Mixing drinks should always be a relaxed, sociable affair. It is a chance to show off your knowledge and exquisite taste (much of which can be cribbed from this very site). But amongst all of this, it is important to exude an air of quiet confidence, and to do this you need to know what you’re doing.
You don’t need a wide-range of glasses of all different shapes and sizes. If you want to aim for tradition and accuracy you will need eight different types of glass, but the vast majority of drinks are best served in one of the first three:
- Martini glass – the classic v-shaped cocktail glass used for drinks that are served ‘straight up’ i.e. without ice.
- Rocks glass – a short, sturdy tumbler used for drinks that are served ‘on the rocks’ or over ice.
- Collins glass – a tall, straight glass used for long drinks that are served with ice and ‘lengthened’ with soda or juice.
- Liqueur glass – a small, stemmed glass used for sniffing and then sipping a straight liqueur.
- Sour glass – a smaller version of the martini glass used for serving sours.
- Absinthe glass – an elegant goblet with or without a bulb used in the traditional preparation of Absinthe.
- Coupette glass – a bulbous version of the martini glass most famously used for Margaritas.
- Champagne flute – the traditional long, thin, stemmed glass used for champagne cocktails.
Buy the best you can afford. There is no substitute for quality, and please do not think that it doesn’t matter if you use value gin as you’re going to be mixing it with three other ingredients. The finished drink will hang on the quality of the worst ingredient, and no amount of Lillet Blanc will save a Martini made with value range gin.
Stick as closely to the recipe as possible. Traditional recipes call for certain ingredients because they a proven to work. Having said that, don’t be afraid to experiment. Juice should be freshly squeezed where possible, and be aware that lower-strength ingredients will not keep as long as spirits.
Use a measure. Your favourite barman might impress his guests by free-pouring all the ingredients, but he has a lot more experience than you do, he knows how it should look in the mixing glass, and he knows how the drink should taste. Using a measure will also help you keep track of your consumption as a 25ml shot of a standard spirit is roughly one unit of alcohol. Where I refer to ‘measures’ on this site I mean approx 30ml or 1 fluid ounce (with a large measure meaning double), but you can use what ever you like as long as you keep the proportions the same. Once you have mastered the recipe, feel free to experiment.
Ice is vitally important. It is easy to underestimate just how important ice is, but you must use fresh, clean ice for every drink. Add ice to the mixing glass last to prevent it melting as you add the ingredients, and always fill the mixing glass or shaker to about 2/3 full. This ensures the ice will not melt too quickly as you shake/stir, which means that you will not dilute the drink. If you can use an ice machine that’s great, otherwise buy pre-bagged ice and use it liberally.
Knowing when to shake and when to stir is one of the tricks you can use to impress your guests (although if they’re philistines they may be disappointed that you don’t shake every drink – it’s more fun, right?). Shaking is reserved for drinks that include fruit juice, egg white, or thick, viscous ingredients such as conserves, and never those with carbonated ingredients (unless they’re added after)!
When shaking with a Boston Shaker (the two part glass and tin) pour the ingredients into the glass (for show) and then place the tin on top. Ensure you have a tight seal between the two parts by giving the bottom of the tin a couple of sharp taps and then flip the whole lot over so the tin is on the bottom (a barman does this so that any spill goes over him and away from his customer).
Shake vigorously – to wake the drink up – for a slow count to twenty. If your drink contains egg white follow this with a further ten second ‘dry shake’ (without ice) to ensure proper breakdown of the protein in the egg white and an improved texture/mouthfeel. If you shake for longer, you’ll end up watering down the drink – a properly shaken drink should be no more than 25% melted ice.
To separate the shaker, place it tin down on the counter and hold it steady. Rotate it so the join where the tin meets the glass is towards you and then hit this point on the tin with the heel of your hand. If this doesn’t work, rotate a quarter turn and try again. Keep rotating and hitting until the parts separate, but whatever you do, do not resort to whacking the shaker against the counter – that is not a good look, especially if it causes the glass to shatter.
The stir is the correct procedure for most traditional cocktails, or at least the all-booze Manhattan, Martini types that don’t use anything lumpy like fruit juice or gloopy like egg white. If you’re stirring a drink I would recommend pouring into the glass from your Boston shaker or a dedicated mixing glass as it gives your audience something to watch and marvel at.
