Bar Basics

A few essentials can help up your home cocktail-making game

You’ve witnessed the explosive growth of the Detroit cocktail scene and tried new bars and new drinks. Bartenders know your name and your favorite drink. Yet at home, you struggle to make a gin and tonic. Don’t fret. Here are a few essentials to make you a home bar star.

Learn the Basics

There are 77 officially recognized classic cocktails by the International Bartenders Association. While many bartenders commit these to memory, that’s a daunting task. At least be familiar with the list so you recognize something as an actual drink and not the name of an ’80s band. Make each drink once. (Think of this as learning your multiplication tables.) Find a few lesser-known classics like the Casino or Mary Pickford to impress guests. You can find a list of the cocktails and recipes online.

A Spirited Discussion

Many of us have had bad experiences with certain spirits. I was never a fan of tequila. Turns out I was drinking the cheapest brand. Treat yourself to quality liquors. That doesn’t mean a $100 bottle of bourbon to mix with Faygo. But looking to that next shelf up will give you better results. I love tequila now and actively seek out craft brands. Which brings me to my next point: Seek unique products. Metro Detroit is spoiled with a wealth of great spirits makers. Expand your circle to western Michigan, southern Ontario, and northern Ohio. Try an obscure local bottle when you are traveling. You will broaden your palate and might find a new favorite.

The Power of Fresh

Many cocktails include juice. One of the best ways to improve flavor is to use fresh juices. A task that is daunting for a bar serving hundreds of drinks (the great ones do) is manageable at home. Hand squeezers are ideal for citrus. Bigger squeezers and powered juicers eventually pay for themselves. Don’t ignore the peel; the oils have lots of flavor. That’s why you see many bartenders expressing the oils over a glass just before serving. Another flavor bomb is oleo saccharum, a citrus-sugar mixture. Muddle lemon peels with sugar and let sit overnight. It makes a gooey flavorful mash that, when mixed with citrus juice, is an amazing base for punches.

Bitter Taste

When you taste a cocktail and are missing that something you can’t put your finger on, try adding bitters. Bitters are to bartenders as spices are to chefs. The salt and pepper are Angostura and Peychaud’s. Once you have experimented, move on to orange, chocolate, or any other variety. You’ll learn that some aren’t bitter. It’s easy to practice on an Old Fashioned (it’s just sugar, bitters, whiskey or bourbon, and a splash of water). Switch out bitters for your flavor of the day.

Ice, Ice, Maybe?

Alcohol is brought down to proof by water to make a drinkable product. Ice, however, is something you add to your drink. If you wouldn’t drink your tap water straight, then don’t use it for ice. Get a filter, which will help the ice stay frozen longer.

This is just the beginning of improving your home cocktails. Ask your local bartender what his or her favorite book is. Ask about ingredients and techniques. An informed customer is a better customer, and you will gain the knowledge to make tastier cocktails at home.