Anyone who can make dinner can make killer cocktails — drinks as good as the ones served in fancy bars. You might not have a hand-carved Japanese stirring glass or gleaming crystal-clear ice spears, but you have plenty of tricks up your sleeve (and in your pantry).
To Make a Better Cocktail at Home, Think Like a Cook
Writing my first book, The One-Bottle Cocktail: More than 80 Recipes with Fresh Ingredients and a Single Spirit, convinced me of this truth more than ever: It doesn't take a well-stocked bar to make a great drink. Sure, most of us would love to have the kind of selection today's bartenders have — an array of fancy vermouth, herbal liqueurs, amari from all over Italy, unusual bitters — but that stuff costs money and takes up space.
Luckily a little DIY and a single spirit — your favorite gin, tequila, vodka, rum, whiskey, or brandy — can be all you need to make truly impressive cocktails at home. You just need to think like a cook.
1. Drink seasonally.
If you're walking through a farmers market or grocery aisle, consider all that fresh produce as a source of cocktail inspiration too. If those strawberries are juicy and rosy all the way through, you might have a base ingredient for pre-dinner drinks and a little post-dinner shortcake. Excited about the first blackberries of the year? Those peaches that just want to dribble down your chin? Then that's what should be in your cocktails tonight.
2. Go beyond fruit.
Vegetables and herbs are your secret weapons for drinks that taste more complex and unexpected. Tarragon contributes a delicate anise note so you can skip the pricey bottle of Chartreuse. Green bell peppers balance the sweetness of pineapple. Arugula adds a peppery flavor to a shaken gin sour. Both sweet, earthy carrot juice and cooling celery juice are amazing with mezcal. Even radicchio belongs in a spin on the Boulevardier.
3. Don't forget the pantry.
A well-balanced cocktail always has some tannin and bitterness to balance the sweet, sour, and strong. Black tea, green tea, chai, and oolong can fill this role — especially when steeped for a bit of extra time. Jam, chutney, apple butter, and marmalade can offer richness, sweetness, and, in the final case, a crisp, bitter finish to a drink.
Less-processed sugars as well as maple and honey can offer deeper flavors than your standard simple syrup; dried dates offer a wonderful caramelized malty note. While citrus is often the source of a drink's tartness, a little vinegar can lend a barrel-aged wine-like note while it brightens up the mix. Olive oil can be great in a cocktail — so can curry powder and Sichuan peppercorn.
4. Go big-batch for a crowd.
Seasoned hosts know that large-format dishes work better for a crowd than fiddly things that need to be prepared individually. The same thing's true for drinks, so it's worth bookmarking pitcher recipes that don't require shaking each person's beverage to order. The One-Bottle Cocktail has 11 new options, including El Gallito, a light and savory brunch drink made with pineapple, cherry tomatoes, and chipotle, which gives you a bonus fresh salsa in addition to the cocktails when you're done.