If you’re using a traditional bar spoon, remember that the twisted shaft is to help the stir. With that in mind, hold the spoon between your thumb and forefinger and slide it down the inside of the glass to the bottom. When you stir, the bowl of the spoon should rotate around the bottom of the glass, with the stem pushing the ice ahead.
Experiment with the most comfortable way to hold the spoon. The most effective is to use a pull-push technique where the thumb and forefinger pull the spoon most of the way round the glass and the second finger pushes it the final stretch to complete a full rotation. This will take a bit of practice, but helps ensure the drink glides slowly round the glass in a composed and elegant manner. This is why you are stirring after all. If you wanted to agitate the drink you would have opted to shake.
If you stir too fast you will likely lose booze and ice out of the glass, and add air bubbles to the mix. This is the antithesis of the silky texture a stirred drink should have.
If you’re using large dense ice cubes (like a professional bar would have) then stir fifty times. If your cubes aren’t that good (small, wet, melting) then stir thirty times to avoid too much dilution.
Once you’ve shaken or stirred your drink to perfection you will need to artfully and yet nonchalantly transport it from the mixing glass to the serving glass. To do this you will need to find a way to propel the drink into a clean cold glass but retain the ice as even drinks served ‘on the rocks’ should be served with fresh ice. The hawthorne strainer is the ideal tool for this eventuality and will work with a mixing tin or glass (despite what an American bartender will mutter about julep strainers).
To use the strainer, place it springs down over the mixing glass and hold it in place with your first and second finger either side of the short handle. Pour the drink in a slow and controlled manner, and consider a slight swirling motion for drinks served ‘up’ in a martini glass. Finish with an exaggerated snap of the wrist as you pull the glass up and away from the serving glass and make confident eye contact with the drinker.
If your drink contains a lot of fruit you should consider double straining. This involves using the hawthorne strainer as above, and pouring through a second fine strainer into the serving glass. A tea strainer works great as the fine strainer and will pick up any pips, seeds or small pieces of ice.
The muddler is a great tool which serves a number of uses from crushing ice, to rapping the knuckles of those punters who are reticent when it comes to settling their tab.
You should purchase a muddler of at least six inches, and choose one that is not stained or varnished as the paint will often chip off and end up in your mojitos.
When muddling consider what you are trying to achieve. With citrus, the aim is to extract juice from the flesh and oil from the skin, so don’t hold back. With mint and leaves you are looking to bruise and provoke the stems into releasing some of their flavour, so go gently.
A proper garnish should be much more than a bedraggled afterthought used to distract your drinker from the haphazard manner in which you have made his drink. The right garnish makes all the difference to the style, appearance, smell and taste of the drink, so plays a vital role in almost every part of the whole sensory experience (maybe not touch, unless you use a great long stem of mint and aim for the eye).
Twists are the optimal cocktail garnish as they provide an opportunity to show off and draw attention to the drink (or yourself), a great hit of intense flavour, a delicate swirl or pattern on the drink and a chance to chat at great length about all of these elements. The idea behind a twist is to extract the oil from the skin of the fruit and leave it to linger on top of the drink to greet the nose of the drinker with a clean, crisp citrus smell that announces that the drink is fresh and delicious. The citrus twist method is explained in an earlier post.
Olives for your Martinis should be small, cold and pitted. Keep them in the fridge and add three to a Martini either on a stick or loose in the glass.
Cherries are commonly found in Manhattans and should really be home made as shop bought maraschino or glacé varieties do nothing for your drink. Your homemade cherries should be stewed in a liqueur of your choice with some vanilla, spice and citrus peel.
Lemon and lime wedges aren’t used a great deal in cocktails, but should always be cut from tip to tip and into no more than six pieces. After cutting, use the knife to flick off any pips.
Mint sprigs should be cut from the top two inches of the plant as these provide the youngest most attractive leaves. The leaves on the three to four inches below are the ones that should be muddled in your drink. Don’t skimp on a mint garnish, it should be bushy, and will benefit from a light slap on the back of your hand to flatten the leaves and entice out the fragrance for which it is being used.