By: Meera Eragoda, Arts and Culture Editor
During the height of social distancing restrictions, my partner had his birthday. In celebration, one of his friends made a contactless dropoff of a whiskey sour in a mason jar. He split this with me and my tastebuds genuinely went wild. I had never had a whiskey sour before — cocktails are expensive and never really seem worth it so I usually stick with beer — and there was something about the lemony sweetness that was reminiscent of a lemonade, but better. The whiskey and thickness of the simple syrup gave it depth and fullness of flavour that lemonade lacks. The taste lingered in my mouth for days, and since at the time, I couldn’t seek out the nearest cocktail bar, I decided to make my own. And so began my journey into cocktail making. As someone who doesn’t drink much, I think cocktails are the perfect way to enjoy drinks without drinking to get drunk — though of course, no judgement if you prefer the latter!
Here are some of the tips I’d like to share with you from my (admittedly) short journey:
- Pick one cocktail and make it until you master it. This will save you money because you won’t be trying to get all the ingredients for all the cocktails which will get pricey, fast.
- Don’t be afraid to be cheap. There are a lot of bartending snobs who will tell you that you need freshly squeezed juice or the exact ingredients that a drink calls for. While I do agree things taste better with freshly squeezed juice, I’ve used lemon concentrate in whiskey sours and they’ve still been delicious.
Same goes for the type of glasses you use. You can be fancy and use the specific glasses various cocktails call for but within reason (I don’t think you should try and drink an old-fashioned out of a martini glass), I’ve not noticed any difference in taste or ability to drink using whatever I have on hand. And same with the alcohol. Especially if you’re experimenting and are going to go through a lot, start cheap and build from there.
- Thrift shops are a great place to buy bartending gear. I bought most of my starter gear new from Gourmet Warehouse and the Modern Bartender before I realized this — but I did manage to snag a pair of glass for $2 each.
- Know when to shake vs. when to stir. Basically, if you’re just using liquor or spirits in your drinks (AKA the already alcoholic ingredients), you just stir. If you are adding things like citrus juice, egg whites or non-alcoholic ingredients (with the exception of simple syrup), shake. This is so the ingredients actually combine.
- YouTube is very helpful for both recipes and tips on shaking, stirring with a bar spoon, separating egg whites, etc. Two of my favourite recipe accounts have been How To Drink and The Educated Barfly.
- A cocktail shaker with a built-in strainer — this will save you the cost of an additional strainer. I got mine for $16.99 and that’s usually the starting point.
- Jigger with the ounces marked on the inside — mine is way too expensive and weighted but most start at around $7.99.
- Bar spoon — I didn’t get this at first because I thought a regular spoon would suffice but the shape and the handle make life so much easier. I got mine for $2 so it was a pretty good purchase.
Optional but helpful:
- A second mixing glass. It’s easier to shake with two and I find it easier to use.
- Cocktail strainer and/or julep strainer to take out the ice shards and pulp from citrus juices. Each is about $10.
- Muddler. These start at around $5 but if you have a pestle in the house, this can be used instead. Though if it’s a stone one, I wouldn’t recommend it.
As you can already tell, this can get expensive quickly, which is why I would start with the bare minimum and slowly add to your collection. And again remember, thrift shops are good options.
Common non-alcoholic ingredients:
- Simple syrup — this is one of the most common ingredients in cocktails and it lives up to its name. It’s a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water. Heat it on a low temperature until the sugar dissolves and then let it cool. You can make infused syrup very easily too using ingredients like cardamom or mint or a million other things.
- Lemon/lime juice — if you use fresh fruit, you can use the peels as garnish but concentrate will save you time and money.
- Tonic/soda water — any kind you want will do.
- Angostura bitters — these will run you about $12 but they’re so good and they’ll last a long time. They remind me of cherries and mulled wine spices.
I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with different tastes and making cocktails for my partner and housemates and I hope you get some joy out of this as well.
Here are some recipes to help you get started on your journey!
Having made a few different cocktails now, I’ve come to the conclusion that once you master the whiskey sour, many of the other basic cocktails become a breeze to make.
1 egg white (optional)
¾ oz simple syrup
¾ oz lemon juice
1.5 oz whiskey of your choosing (I’ve been using bourbon*)
4 – 8 dashes angostura bitters (optional but delicious)
Feel free to adjust the measurements to your liking. Also feel free to substitute maple syrup for simple syrup but if you do, remember it’s sweeter so you might want to use a little less. If you choose to make this with the egg white, it makes a huge difference to dry shake (no ice) it on its own before adding the rest of the ingredients. Do this for about 30 seconds. This will make it very nice and foamy and give it a creamier taste. And I promise it won’t taste like egg.
