On the surface, making a drink doesn’t seem all that complicated. But there are so many details you typically don’t realize until you stand behind a bar for several thousand hours. Fortunately, Senior Staff Writer Bryan Kim has done that - and he’s here to answer all your cocktail-related questions.
If you were staring at a bottle of vermouth the other day, wondering what it is, or if you’ve always wanted to know why bartenders daydream about Sharpies and masking tape, submit your own questions here. And to fill in any other gaps in your cocktail knowledge, check out our Rules To Live (And Drink) By, Techniques For Better Cocktails, and Cocktail Tool Recommendations.
your cocktail questions, answered
What’s the best way to make a really good spicy margarita?
When you’re making a spicy margarita, you might be tempted to just throw in a few dashes of whatever hot sauce you have lying around. But that hot sauce probably has a bunch of stuff you don’t really want in your cocktail. Vinegar, for example. Can vinegar be good in a drink? For sure. (That’s why shrubs exist.) But you probably don’t want it in your margarita. So here’s what to do.
The best (and easiest) way to make a spicy margarita is by using a few thin slices of chili pepper. Just put them in the bottom of your shaker, muddle them briefly, then add the rest of your ingredients and shake. Jalapeño is typically what I use, and it’ll give you a nice, potent spice level that isn’t overwhelming. But if you want to go hotter, try serrano or habanero. I’ll be honest, I’m not a chili expert - although I do know that if you handle a few slices of chili pepper then touch your eyes, it will burn, and you’ll probably run around your apartment screaming as you blindly search for something to make it better. So please, try to avoid doing that.
Hello. Should a bottle of Cointreau be stored in the refrigerator or inside the liquor cabinet?
Hello. No need to keep your Cointreau in the fridge. Just leave it out at room temperature. And if you don’t wind up finishing the bottle, donate the rest to your grandchildren. It’ll probably last that long.
What’s the trick for getting a nice fluffy egg white on top of a Pisco Sour?
Just to get everyone on the same page: a Pisco Sour is a cocktail that’s typically made with an egg white. If the thought of a raw egg white in a cocktail just activated your gag reflex, trust me when I tell you that it’ll make any shaken cocktail (like a whiskey or pisco sour) creamy and delicious.
Now, let’s talk about how to use an egg white in a cocktail. First off, it isn’t just “on top” of a Pisco Sour (or any other drink). You actually take a whole egg white (from a pasteurized egg or a carton of pasteurized egg whites, if you live in constant semi-rational fear of salmonella), and shake it with the rest of your ingredients. The trick, however, is to shake twice. First, you’re going to put your egg white and the rest of your ingredients in your shaker, then give everything a hard shake without any ice for about 10 seconds. This is called a “dry shake,” and it helps get everything fluffy and integrated. Next, add ice, shake your drink like you normally would (about 15 seconds), then strain your Pisco Sour into a coupe. Garnish with a few dashes of Angostura bitters, and you’ll have a beautiful cocktail with the kind of fluffy top you’ve always wanted.
How do you easily unstick a cocktail shaker after shaking it? With Boston shakers (and especially cobbler shakers), I always have to build in an extra minute or so of fighting the thing to get it unstuck!
It takes a tiny bit of practice to get used to a Boston shaker, so I understand where you’re coming from. Fortunately, I spent most of my 20s with a Boston shaker in at least one of my hands, and I’m here to guide you through this. After you put the top on your Boston shaker (smacking it with the heel of your hand so it forms a seal at about a 15-degree angle), you’re then going to shake your drink. As you do this, your shaker will get cold and the metal will constrict, resulting in an even stronger seal. But just find the place where the two halves of your shaker start to diverge, and give that a good smack with the heel of your hand. It should come right apart.
As for cobbler shakers, you’re kinda out of luck. Part of the reason bartenders like Boston shakers is because they’re easier to put together and take apart. Cobbler shakers, on the other hand, always seem to get stuck. If you’re having a really tough time, run yours under some warm water, and it should come apart.
