We've got your covered with this beginner's guide to cocktails, and links to everything you need to get your bar set up.
Spirit, sugar, water, and bitters — these are the 4 basic components of a cocktail. Once you understand this basic structure, you can soar! There's a lot of factors at play and a world of possibility in cocktail-making, just like in cooking. When creating a new cocktail, it’s important to consider the balance of heat, sweet, bitter, salt, and sour. Also note the temperature, appearance, texture, and smell.
We liken our wall of cocktail bitters to the bartender's spice rack — a little goes a long way, there's so many flavour profiles, and the combinations are endless! Bitters add flavour without sweetness or a ton of volume. Like the thread that ties the drink together, they have a way of boosting and marrying the other flavours present (sort of like salt and pepper). Store them the way you would a spirit (no expiry, no need to refrigerate, keep out of direct sunlight).
Other than choosing high quality ingredients, what transforms an "okay" cocktail into an excellent one is usually balance. When you're starting out, lean on the tried and true specifications (or "specs") of classic cocktails. You'll start to notice recurring ratios across different sours, highballs, martinis/manhattans, and punches. For example, a daiquiri, margarita, gimlet, and whisky sour are all variataions on the shaken "Sour" template, which usually follow a 2-1-1 format: 2 parts spirit, 1 part sweet, and 1 part sour.
Cocktails are both an art and a science, so every ingredient needs to be measured precisely for a consistent flavour every time. To achieve that, you need a jigger. Most styles are double-sided, with a smaller volume on the top and larger volume on the bottom. We carry many jiggers with inner markings, for a truly multi-use tool.
Once you start to appreciate accurate measurements as a foundation for cocktails, you'll start to notice discrepancies in recipes online (ahem, Pinterest, we see you!). The "juice of half of lemon" or a "handful of strawberries" varies greatly depending on the fruit, the source, and the person making the drink, so it would be no surprise if the resulting recipe was lacklustre when recreated. It's usually a good idea to taste-test your ingredients to gauge their intensity and institute conservative measures where they are lacking (example: the juice of half a lemon is likely close to 1/2 oz). We carry many reliable recipe books and an updated recipe section on our website.
As further assurance of consistency, a lot of cocktail bars rely on infusions (whether of spirits or syrups) for their cocktails. In addition to being easier to measure during a busy service, using an infused spirit or syrup ensures a consistent depth of flavour drink-to-drink and night-to-night. To make happy hour even easier, we carry a wide variety of infused syrups.
Another important reason to measure accurately is to help monitor the ABV (alcohol by volume) for each serve. Heavy-handed free pours not only affect the balance of the drink, but they also make it a lot harder to monitor your overall consumption. Boozy serves like martinis will typically clock in at closer to 30% ABV, while highballs like a Tom Collins are a lighter 9 or 10%. Whether you're serving yourself or guests, ensure that water is available throughout the evening. A mindful host will serve low and zero-proof options in case any folks are cutting back or abstaining (browse our "Lo + No Alcohol" collection for ideas).
SHAKE all cocktails that contain fruit juice, egg white, or dairy with plenty of ice.
Examples: Whisky Sours, Daiquiris, Margaritas
Across the three shaker styles, the goal is the same: chill, dilute, and incorporate the varying density ingredients.
Shaken drinks have a cloudy appearance and typically are larger volume serves compared to stirred cocktails. You may wish to "double-strain" (that is, use a fine mesh strainer in conjunction with a hawthorne strainer or cobbler strainer, to keep any fruit pulp or ice shards out of the final drink). You'll want to shake hard and fast (you're not rocking the drink to sleep, you're waking it up!), for usually a maximum of 30 seconds. Except if it's a Ramos Gin Fizz, in which case: godspeed your arms.
And remember, when it comes to citrus juice, fresh is best! Citrus juice oxidizes quickly and loses its vibrancy, which leads to blasé cocktails. We offer high-quality small-batch sour mixes and shelf-stable acid alternatives, but you'll never see us carrying bottled lemon or lime juice because, well, we don't recommend it! Instead, invest in a juicer and ask your party guests to always show up with a lemon or lime in tow!
STIR all cocktails that are purely spirit- or liqueur-based. (This includes Martinis. Sorry James Bond. Okay but seriously if you love a shaken martini: you do you. These are guidinng principles, but the bottom line is: drink it how you like it!)
Examples: Old-Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans
You'll mix your ingredients with ice in a mixing glass or pitcher, using a push-pull wrist motion with the bar spoon to minimize splashing. Stirring helps you to chill the drink while controlling dilution, ensuring that the resulting cocktail is still spirit-forward and clear. You can use a hawthorne strainer or a julep strainer (the latter is sleeker and specific to stirred beverages, which don't require the tight coils since they don't have ice shards and fruit pulp).
Different cocktails require different glasses and should fill at least ⅔ of the glass so that you have a good wash line. Depending on the cocktail's components, it will be served with either no ice (also known as a cocktail served "up"), or fresh ice in a specific format (example: crushed ice, cubed ice, or one large piece of ice).
Our selection need not be overwhelming: if you're building your bar, we recommend you stock the following:
Garnishes are the quintessential finishing touch to a cocktail, for aesthetic, scent, and flavour purposes. The common thought among the pros is that if the garnish isn't good quality, don't bother. Done right, the garnish will elevate the drink. So if the choice is between sad wilted mint or none at all, choose the latter. We carry a wide array of cocktail cherries, other sweet garnishes, savoury fixings, and cocktail rimmers. And don't forget, those special tools for handling, creating, storing and presenting them.
While we tend to preach about functionality first, we do love a good-looking bar set-up. Browse our housewares and decor collection for some ideas.
Keen to learn about basic tools + techniques? Or try your hand at mixing foundational cocktail recipes? Let these books be your guide!
An essential cocktail ingredient, just a couple dashes of bitters will lift your beverage to the next level!
You know how to make a perfect drink, so treat that liquid to a suitable vessel. No one wants to drink out of a plastic dollar store tumbler from 1998!