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How to craft your own cocktails

I’m not a bartender.  I wouldn’t even call myself a “mixologist.” But I do enjoy a good cocktail, and lately I’ve become kinda obsessed with concocting my own (or more like adapting heavily from other recipes).  But making a good cocktail, I’ve discovered, is a bit more involved than dumping a bunch of liquids in a glass and coming up with a catchy name (The Kool Aid Kick! Um. No.)  There is a time honored art to making drinks.  Some would call it a science.  And making a great cooler doesn’t necessarily mean compiling an assortment of exotic and expensive ingredients that litter your cabinets forever .  In fact, if a cocktail calls for more than four ingredients — maybe five, if I’m in a really, really good mood — I’m not making it.  The time it takes to make it should not be longer than the time it takes to sip it.  Following are a few tips to make any drink sing.


  • Stick to the quarter cup rule 1 of 8
    Stick to the quarter cup rule
    Nobody likes a weak drink and the traditional "jigger" 1.5 ounces -- of booze per cocktail just isn't enough to wet the whistle of the average tippler. For a more memorable, stiff and tasty cocktail, a quarter cup of sprits per drink is recommended.
  • Think of vodka as a blank canvas 2 of 8
    Think of vodka as a blank canvas
    Vodka has a relatively neutral flavor compared to more pronounced spirits like gin and tequila, making it the perfect booze to start experimenting with. Once you get comfortable playing bartender, graduate to more hair curling spirits like whiskey. And while quality spirits definitely count (nobody outside of an OTB likes rot gut cocktails), don't confuse that with the most expensive. In a memorable 2005 The New York Times article, good ole reliable but non glam Smirnoff consistently beat out fancier vodka brands in a blind taste test.
  • Memorize this ratio 3 of 8
    Memorize this ratio
    A cocktail contains a minimum of two ingredients: a base (the spirit) and a modifying agent, or something to cut the booze and smooth out the taste. The modifier can be anything from tonic, soda, juice, citrus or aromatized or fortified wine (vermouth, sherry, port). A third ingredient is often added for sweetness and color, usually a liqueur or syrup. The basic ratio to keep in mind when making drinks is 4 to 6 parts spirit (depending on how stiff you want it!) to 2 parts modifier to 1 part liqueur or syrup. With this basic combination you can literally come up with hundreds of drinks, like this tasty Lexington Lemonade recipe.
  • Think signature drink 4 of 8
    Think signature drink
    Try to come up with a recipe that says something about you or your lifestyle. For instance, I live in rural Virginia where moonshine flows like cool mountain spring water. One of these days I'm gonna concoct the perfect hooch sip it's still a work in progress, I'm afraid -- that I hope will resonate with my friends; when they sip my drink, they'll think of me….probably rotting in jail for knowing too much about moonshine.
  • Give ice its due 5 of 8
    Give ice its due
    Believe it or not, ice can make a difference in the quality of your finished cocktail. In the interest of keeping things simple, think cubed versus crushed (since does anyone besides a professional bartender want to shave ice?). Cubed ice is fine for any drink but it's the preferred size for the shaker because it chills the cocktail quickly without too much dilution. Crushed ice makes for speedier cooling great for fruity summertime drinks like daiquiris -- or for when you want to take the edge off the base spirit like in a mint julep (crushed ice melts faster than cubed ice). And forget fancy ice crushing contraptions. Nothing beats an old fashioned wooden mallet and a Lewis bag.
  • Know when to shake and when to stir 6 of 8
    Know when to shake and when to stir
    Turns out James Bond was on to something. Shaking causes the liquids to splash up and around the ice cubes and against the metallic side of the shaker, chilling the drink very quickly without too much dilution. More importantly, the liquid, water from the ice and a bit of air emulsify into one uniform liquid that doesn't separate. This produces a subtly frothy, bubbly almost creamy texture. In general, any cocktail containing citrus should be shaken. Any drink containing pure spirits (or even almost pure spirits) should be stirred since these sips are meant to be heavy and silky and undiluted. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but a lot of old school bartenders put martins -- vodka or gin with just a tiny splash of vermouth or pickle juice (like the Beanie Martini in the photo) in the stirring category since it's traditionally thought of as a heavy, silky, rich, ice cold drink, not a frothy one. A cosmopolitan, on the other hand, which is a fruity derivative of the classic martini, should be shaken.
  • Always have simple syrup on hand 7 of 8
    Always have simple syrup on hand
    Many, many cocktails call for simple syrup so it pays to always have some on hand and it couldn't be easier to make: Combine 1 part granulated sugar to 1 part water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. Transfer the syrup to a container and stash in the refrigerator forever. All variety of herbs -- mint, rosemary, basil -- berries, ginger, the sky is the limit, can be added during simmering for added flavor. Or try a honey syrup instead, combining 2 parts honey to 1 part boiling water. Be creative!
  • Invest in the proper vessels 8 of 8
    Invest in the proper vessels
    I used to dislike mint juleps until I invested in some fancy monogrammed pewter julep cups. And suddenly the julep became my favorite springtime sip. Am I trying to justify the $130 I dropped on pewter cups? Maybe. But does it matter? Check out my mint julep recipe here.

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