail” is an alcoholic beverage that uses a combination of ingredients. Varieties of cocktails are prepared in precise ways, with distinctive elements. Historically, the idea of blending ingredients and alcohol has been popular for many centuries. Mulled wine, a heated wine with ground spices, originated in 2nd century BC Europe.
Versions of eggnog, or “nog,” have been a popular favorite British drink for centuries. That same “nog” traveled across the Atlantic, arriving in the British colonies, leading to an expanse of its popularity and a revolution of various recipes. The term “cocktail” became inspired by the fruit and spice spirit punches of the 17th century. The mid-1800s through the era of Prohibition saw an emergence of Victoria-tinged artful cocktail creations in what historians call the “Golden Age” of mixology. A few lasting signature cocktails invented in that period include the apple toddy, the old-fashioned, and martini-style cocktails like the daiquiri. In modern times, we are considered to be in the “Platinum Age” of mixology, and you can take that for what you will.
Today, hundreds of cocktails have hallmark names, distinct qualities, and various ways to make them. Some cocktails only require a few steps, such as a gin mule or vodka soda, but some are more intricate and require a little more meticulosity in their preparation for that distinguishable result. There are many confusing ingredient lists online and chatter over perfect mathematical recipes. The truth is, building a bartender-worthy cocktail can be achieved easily and confidently at home, so long as one has the correct cocktail-making tools, just a little knowledge, and the desire to experiment.
You can find a practical cocktail shaker set online for $25-50 on the low end. There are excellent sets out there with an array of tools, but a basic shaker set is all you need to play bartender at home. Below is a list of the essential items you’ll use from a shaker set and their explanations.
1. Shaker. A shaker is a tool that combines ingredients by shaking. It’s stainless steel and uses a lid or a pint glass as a top.
2. Jigger. A stainless steel jigger is a measuring tool that usually holds 1 to 2 ounces.
3. Muddler. A muddler is a tool with a gripped bottom for mashing, crushing fruit or herbs. The muddling of the fruit releases its distinct flavor.
4. Strainer. A strainers is a tool to prevent any ice from entering the cocktail after being shaken. A strainer can be stainless steel or fine mesh.
5. Mixing spoon. The stirring spoon used for, you guessed it, stirring. Some cocktails require a stirring action technique.
Ice. You can use regular ice cubes, but the less shaved and more whole, the better. If you can find it or have the ability to make it, large ice cubes or the alluring sphere ice make for a fancy cocktail presentation. There are a lot more choices to consider. Depending on what cocktail you aim to design, you might need certain whole fruits, herbs, lemon or lime juice, soda water, tonic water, ginger beer, and a bottle of simple syrup for sweetening.
You may need a bottle of aromatic bitters for flavoring, like an old-fashioned pink gin or manhattan. The industry standard is Angostura. You could use other things, such as a lemon squeezer, but that’s if you don’t want the pasteurized lemon or lime juice. That is perfectly ok. You might need extra lemons and limes in this case. And while it is not required, you will probably want the preferred glassware for the cocktail, such as a rocks glass, martini glass, or a mule mug. A blender might prove perfect for the task. Think blended margaritas.
Many cocktails require the action of muddling, cutting, or peeling fruit. Popular choices are strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and jalapenos. The same idea, “releasing flavor,” with many herbs, such as mint, basil, rosemary, sage, and lavender.
Some cocktails combine ingredients shaken with ice, and others simply stirred or layered. There are blended cocktails too, but that’s a different ball game. If shaken with ice, the finished product can be poured and strained neat into an empty glass, poured and strained into a glass with ice, or dumped into an empty glass with the same ice used for shaking. To stir a cocktail is to use a stirring spoon circularly in the glass, blending the ingredients in that fashion.
So, then, what is the flavor of the moment? Is the weekend lunch hour calling for tacos and margaritas? Is the late night calling for a dirty shaken martini or a cosmo? Are you craving rum mojito by the pool on a hot summer day? Perhaps you’re into a great book and want to sip on an old-fashioned or a manhattan while reading in the afterglow of the fading evening sun coming in from an open window.
Or yet, perhaps you want to design something new or rejigger a known cocktail. With the right tools, you can create your distinct delightful drink by experimenting and just seeing what works. Ultimately, making a successful cocktail is a rewarding experience when you get something right; when you get the right measure of each flavor, that precise technique pegged. Those around you will start asking you to play bartender!