Bar Basics: Your "Non-booze" Essentials
Cocktails aren't just all booze.
I know that's stating the obvious but it's easy to get excited, blow all your money on bottles of liquor, and forget about the other stuff. Some of the best cocktails are relatively simple, but you'll need a little more than just spirits to make properly balanced drinks.
Let's go over some of the basic building blocks for crafting good drinks at home...
Stock up on limes, oranges, lemons and maybe a grapefruit or two.
Keep an eye out for berries that are in season. Heck, get really crazy and grab some rhubarb or ginger root!
Is that a live mint plant at the end of the aisle? Grab that too.
Craft cocktails are all about fresh and real ingredients. You can buy bottled or canned juices at the store and get by. But there is truly no replacing the flavor and zest of fresh-squeezed juices and it's just so easy to accomplish! All you need is a simple hand-juicer and you're good to go.
Obviously, you don't want to over-use sugar in your drinks. If someone takes a sip and they perceive it as really sweet, than you've probably messed up. However, adding the proper amount of sweetness to a beverage is crucial in achieving a balanced cocktail.
I recommend making your own syrups at home. Most are fairly easy to create in your kitchen with just a few ingredients. For most drinks, you can get by with just simple syrup. Dissolve 1 part sugar in 1 part water... and that's it! Store in a bottle and keep refrigerated. It should keep for about 30 days.
Here are some other syrups that you will eventually need or want to experiment with. Feel free to Google recipes for them, or purchase a bottle on Amazon (note: these are affiliate links).
Demerara Syrup - Made from cane sugar, this syrup is more molasses-y and rich. It's perfect for Old Fashioneds and other boozy cocktails.
Grenadine - Whatever you do, do not get Rose's Grenadine! True grenadine is made from pomegranate juice and doesn't at all resemble what you'd commonly see at a restaurant or liquor store. BG Reynolds makes a great one though!
Orgeat - Perhaps less common, but if you want to get serious about Tiki drinks, pick-up some of this French almond-based sweetener.
Falernum - This is my favorite cocktail syrup of all time (and not one that is easily made at home). It's made with ginger, clove, almond and fresh lime juice. Perfect for rum drinks but goes great with whiskey as well.
The world of bitters is fascinating and extremely broad. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of different kinds of bitters. Think of them as your spice rack. You usually don't need a lot and just a few dashes can give you that "extra something" your cocktail was lacking.
Even though there are tons to choose from, these are the three bitters that every bartender and home mixologist needs:
Angostura Aromatic Bitters - They've been around for a few hundred years. They're the industry standard (for good reason) and they can go in almost any cocktail.
Peychaud's Bitters - Another bitter that's been around more than a century. Comparable to Angostura but lighter and more floral.
Regan's Orange Bitters #6 - For some reason, orange bitters go well in a lot of different cocktails. Regan's #6 is my personal fav and a staple in most bars. It has a delicate and dry orange taste, with hints of cinnamon and clove.
Since bitters are fun to play with (and you'll eventually start exploring more anyway) here are some other bitters I enjoy using:
Thirsty for more drink-making knowledge? Check out my post about 3 books every home bartender needs on their shelf!
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