My home bar has a large setup of spirits, shakers, strainers, glasses, garnishes and so on. I love when people visit and I share my enthusiasm for cocktails with them. Guests often tell me “This is really great, and I wish I could make something amazing at home, but I just don’t know where to start.” This column is for these folks. We’ll walk through some practical and easy steps to making one really excellent drink, as well as build a basis for working up incrementally to additional types of cocktails.
It’s a time-honored tradition for spirits writers to give their version of “Just the basics you need to make cocktails at home”. Usually their lists include a cornucopia of doohickeys and scares off readers who want to start out incrementally and without a large investment.
For the cocktail example, I’m choosing the Margarita, a classic nearly everybody enjoys, is rarely made properly and requires a minimum of ingredients, all of which will prove useful in subsequent cocktails. I remember the first time I made a proper margarita for my mother – She deemed it a “Hotel Margarita” because she associated it with a version she’d one had had at a very swank hotel.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A decent tequila
- An orange liquor, such as Grand Marnier
- Fresh Limes
- A cobbler shaker
- A hand citrus squeezer
- A small measuring cup or equivalent
Let’s go through the list:
Tequila: Try to use something decent without breaking the bank. Jose Cuervo Gold is a reasonable minimum, Sauza or El Jimador are better. No need for something super fancy like Patron at this stage. Sure, expensive tequilas are amazing, but you’ll be adding in lime juice and another spirit, so the subtleties of fine sipping tequila like Patron will be run roughshod over.
Orange liquor: Ideally, something like Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Citronage. Less ideal: Triple sec. If you use triple sec, try not to use the $5 bottom shelve stuff like Hiram Walkers. Really, an investment in a bottle of Grand Marnier and Cointreau is a good investment as you’ll be able to use it in many other recipes. Whatever you use, think of it as the “sweet” in the drink, balancing out the lime.
Fresh Limes: I typically use the basic Peruvian limes, typically about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in size. When squeezed, I typically get an ounce to an ounce and a half out of each lime. I buy mine in big bags at Costco for around $5. Please don’t use bottled lime juice – It just doesn’t taste right, and whatever you do, avoid the Rose’s Sweetened Lime juice. Just…. No.
Ice: Believe it or not, “Ice” bears explanation. I have a fancy ice machine that make clear ice cubes. It’s fantastic. You don’t need that however. What you do need is new, clean ice. Either buy “party ice” in bags at the store, or use the ice from your freezer. If you do use homemade ice, for all that good and holy, make sure it’s fresh – Ideally made within the last day or so. Ice quickly absorbs freezer odors. Don’t infest your carefully created margarita with random freezer smells.
Cobbler shaker: There are two primary types of shakers you’ll see bartenders use. The “Boston” shaker is two pieces – one metal cup and one glass cup. The “Cobbler” shaker is thee pieces, all metal, like this:
There’s frequent debate about which type of shaker is better. For the home, I prefer the cobbler shaker as it’s less intimidating, less accident prone, and generally easier to use. Don’t just take my word for it, Jamie Boudreau, a cocktail legend also prefers them. You can get decent cobbler shakers starting at about $20 from Amazon. A good shaker that doesn’t leak is a worthy investment so don’t totally cheap out here. Oxo is a good brand to start with.
Citrus squeezer: A reasonable, metal hand squeezer runs about $7 at Amazon, although you can spend a bit more for a better quality one. I have different sized squeezers, one smaller for limes and a larger one for lemons:
You can also find variations that claim to do both. In a pinch you could use a reaming device, but I find you end up with too much pulp. Get a good hand squeezer. You’ll use it far more than you think.
Small measuring cup: At a minimum, find a shot glass with lines demarcating 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1 oz. Alternatively, you can get a set of jiggers and spend tons of time remembering which size each one is. I much prefer the small angled measuring cups from Oxo which measure up to 2 oz, and which cost in the $5 – $7 range on Amazon. Here’s a small sample of my measuring tools, with the Oxo on the left:
Mixing the Drink
First, cut a lime in half then use the squeezer to start filling your small measuring cup to the 1 oz mark. A single lime may be enough, if not, start a second lime. Pour the lime juice into the cobbler shaker base.
Using the measuring cup, measure out 2 oz of tequila and pour into the shaker. Depending on how much you like tequila, and how strong you like your drink, you can go up to 3 oz of tequila.
Add 1 oz of orange liquor to the shaker.
Add enough ice to the shaker so that it rises just a little over the level of the liquid.
Put the top on the shaker and shake reasonably vigorously for about 30 seconds, Squeeze the sides and hold the top cap of the shaker with your thumb or index finger so that it doesn’t fly off.
Take the small cap off the shaker and pour through the built-in strainer into the desired glass. A personal choice is whether your margarita will be served up (without ice), or on the rocks (with ice.) If you chose to serve it up, use something like a martini glass, chilled in advance (hopefully.) If on the rocks, pour through the strainer into a glass, and then add enough fresh ice to come up to the top level of the liquid. Don’t use the ice from the shaker. It will dilute the drink faster than fresh, cold ice.
If you feel fancy and want to garnish the drink, and you really should, an easy garnish is to cut a small wedge of lime (maybe 1/16 of a lime) then make a small notch in the flesh so that it can hang perpendicularly off the side of the glass. Alternatively, cut some very thin circular lime slices (1 or 2 is fine) and float them on the surface of the drink.
Enjoy your Hotel Margarita. Taste carefully. Is it too sweet? Dial back the amount of orange liquor next time. Too tart? Reduce the amount of lime. Can’t taste the tequila? Add more! Figure out what ratios work for you.
- 1 oz lime juice
- 1 oz orange liquor (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc…)
- 2 oz tequila
You just made your first sour pattern cocktail and have a minimum set of tools. It’s really easy to expand your repertoire. Here’s some ideas that build on the margarita you just crafted.
Instead of tequila, use the same amount of light rum like Bacardi Silver (but hopefully better). You now have a basic Daiquiri. You can also use simple syrup instead of the orange liquor.
Replace the rum with gin, and the lime juice with lemon juice. You now have a White Lady.
To the basic Margarita recipe, feel free to add additional accent spirits. A variation my friends enjoy uses St Germain, which is a very sweet, floral liquor. Since it’s so sweet, I’ll dial back the orange liquor, as it’s also sweet. A good starting point would be 1/2 oz of orange liquor and 1/2 of St. Germaine.
Swap vodka for the tequila, lemon for the lime, and simple syrup for the orange liquor and you have a lemon drop, best served up.
The important lesson is to start simple and small, building confidence that you can make one cocktail as good as nearly any fancy bar. When you’re ready for something new, incrementally add new spirits, mixers, and tools as necessary. Soon you’ll have your friends clamoring for you to make one of your amazing cocktails.