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Cocktail Basics

Want to learn how to make cocktails but don't know where to start? Our beginner bartender tips for choosing the right barware and essential cocktail ingredients are just the tools you need to start mixing and serving party drinks. Whether you're shopping for a cute collection of cocktail glasses or delicious drink garnishes, here are the basics of becoming a cocktail whiz!

Basic Cocktail Ingredients

Liquor, mixers, and garnishes are essential ingredients when mixing cocktail drinks. From left to right: Limes (a popular cocktail garnish), vodka, and lime juice. Get cocktail party ideas.

You can't make a delicious cocktail or mocktail recipe without the right ingredients. Here's a breakdown of the basic ingredients you'll need for mixing drinks.

 Once you decide on the cocktail drink recipes you want to make, stock up on the spirits you'll need. Some basic liquors include gin, rum, bourbon, brandy, whiskey, Cointreau, dry and sweet vermouth, tequila, Kahlua, scotch, and vodka. To expand your drink selection, consider buying a nice cognac and a couple of cordials such as Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Pernod, and triple sec.

Mixers: You'll also need cocktail drink mixers. Pick up tonic water, lime juice, orange juice, sparkling water, lemon juice, ginger ale, club soda, and cranberry juice. You might also need bitters, the ingredient that sets off the flavor of many cocktails.

Garnishes: Add pretty garnishes to your drink with limes, lemons, and oranges. Other basic garnishes include maraschino cherries, pearl onions, and stuffed green olives. Stock up on good spices and sweeteners to use in mixed drinks, such as salt, sugar cubes, superfine sugar, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and cream of coconut.

Ice: One secret to making a great cocktail is using quality ice. Don't use regular freezer ice cubes, which can pick up flavors from frozen food. Instead, buy a bag of ice from the store to use in your drinks.

Essential Bar Tools

Stainless-steel bar tools from left to right: citrus press, jigger, cocktail shaker, strainer.

To mix cocktails like a pro, the proper bar tools are essential. Start collecting these bartending gadgets to perfect your favorite cocktail drink recipes.

  • Jigger: Usually made of a metal, this small hourglass-shape double cup is used to measure drink ingredients. One side is a 1-1/2-ounce jigger; the other is a 1-ounce pony. You could also use a shot glass marked with measurements.
  • Cocktail shaker: As the name suggests, cocktail shakers are used to shake, or mix, the cocktail ingredients. There are two types of shakers: the Boston shaker, which requires a separate cocktail strainer, and the standard shaker, which comes with a built-in strainer.
  • Muddler: A cocktail muddler mashes ingredients, like the mint leaves in a mint julep, to release their flavors. It's also used to break up sugar cubes.
  • Swizzle sticks: These cocktail tools, available in glass or disposable plastic, add a funky, nonedible garnish to drinks.
  • Long-handle metal bar spoon: This tool is for stirring cocktails. You could also use it as a muddler in a pinch.
  • Blender: For frozen drinks, like daiquiris and margaritas, you'll need a quality blender for crushing ice.

Cocktail Glasses to Buy

Cocktail glassware from left to right: schapps, old-fashioned, liqueur, highball.

Before you start mixing cocktails, find stylish glasses to serve them in! We love scouring vintage and thrift stores for unique, beautiful barware.

Here's our guide to cocktail glasses you may want to start collecting, plus drinks you can serve in them.

  • Vodka/schnapps glass (1-4 ounces): chilled vodka, schnapps
  • Old-fashioned glass (8-10 ounces): old-fashioned, bloody mary
  • Cordial/liqueur glass (1-4 ounces): Kahlua, Amaretto
  • Highball glass (8-10 ounces): highball, rum punch, other tall drinks
  • Sour glass (6 ounces): whiskey sour 
  • Margarita glass (6-8 ounces): margaritadaiquiri
  • Cocktail/martini glass (4-6 ounces): martinigrasshopperManhattan
  • Shot glass (1-1/2 to 2 ounces): tequila slammer, kamikaze, lemon drop, other shots
  • Collins glass (10-12 ounces): Tom Collins, fuzzy navel, screwdriver cocktail
  • Champagne flute (6-8 ounces): champagne, mimosas, other champagne cocktails

More Cocktail Tips, Drink Recipes, and More!

Get our favorite drink recipes and learn how to make cocktails like this delicious whiskey sour. View the Recipe

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Start Planning Your Holiday Menu!

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