Photo by Ash Edmonds on Unsplash

A Beginner’s Guide to Cocktails at Home

I’ll never forget my first cocktail. I was the house of a friend, Keely, a budding mixologist. She handed me a short glass filled with a mysterious brown liquid, gently fizzing through the ice.

“Try it,” she said.

I did. It was magical, a sweet blend of something familiar with something new.

“It’s Kahlua and Coke!” she exclaimed, not giving me a chance to guess. I wouldn’t have guessed Kahlua, though — I had no idea what it was.

From then on, though, it became my go-to drink for years, mostly because it was one of the few things I knew how to order. I learned some other common orders, such as the deceptively simple screwdriver and pretty much any combination of liquor and Coke.

As Keely got better at making drinks, she accumulated a large collection of liquors, cordials, and mixers. She hosted a lot of parties and was very generous with what I later learned were expensive ingredients. One concoction she introduced me to, a Grasshopper, became one of my instant favorites. I started wanting to have these drinks at bars, but I learned the hard way that many bartenders have no idea how to make dessert cocktails and that ordering a Bloody Mary at a bar will earn you a scornful laugh.

ver the years, I began experimenting with cocktail recipes. I occasionally had to instruct bartenders on my favorites. I expanded the Kahlua and Coke recipe to include Bailey’s, which absolutely horrified one bartender when I was ordering one for my mother. “It’s going to curdle,” he warned me, quickly following up with “No refunds.”

It didn’t curdle; the Bailey’s made lovely swirls through the Coke. My mother loved it.

Every year for Halloween, I’d spend most of my measly paycheck at the liquor store and open up my home bar. Every year, I made almost enough tips to pay myself back. I researched a lot of Halloween cocktail recipes, yet ended up inventing my own to match my current inventory or because I couldn’t afford some of the ingredients.

Although I had to pack up my home bar when I moved into my tiny apartment in Orlando, I kept a lot of the basic supplies close at hand. Now that Halloween’s approaching, I wanted to share with you the tips and tricks I learned over the years for making awesome cocktails.

Mixology 101

Mixing drinks is much more than just dumping them together, although in a pinch, many drinks can be made that way. “Shaken, not stirred” is a good rule of thumb, except for hot drinks. (Learned that the hard way.)

Composition

As a rule of thumb, you don’t want more than 30 percent of the ingredients to be alcoholic unless you want to get yourself and your guests absolutely smashed. Also, overboozing your drinks can easily backfire because the spirits’ individual notes eventually start to drown each other. There are some exceptions, as I’ll show in my recipes, but usually, you want to let the base liquor’s taste shine through.

My guideline is to use 1 part spirits for every 3 parts of mixer. If you’re using multiple alcoholic substances, you can mix in a 1–2–9 composition (or stack the ratios as appropriate), but make sure that you have the strongest liquor in the smallest amount and avoid making a drink that’s more than 50% alcohol.

Jiggers are essential tools for easy measuring.

Mixing Methods

Here are the three main ways to mix:

Pouring: When you order something basic, like a whiskey and Coke, at a bar, this is usually what you’ll get. Notice that usually the bartender pours in the alcohol first, then adds ice, then pours in the soda. The pouring action mixes the two liquids.

Stirring: For drinks with multiple ingredients, simple stirring is a time-honored method. Some people argue that stirred drinks retain more of the alcohol, because ice is not used (more on that in a moment). The main requirement for stirring is if you’re mixing very lightweight ingredients. Martinis actually should be stirred, not shaken. Sorry, James Bond.

Shaking: You’ve probably seen bartenders pour ingredients into a shiny metal thing and pretend it’s a maraca. That’s the shaking method, and it’s great for most cocktails where you need to blend thicker ingredients. You must shake with ice, because the ice will chill the ingredients and prevent them from frothing too much. Then — and here’s the kicker — you strain the mixture into a new glass with fresh ice. Don’t use the ice that’s been battered inside the shaker. That’s just trashy.

Enhancement Techniques

If you’re interested in dressing up your drinks, you should know the following techniques as well.

Muddling is the practice of smushing or twisting some sort of extra ingredient (e.g. berries, mint) into the bottom of a glass (for God’s sake, don’t pound it into bits). As the drink consumes the cocktail, the taste of the muddled substance is gradually released. It’s really important to add ice on top of your muddled ingredient so it doesn’t make an unsightly drift to the top.

Garnishing is the practice of resting some sort of goodie — an orange slice, olives, an edible orchid — at the top of the drink. I recommend investing in metal skewers to help secure the garnish. Remember, it should just barely touch the surface of the liquid.

