Cocktail Essentials Every Home Mixologist Should Know, According to the Pros
While the best mixologists in the world hone their skills over decades of shaking, stirring, and serving up roomful after roomful, you need not score a special degree to become well-versed in all things spirits, the pros tell us. We tapped six professional mixologists for their tricks of the trade to help even the most novice of mixed drink-makers feel proficient and proud of their basic mixed drink repertoire. What alcohol do you need to make cocktails? How about the best cocktail tools, need-to-know cocktail recipes, and the various types of cocktail glasses used to serve each? We’ve got answers ahead. You’re about to become the best at-home bartender on the block.
Essential Cocktail Ingredients for Every Home Bar
Just as you can’t make an incredible dinner recipe without a pantry staple starter pack, you can't make a delicious cocktail or mocktail recipe without essential cocktail ingredients. Here's a breakdown of the basic cocktail ingredients you'll need for mixing drinks.
What alcohols do you need to make cocktails? If you’re aiming to host guests or like to stock all of the cocktail essentials on your bar cart, head to your local liquor store or an online retailer to stock up on the spirits you'll need. You can often find high-quality mixing spirits for $40 or less, says Alex Barbatsis, head bartender at The Whistler in Chicago, Illinois: “Don't spend too much on spirits you're going to mix with. No need to put a $200 bourbon in a Whiskey Sour when a $15 bourbon works great.”
- The must-haves: Vodka, gin, whiskey (bourbon, scotch, or rye), tequila (or mezcal), rum, brandy
- The nice-to-haves: Dry and sweet vermouth, triple sec, Kahlua, Aperol, St. Germain, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Pernod
Bitters, the complex-tasting alcohol-based ingredient that sets off the flavor of many cocktails, will also come in handy as you stir or shake up many classic cocktails—and they last for up to 5 years at room temp. Because they last so long, consider stocking a variety of bitters ($91 for three, Amazon).
You'll also need some essential cocktail mixers.
- The must-haves: Tonic water, ginger beer, club soda/sparkling water, simple syrup (DIY by boiling then simmering equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan until syrupy), limes and lemons for juicing fresh (“The squeeze bottle may be fine for dashing up a fish dish, but a freshly squeezed lime will drastically improve your margarita recipe,” Barbatsis says.)
- The nice-to-haves: Orange juice, ginger ale, cranberry juice, soda/diet soda
Showy finishing touches can elevate even the most basic cocktail ingredients, and amplify flavors, too.
- The must-haves: Limes, lemons, and oranges for peeling, fresh herbs and spices (rosemary, mint, basil, cinnamon sticks), maraschino cherries, salt, sugar cubes, stuffed green olives
- The nice-to-haves: Pearl onions, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and cream of coconut
Yes, we know this sounds like a super-obvious and basic cocktail ingredient. But it can actually make a big difference, says Ryan Mish, bar manager at The Graceful Ordinary in St. Charles, Illinois. He believes that subpar ice is the step where many home mixologists falter.
“Ice from a standard tray or ice-maker is cloudy due to gases and impurities becoming trapped during the freezing process as opposed to the more sophisticated, directional freezing method employed by professional ice producers. Because of this, when you shake or stir, the ice will break down faster and, if you aren’t careful, it is easy to over dilute your cocktail,” Mish says. “To remedy this, try ice made in large molds [$5.99, Target]. Larger, harder cubes allow for a proper shake-time, which will aerate your sours, giving them a nice frothy head and will really chill your stirred drinks without watering them down.”
The Best Cocktail Tools to Add To Your Kit
To mix cocktails like a pro, the proper bar tools are essential. Start collecting these bartending gadgets to perfect your favorite cocktail drink recipes. Again, you don't have to invest a lot to stock your home bar.
“Don't get caught up in the hype of aesthetics and pricier kits; simply focus on quality essentials,” says Rachel Becker, lead bartender at Little Wild rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel in Chicago, Illinois.
- Jigger: Usually made of metal, this small hourglass-shape double cup is used to measure drink ingredients. One side is a 1½-ounce jigger; the other is a 1-ounce pony ($4, Bed Bath & Beyond). 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 like a Hawthorne strainer, and the standard shaker ($12, Walmart), which comes with a built-in strainer.
- Muddler: A cocktail muddler ($11, Target) mashes ingredients, like the mint leaves in a mint julep, to release their flavors. It's also used to break up sugar cubes.
- Long-handle metal bar spoon: This tool ($15, Bed Bath & Beyond) 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 high-quality blender for crushing ice.
The Types of Cocktail Glasses You Might Need
Before you start mixing cocktails, you’ll need some vessels to share them in. We love scouring vintage and thrift stores for unique, beautiful barware. “No more solo cups for you! Every cocktail looks and tastes better in its intended glassware,” Becker says.
Here's our guide to the types of cocktail glasses you may want to start collecting, plus drinks you can serve in them.