Can you give me some easy cocktail ideas using St Germain?
For those who aren’t familiar, St. Germain is an elderflower liqueur. It’s pretty sweet, not particularly strong (20% ABV), and has a lightly floral flavor that somehow works in just about everything.
If you see simple syrup in a cocktail, feel free to replace it with St. Germain. Use it in a Gimlet, for example, or a Daiquiri. Just know that this’ll result in a slightly stronger drink, so consider dialing back the main spirit (in the case of a Gimlet, gin) by .25 ounce. And if you see something like Cointreau, triple sec, or Grand Marnier in a drink, you can also sub that out for St. Germain. Or just put an ounce of St. Germain and a half ounce of lemon juice over ice in a wine glass, then top that off with prosecco and a dash of club soda - and you have a St. Germain Spritz.
Is there a way to make an Aperol spritz a little fancier than it already is?
I actually made an Aperol spritz the other day, then immediately started disparaging the drink to a coworker over Slack. (It was after 5pm, probably.) So I see where you’re coming from. The Aperol spritz, while refreshing, isn’t a perfect cocktail. It needs some tart citrus. Fresh grapefruit, for example, or a little lemon or lime juice (half an ounce, say). Other than that, try dialing back your Aperol by .5 ounce or so and experimenting with various amari. Try a half ounce of Campari or Montenegro. Or use a little Yellow Chartreuse, Strega, or Maraschino. And if you want to get really fancy, sub out your prosecco for Franciacorta, an Italian sparkling wine produced using the same method as Champagne.
Is it ever acceptable to drink a vodka Diet Coke?
Of course. Drink what you like. I, personally, sometimes mix Red Bull and tequila even though it’s disgusting. The heart wants what it wants. Anyway, squeeze a lime wedge into your vodka Diet Coke. And consider using Diet Vanilla Coke. (This isn’t an ad for Coke, but it maybe should be.)
Are there any tips you can give someone who’s trying their hand at “inventing” a cocktail? What kinds of things should never be mixed?
If you want to try your hand at inventing a cocktail, start with a drink you like (or, like we were just discussing with the Aperol Spritz, one that needs a little improvement), then tweak one, two, or all of the ingredients. A Boulevardier, for example, is just a Negroni with bourbon instead of gin - and someone invented that.
Is there stuff that should never be mixed? Not really. A lot of stuff will definitely be gross in the wrong combinations, but that’s just part of experimenting. And who knows, maybe in 100 years, tastes will change, and you’ll be heralded as the wise and just inventor of the olive juice punch.
Can keeping my liquor in the freezer do the same thing as shaking drinks over ice? (I never have ice around.)
Shaking accomplishes two things: chilling and dilution. Freezing, on the other hand, only chills your drink - and without any dilution, your cocktails are going to taste a little too strong. But if you really hate ice, add an ounce of super-cold water to whatever cocktail you make with your freezer alcohol. That’ll help dilute it.
What’s worth batching and what isn’t?
The short answer to this question is: everything is worth batching - as long as you’re going to use it. Even the nicest cocktail bars will batch at least parts of their cocktails, because it saves a lot of time. That said, if you batch a drink with fresh juice, you’re going to want to use it within a few days. Something like a batched Martini or Manhattan will last a bit longer. A month, say, in your fridge.
What’s the best way to make a lot of cocktails at once? If I was making a pitcher would I just pour things in and stir?
If you were making a pitcher of Negronis, you could definitely do that - but I wouldn’t recommend it. Because once you’re done stirring your enormous cocktail, all those ice cubes you used for stirring are still going to be in the pitcher, well on their way to quiet, watery deaths (while diluting your cocktail). So, ideally, you’ll stir in your pitcher, then transfer your drink to a pitcher with fresh ice. Alternatively, stir in batches in a big mixing glass, then pour everything into a pitcher with fresh ice. As for shaken cocktails (margaritas, for example), you’re going to want to shake those in batches, then pour them into your pitcher. It’s worth remembering you can typically fit about four drinks in a Boston shaker.