Layering is the practice of — well, what it sounds like. You can use a spoon to slide thicker liqueurs one by one into a glass. This technique is also great for adding grenadine to a cocktail.

Flaming is the practice of setting a SMALL amount of alcohol on fire right before the drink is served. I REALLY don’t recommend trying this without supervision by an experienced mixologist.

Presentation

I know we’ve all had our share of cocktails dumped into red Solo cups, but please, invest in some decent glassware and skewers to add garnishes. Here are the type of glasses you’ll need:

Martini glasses: These wide-brimmed glasses help keep the cocktail from warming up too soon.

Lowball glasses: These stocky glasses are meant to withstand muddling

Highball glasses: These tall, slim glasses are typically used with cocktails that have soda as an ingredient. The shape helps drive bubbles to the top.

Hurricane glasses: These tall, curvy glasses are intended to hold a LOT of alcohol and allow for elaborate garnishes.

There are many other types, as well as specific glasses for wine, beer, and non-mixed liqueurs, but we’ll focus on these for now.

Now that you know the basics, it’s time for the fun part — seeing these principles in action! Without further ado, here are three of my original recipes.

The Muddy Bloody

If you like Bloody Marys, you probably know that there are a billion variations and they’re much more than just tomato juice and vodka. I have created a Cajun-style Bloody Mary and a tequila-driven Tex-Mex style Bloody Mary. However, I’m debuting a new recipe here for you. Warning: this drink is spicy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp strained processed horseradish (I strain this using a tea strainer, which produces about 1/2 oz of horseradish juice)
  • 1/2 oz Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 oz juice from a jar of kalamata olives
  • 8 oz tomato juice (keep 6 ounces in reserve)
  • 1/4 tsp sriracha sauce
  • 1/4 tsp ghost pepper chili sauce
  • Dash of black pepper
  • Dash of paprika
  • 1 oz vodka (I like Tito’s, but you can use your favorite)

Directions:

Add all ingredients except the 6 ounces of tomato juice in reserve to a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain over ice into a lowball glass. Garnish with kalamata olives.

The Smoked Pineapple

I discovered mezcal a few years and immediately fell in love. While I associate tequila with bad decisions, I associate mezcal with classy and eclectic drinks. Its smoky taste needs a bite to counteract it, so naturally, pineapple is a great choice.

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz mezcal
  • 1 oz triple sec
  • 3 oz pineapple juice
  • Juice from half a lime
  • 1/2 oz Chambord
  • 2 oz seltzer

Directions:

Add the first four ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a highball glass, then pour the Chambord down the side of the glass so that it goes to the bottom. Top with seltzer and garnish with an orange or lime slice, or, if you’re feeling wild, a jalapeño slice. To add kick to this drink, add about a teaspoon of jalapeño-infused simple syrup. You can make it easily by boiling equal parts of white sugar and water with a sliced jalapeño.

The Rasp-Bananarama

If you love sweet drinks, I’ve got a great one for you. I am a huge fan of bananas, but a lot of the banana-flavored liquors taste gross to me. There’s really no substitute for the real thing.

Ingredients (adjust proportions as necessary to make more):

  • 1 oz vodka
  • 1 oz triple sec
  • 2 oz banana puree (in a pinch, BananaWave milk will do)
  • A handful of raspberries

Muddle the raspberries in a lowball glass and top with ice. Mix the other ingredients in a shaker and strain into the glass. Garnish with a raspberry or two. Done!

he Smashed Pumpkin

All right, remember how I said to never go more than 50% booze on a given drink? This is you chance to break it — just in time for Halloween. I cannot take credit for this idea, but I will tell you how to make it a little less devastating.

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 oz Bailey’s Irish Cream
  • 1/3 oz Goldschlager (or Fireball, for a slightly different taste)
  • 1/3 oz Kahlua

Directions:

Mix the ingredients together by stirring vigorously. This is an exception to the shake rule because all the ingredients are thick. Pour the mixture into shot glasses and listen to people marvel at how this tastes like boozy pumpkin pie.

If you want to get fancy/have fewer friends who need to Uber home, cut the mixture with half-and-half and top with cinnamon for more of a sipping drink.

ow, you’re ready to impress friends at your next party and maybe venture into the cordials aisle when you pick up supplies for tonight’s social event. When in doubt, go for less booze, shake thicker and thinner ingredients together, and always find a garnish, whether it’s spices sprinkled on top or a whole damn celery stick or orange.

Just remember, drink responsibility!

Got any original recipes to share? Let me know in the responses!

Get articles like this in your inbox.

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store