Once this looks frothy, add the simple syrup, lemon juice, and whiskey and do a second dry shake for another 20 seconds. Then add the ice (use recently-made ice or the old fridge taste will ruin your drink) and give it a final shake for about 15 seconds. If you have a cocktail strainer, use that to pour into a coupe glass (ideally) or any other glass you have around. For a final touch, add a few dashes of the bitters on top for an aromatic experience.
*Bourbon vs. Scotch vs. Rye vs. Whiskey (the oversimplified answer)
Bourbon, scotch, and rye are all whiskey. Scotch is made in Scotland, bourbon in the US (originating in Kentucky). Scotch has to be aged for a minimum of three years and made with barley while bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels and is made with corn. Rye is made in North America with rye wheat.
I started making this since I had bourbon on hand. This is another whiskey drink but quite a bit stronger than the sour. As many YouTube videos informed me, this is an evolving drink. I thought this sounded quite pretentious but it actually does evolve so they weren’t wrong. It just means that it gets both sweeter and more diluted the longer you have it. This drink also typically uses large ice cubes to prevent it from dissolving as quickly and I got myself a large round ice cube mold but there’s nothing wrong with using regular cubes. Just keep in mind that they will melt quicker. You can also use chilling stones if you have them.
1 sugar cube (or ¼ oz maple syrup or ½ oz simple syrup)
4-8 dashes angostura bitters
2 oz whiskey
Orange or lemon peel
This is a drink that is made in the glass. Add your sugar cube in and then add a few dashes of bitters to soak the cube. In case it isn’t obvious, I really enjoy the taste of bitters so I add in about eight to ten dashes but start with about five or six and go from there. Once you’re done, add in your ice cube(s), pour in the whiskey and stir with the bar spoon so the sugar somewhat dissolves. Then grab a lemon or orange peel of about two to three inches and lightly twist so the juices express (aka fancy bartender-speak for spray) into the drink. You’re likely not going to be able to see the spray coming out, but trust me, it does. Then just wipe the peel around the glass and place it inside. After looking at multiple videos and pictures, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way to make the presentation of this that nice. People try (I’ve tried) and it just doesn’t look that good. Luckily, it tastes delicious and strong.
Negroni (and Boulevardier)
The negroni is very simple to make but tastes stronger than an old-fashioned, not because of the alcohol but because of the campari and vermouth. This drink is both bitter and sweet — some might even say bittersweet heh — and might not be for everyone. Unlike the angostura bitters which aren’t actually all that bitter, the campari definitely is.
1.5 oz campari
1.5 oz sweet vermouth (the red kind)
2 oz gin for a negroni OR 1 oz bourbon for a boulevardier
This one is real easy. Pour into a mixing glass, add ice, stir with a bar spoon, then strain into a drinking glass filled with ice. Or do what I do when I’m feeling lazy and just make it directly in the drinking glass. This also tastes good with tonic/soda water and it helps cut the strongness so feel free to add however much your heart desires.
Tom Collins aka Gin Fizz
Apparently the name Tom Collins sprung out of a 19th century joke which will take too long to explain and isn’t all that funny but google it if you want to know anyway.
½ oz simple syrup
¾ oz lemon juice (or if you want to get real fancy, ½ oz limoncello)
2 oz gin
tonic/soda water (to what your heart desires, I’m not here to constrain you)
Add some ice to a drinking glass. Combine all ingredients except the tonic water into a shaker with ice and well, shake until combined. Then strain into the drinking glass, add the tonic water in, and serve with a stirring spoon. Garnish however you want. I went with a lemon peel and a liquor-soaked cherry here but these are all completely optional.
Ending with a new favourite.
¾ oz simple syrup
2 oz light rum (I used spice rum because that’s all I had. It was delicious. No regrets!)
1 oz lime juice (I also didn’t have any lime so I used lemon but I would try and have the limes next time)
Combine in the shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into martini glass or any other glass. Then kick your feet back and dream that you’re in Cuba — where it was invented.
Hopefully, this will get you started in the world of cocktails. There are millions out there so if you prefer vodka or tequila, or don’t love all these citrusy drinks, there are definitely a ton of options for you. Go forth and shake up a storm.