What’s the one bottle of alcohol most people don’t keep in their house that’ll boost your cocktail game the most?
It’s kind of weird and confusing for me to say this, because I don’t really like to drink it on its own, but the answer to this question is Campari. You don’t have to drink it on the rocks like Steve Zissou, but it’ll come in handy for a lot of different cocktails.
Is smoking a cocktail worth it? Is there a benefit to smoking a glass versus buying a “smoky” alcohol?
If you smoke a cocktail, it’s actually going to taste like smoke. And if that’s what you’re going for, great. As for “smoky” alcohol (like scotch or mezcal), that’s a different sort of flavor. It’s kind of like if smoke became a ghost and haunted the alcohol, in a subtle, classy sort of way.
What are good types of drinks to make if I’m not necessarily buying the most top-shelf liquor?
If you aren’t using the absolute best stuff, don’t sweat it. The bottles I buy the most often are typically less than $30 anyway. Honestly, any cocktail is going to help you mask some imperfections in whatever alcohol you’re using, but if you’re having some serious doubts as to the quality of the booze you purchased, make a shaken drink with some kind of juice. A daiquiri, for example.
Are there any cocktail tools you didn’t cover that you think we should know about?
When I was a bartender, I used to hoard sharpies and masking tape. Seriously, these things were more valuable to me than gold or hard currency. Because that’s what you use to label stuff, helping you keep track of when things (like lime juice or simple syrup) were made. Also, the bartender with the most Sharpies and masking tape is technically the ruler of all other bartenders.
How can you make clear ice at home? I’ve read random stuff online, but I’ve never had success compared to what I see at bars.
This is a great question - and the answer might be a little more complex than you expect. The trick to clear ice is freezing one big block slowly in your freezer. If you have a small cooler (something you’d carry a sandwich and a few beers in, for example), that’s ideal, because it’ll insulate your water and make it freeze slower. But I’ve also made clear ice very successfully in a large Tupperware container. So find the biggest rectangular plastic container your freezer can hold (consider wrapping a towel around it to insulate it), leave the top open, then just play the waiting game.
If you want to get really fancy, boil your water first. That might sound strange, but the reason your ice is cloudy is because there’s air trapped in there (which will become concentrated in one section of your large block of ice during the gradual freezing process). And if you boil the water, that dissolved air should dissipate (because the solubility of air in water decreases as the temperature increases).
Anyway, after you freeze your big block, you then have to chop it up. We’re going to need a whole other session for that part.
What’s your take on using soda in cocktails?
In my bartending days, I used to bring things into work to experiment with all the time. This included stuff like cream soda, orange soda, and root beer. And I made some good drinks with all of the above. So, by all means, mess around with some soda. Just make sure it isn’t flat.
What are the best Cosmo ingredients?
You know, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Cosmos lately. Maybe they’re coming back into fashion. Or maybe they never left. Either way, a Cosmopolitan typically has four things: citron vodka, lime juice, cranberry juice, and triple sec.
For citron vodka, I usually just use Kettle One Citroen. But if you want to use any other kind (that costs more than $20), go for it. For lime juice, squeeze your own. This is important. There’s no real substitute for fresh lime juice. As for triple sec, go with Cointreau. It’s kind of pricey, but the bottle will last a while, and it’s worth it.
Finally, it’s my very firm opinion that cranberry juice doesn’t pull its own weight in a Cosmo. It’s mostly sugar, and it really just functions as food coloring. So use raspberries instead. Muddle five or six in the bottom of your shaker, then add the rest of your ingredients, and give everything a shake. You’ll get a cocktail that’s a deep pink color, and it’ll taste a whole lot better than a Cosmo made with cranberry. Here’s exactly how to do it:
- 1.75 ounce citron vodka
- .5 ounce Cointreau
- .75 ounce lime juice
- .5 ounce simple syrup (or .25 ounce if you prefer a tart drink)
- 5 or 6 raspberries muddled in the bottom of your shaker