- Vodka/schnapps glass (1 to 4 ounces): chilled vodka, schnapps
- Old-fashioned glass (8 to 10 ounces): old-fashioned, bloody mary
- Cordial/liqueur glass (1 to 4 ounces): Kahlua, Amaretto
- Highball glass (8 to 10 ounces): highball, rum punch, other tall drinks
- Sour glass (6 ounces): whiskey sour
- Margarita glass (6 to 8 ounces): margarita, daiquiri
- Cocktail/martini glass (4 to 6 ounces): martini, grasshopper, Manhattan
- Collins glass (10 to 12 ounces): Tom Collins, fuzzy navel, screwdriver cocktail
- Champagne flute (6 to 8 ounces) or coupe glass (5 to 7 ounces): Champagne, mimosas, other champagne cocktails
Basic Mixed Drink Recipes Everyone Should Master
Think of your early basic mixed drink experiments as the pre-test, rather than the final. It’s OK—in fact it’s recommended—that you study and take pointers and inspiration from others.
“A common mistake made by bartending folks at home is trying to go at it alone instead of following drink recipes,” Barbatsis says. “If you just try to make your own drinks right away without understanding flavor ratios, you are going to regret it the next day. Ask your local bartender for a cocktail book recommendation and follow the recipes there.”
He loves Sasha Petraske's Regarding Cocktails ($30, Barnes & Noble), or seek out additional resources online, suggests Zachary West, bar lead at White Limozeen in the Graduate Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee: “Follow cocktail Instagram pages, like @cocktails_for_you, for at-home tutorials. There is a wealth of cocktail knowledge readily available online and on social media, if you’re willing to look for it.”
Mish says that the “popular classics” are where everyone should start when dipping a toe into basic mixed drinks. “More importantly though, understand the templates these tried-and-true recipes follow because that is where you find balance. I try to think about not just what is in a drink but why those ingredients are there and the purpose they serve,” he says. “With this approach, you become a way more adaptable bartender, capable of creating ‘on the fly’ with confidence in any number of different festive environments.”
Here are the cocktail essentials, according to the mixologists we spoke to:
- Old Fashioned (1 sugar cube, 3 dashes bitters, splash of club soda, 2 ounces brown spirit)
- Martini (4 parts spirit, 1 part fortified wine)
- Daiquiri (3 parts rum, 2 parts lime, 1 part sugar)
- Margarita (3 parts tequila, 2 parts triple sec, 1 part lime juice)
- Spritz (1 part apéritif, 2 parts sparkling wine, splash of club soda)
- Sour (1 part sweet, 1 part sour, 2 parts spirit)
- Fizz (1 part sweet, 1 part sour, 2 parts spirit, splash of club soda)
Bonus Cocktail Tips from the Pros
Since we had an opportunity to “happy hour” with so many spirits specialists, we couldn’t resist asking them for any final cocktail essential tips. As you prepare to shake and stir, remember:
- Take stock. An organized and prepared bar is essential for hosting, Becker says. “Preparation makes all the difference when mixing drinks for groups of friends. Before I host, I check that my bar has everything I need. I have my juices, syrups, spirits, tools, bitters, garnishes, and glassware ready to go.”
- Set the scene. Before he picks up a single cocktail tool, Mish likes to focus on “mise en place,” which translates from French to mean “everything in place.” “Your glassware should be close by and chilling, if applicable. Your juices, syrups, and garnishes are prepped with your jigger handy and spirits fitted uncapped,” he says. “Preparation and consideration will ensure the best possible expression of what you are trying to achieve in your home mixology adventures.”
- Taste test. “Just like a chef tastes a dish before it leaves the kitchen, taste your drinks before serving them to others,” Becker says. (Try using a small straw to trap a little liquid inside, then drop it onto your tongue.) Too sweet? Add a little extra citrus or bitters. Too strong? Add a little simple syrup or bitters. “It's all about balancing the ratio of the drink's ingredients,” she explains.
- Get creative. Before you fully commit to one specific blend, ask yourself, “Is there a better spirit or flavor pairing that I'm not thinking of that would work better?” says Daisy Clark, bar manager at Hearth and Hill in Park City, Utah. Choose your spirit and flavors wisely: “With whiskey, perhaps you can use orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon, and honey. These flavors are rich and deep. Playing with tequila or vodka? These spirits are more versatile and pair well with any flavors like lemon and lime, jalapeño, grapefruit, pineapple, and other fruits. Is gin more your thing? Try pairing it with some sparkling water and fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, or thyme.” And don’t forget to take advantage of the season, Mish adds. “The fresher the ingredients, the fresher the cocktail, so head to the produce section and look around. Try to think outside the box and grab things you haven’t tried or haven’t seen others try. Consider things that might complement your favorite meal. If it sounds good, it just might be so don’t be afraid to experiment!”
- Know when to shake and when to stir. Anything that has citrus is shaken, anything without citrus is stirred, says Peter Muntyan, lead bartender at Prime + Proper in Detroit, Michigan. “Stir for 12 seconds or 30 rotations, and shake hard for 12 seconds,” he suggests.
No matter what, “Just make sure you’re having fun! Be passionate, and it will shine through your recipes,” Mish says.