Good Technique Makes Better Cocktails

Darcy O'Neil :: April 5, 2007 10:52 AM

BartendingAt the bar I often get complimented on the quality of my drinks and cocktails. Some say the consistency is great, or that the flavours are nicely balanced, and sometimes it’s something they can't put their finger on. All of these things have to do with technique. When I watch people who don't often make cocktails, like a new barback that I'm letting help, they make a lot of simple mistakes that seem obvious to me, but maybe not to them. Most of this isn't secret bartender stuff, but, like a lot of other things in life, it is the little details that count. If you execute these little details, your drinks will taste much better and you can wow guests at home or start earning a good living behind the bar.


So what is the number one issue that differentiates a great cocktail from an ok one? Simple, it is ice. A person just learning to make drinks almost never fills the glass full with ice. They usually put one ice scoop, which is barely half a 12 oz glass, and then start pouring their spirit and mixer. This makes the drink very dilute, tasting mostly like mixer and it also doesn’t make for a very cold drink. Beer and wine have appropriate serving temperatures and so do cocktails and highballs and this temperature is ice cold. So when you make a rum and coke, pack the glass with ice. Most good bartenders overpack the glass because once you add the alcohol, the ice will quickly melt and then it will conveniently fit into the glass.

The next issue still resolves around the “cold” phenomenon. When you shake a cocktail there are a couple of reasons for doing so. The first is to chill the drink, so you need to look back at the ice issue. Fill your shaker with ice. A small amount of ice will only result in a soggy, slightly cooled drink. The other reasons for shaking includes mixing the ingredients and sometimes to incorporate air to lighten up the drink. So when you shake, don’t jiggle the shaker like you’re playing the maracas in your mandatory grade nine music class, shake the hell out of it like you mean it! Place the shaker above your shoulder and use the full length of your forearm to shake. Also, if you want to look like a pro, throw away the hand towel some people wrap around the shaker. It looks nice and your hands don’t get cold, but if you are shaking it like a pro, the shaker will go flying and wack someone in the head. Not good for tips and pro’tenders become immune to cold hands, or at least just suffer quietly.

Fresh Ingredients

Like cooking, fresh is best. When you make a drink use fresh lemons and limes, don’t use commercial sour mix or those little plastic lime shaped juice bottles. This is such a simple principal, but so often it is neglected. Citrus juice, plus simple syrup makes sour mix, so why buy a bottle of artificial stuff when you can have the real thing? Same goes for pineapple juice and orange juice, if you can find a place that sells fresh squeezed juices, use them. Life’s to short for crappy drinks.


In the movies you may often hear a character say “make it a strong one”, which is to say “I have a drinking problem and need my booze”. Great drinks are balanced, not just strong. Rookie drinkers have this problem, trying to consume as much alcohol in the shortest period of time. Well, we all eventually grow up and realize that the price to pay for over indulging is too high, at which point we turn to quality, not quantity. The trick to getting a quality drink, aside from ice and fresh ingredients, is accuracy. If a recipe calls of 1 oz of this and 2 oz of that, then follow the instructions. Many people think when a bartender “free pours” there isn’t any accuracy, which is completely untrue, well at least most of the time. Bartenders count while they pour, usually a quick 4 count, which, with a standard pour spout, equals one ounce (30 ml). So if they need a half-ounce pour, they just stop at two. If free pouring isn’t in the cards, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a jigger or shot glass. But a consistent drink is a good thing, because once someone has a good drink, they’ll come back for more.

Fix the Pumps
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