We all have a friend who, despite good intentions, manages to consistently mess up their homemade cocktails. ‘Hi’, we’re that friend. If, like us, you need a little advice when it comes to making at-home cocktails, you’re in luck. We asked mixologist Hugo Borralho and premium Australian spirit specialists, Grainshaker Australian Vodka and NED Australian Whisky, to share their tips for creating the perfect cocktail.
1. Start with quality ingredients
Your recipe for success? Using fresh, high quality ingredients that are locally-sourced (wherever possible). Think good quality spirits, fresh mixers and aromatics. You can’t go wrong with seasonal fruits and herbs that double as an aromatic garnish. Visit your local grocer, it’ll make all the difference.
2. Make your own ice
Ice is just frozen water, right? Wrong! Ice affects the whole outcome of your drinks. And whether it’s only being used for mixing or served in your finished cocktails, the quality of this frozen ingredient can very quickly turn your martini into a marti-no. Shaken, stirred, or built – always add your ice last. Because, spoiler, as soon as it’s added it will start to melt and affect the outcome of your cocktail.
Our pro tip? Make your own ice. But before you go whooshing the kitchen tap over your crusty ice-tray, consider the quality of water you’re using. Go for the good stuff, boiled or filtered where possible, then freeze it in a clean, closed vessel to avoid capturing any unwanted aromas from other food in the freezer. Commercial ice, found in your local supermarket or bar, is normally made with filtered water; which is primo for cocktail making. Not sure if your ice is good enough for your high-quality homemade cocktails? Try melting an ice cube in a tumbler glass and take a sip – it should taste like water, not like your mum’s frozen lasagne.
3. Get the temperature right
Subtle differences in an ingredient’s temperature can distort the flavour, appearance and aroma of your drinks. Keep your ingredients refrigerated at roughly the same temperature, and enjoy better looking and tasting drinks, while extending the life of your ingredients and reducing waste. Need extra room? Keep your bottles on ice with decorative champagne bowls, ice buckets and coolers.
4. Always use fresh citrus
Put the squeezy bottle down. When a recipe calls for fresh lemon, lime or even orange juice, call into your local grocer. Fresh lime juice, with its tart and acidic taste, adds an excitement to any drink that’s hard to replace. This is because, with time, citrus juice oxidises and loses its flavour. For some classic cocktails in the sour family, fresh citrus juice is the only option for achieving the right balance and flavour. Do yourself a favour and always opt for fresh over the fake stuff.
5. Pour some sugar on me
Def Leppard references aside, when it comes to cocktails it’s all about balance. Adding sugar syrup to your cocktails is the most common way to sweeten and stabilise your drinks, especially when they’re on the spicy side. (We’re looking at you, chilli margaritas.) When recipes call for simple or just plain syrup, they’re referring to a traditional sugar syrup, made with one part water and one part sugar (1:1). Other ingredients like honey, agave, molasses or maple syrup also make great sweeteners when you’re looking to add a little drama. To prepare your own sugar syrup, carefully add 1 cup of boiling water to 1 cup of sugar, stirring until it’s completely dissolved. Always let your syrup cool before placing it in a bottle with a lid and refrigerating. Cool? Sweet.
6. Invest in a basic cocktail set
Even if it’s just for that one margarita night with mates, having a basic set of cocktail accessories can take your cocktail making skills up a notch. With a jigger, cocktail shaker and bar spoon you’re equipped with all the essentials you need to make the best cocktails at home.
7. Measure your alcohol
Keep your cocktail parties classy. Serve delicious drinks by following the recipe and accurately measuring spirits, liqueurs, and other ingredients with a cocktail jigger. Then, when you’ve mastered the basics, feel free to experiment recording your unique recipe before mixing. Remember, most short drinks ask for 30mL of alcoholic ingredients, and 60mL for taller drinks, but always check the recipe. Nothing can rescue a cocktail from unbalanced or overpowering amounts of alcohol. Not even a tiny umbrella.
8. Put effort in your presentation
Right colour, right garnish, right glassware; is there anything better than a good-looking cocktail? Beautifully presented drinks have the power to enhance the whole drinking experience and transport your guests from your front room to a fancy cocktail establishment; the kind with Chesterfield armchairs. Start simple, using your cocktail ingredients as a garnish. For example, if you’re using fresh lime juice, decorate your drinks with sliced lime wheels. If you’re squeezing fresh orange juice, dress your drinks with the peel. And if you decide to go down the aromatic route (genius), mint or rosemary bring great visual flair while weaving fresh scents and flavours through your cocktails.
But, a garnish isn’t the only way to impress; proper glassware can really step up your hosting game. Keep a few designated cocktail glasses in the freezer when you’re preparing for your next gathering. So, when the time comes, you’ll be ready to serve super-chilled sips in frosty glasses that keep cocktails colder for longer. Cheers to that!
Your choice of glassware is also crucial in making your cocktails look great – or at least gives your guests the impression that you know what you’re doing. While it’s not a rule, the most common approach is: shorter, stronger drinks are usually served in tumblers with ice. Light fruity drinks, that are shaken (aka the best ones), are normally served in a cute coupe or martini glass. Highball glassware is for cocktails served tall, topped with soda or juice. Then, wine and champagne glasses are popular for cocktails with prosecco. Mmm, mimosas. Remember, all good things in moderation. When it comes to cocktail drinking, smaller glasses are the most popular as it’s much easier to keep track of how many drinks you have.
9. Keep your spirits well-stocked
One of the reasons we make cocktails at home is to delight friends and family; regardless of whether these occasions are planned or spontaneous. For this reason, it pays to be prepared and have a bottle of good, local spirits ready in the cabinet. Mixologist Hugo always keeps a Grainshaker Australian Corn Vodka in the freezer for when company calls for Cosmopolitans, Espresso Martinis or Moscow Mules.
10. Keep it simple, silly
Cocktails are meant to be fun, remember? So if you’re just starting out, try recipes with just a few ingredients and master those. Creating delicious cocktails isn’t about how complex or fancy they sound, it’s about starting with good spirits, fresh ingredients and quality ice, then using the tools available (cocktail accessories and glassware) to serve up beautifully balanced drinks.
Our fool-proof recommendation? Use only good quality ingredients and follow a recipe you actually like. That way, even if you fail, at least your experiments will be delicious. Speaking of tasty tipples, which of these recipes will you master first; the martini or vodka gimlet? Happy mixing!