Our cocktail aficionado shares the tips she’s gleaned from a decade of interviewing pros at watering holes nationwide.
The stereotypical solo bargoer likes to chat with the bartender, but those behind the stick also have tales to tell. Our nation’s top bartenders love sharing their tricks for better home cocktails. While interviewing them (and enjoying the fruits of their labor—hic!), I’ve gleaned these tips:
1. Save your egg whites.
If you’re in the habit of buying fresh, free-range, organic eggs, good news: So long as you don’t have a compromised immune system and you’re not pregnant, you’re probably safe to add an occasional egg white to your shaken drinks. Eggs make for creamier bourbon sours, they “lengthen” a drink to fill up your glass, and they’re simply delicious. Use less than you think you need; half a white for one drink should be sufficient.
2. Keep cocktail glasses chilled in the freezer.
As the late Sasha Petraske points out in the gorgeous book Regarding Cocktails, which was co-written with Georgette Moger-Petraske, a smart barkeep will always keep her barware chilled and at the ready. Storing glasses in the freezer makes a huge difference in the taste of a drink, keeping them nice and cold. This is particularly true of those served up (without ice). Plus, a frosty glass is a sweet visual touch.
3. Buy an oversized ice cube tray.
Speaking of ice, it’s chic to have oversized ice cubes; larger cubes entail a slower rate of dilution in your drink. Silicone ice cube trays are relatively inexpensive, easy to find, and are the difference between a ho-hum looking Old Fashioned and one that looks lovely, stays cold, and enables leisurely, stylish sipping.
4. Always have citrus in the fridge, and always use fresh juice.
Particularly in drinks that use a minimum of ingredients, such as a Tommy’s margarita, you must use fresh citrus juices. Even amateur cocktail aficionados can tell when you skip this step; it makes the difference between getting a puckered face or a smile after your guest’s first sip.
5. Know when to spend more on the base spirit and when to skimp.
I’m a huge fan of bourbon sours, and for a long time used spendy Bulleit bourbon as my base. But I eventually realized that because of the various elements I add—fresh egg; maple syrup; lemon juice; Luxardo maraschino cherry juice—my base spirit is less important. I can get away with Four Roses or even Evan Walker Black for a fraction of the price. (For the inverse reason, I still splurge on tequila—Espolón Reposado is reasonably priced and tasty—for Tommy’s margaritas simply made with agave, tequila, and fresh lime juice.)
6. Get classy vintage barware on the cheap.
Planning on some thrifting or antiquing this summer? Good on ya. Look for vintage glassware! What costs a ton in metropolitan areas will set you back so much less at antique shops in the “middle of nowhere.” Last summer I netted a stunning cut-glass punch bowl with 18 matching glass cups at a New England vintage shop for a whopping twelve dollars.
7. Own one good bottle of bitters.
Keep one bottle of Angostura bitters around. Yes, you can and should experiment with other bitters—those from Bittermens are great, as are those from Fee—or you can make your own, but stock up on this basic workhorse, which is necessary for an Old Fashioned, at minimum.
8. Buy great cherries.
Every ingredient matters in a drink, and although sometimes you can skimp, the garnishes shouldn’t be bruised, old, or afterthoughts. Go with something delicious or skip them altogether. I’m obsessed with Luxardo’s Italian Marasca cherries, which are expensive but the best I’ve ever had, and always have them on hand for my bourbon sours. (Martini maven? Splurge on great olives.)
9. Consider alternative sweeteners for a silkier mouthfeel
Most sweet potables can be built using sugar or simple syrup (a one-to-one mix of sugar and water) but agave, maple syrup, and cane syrup are tasty, too, and can sweeten a drink without adding water to the mix. Note, too, that they alter the viscosity of a drink, adding a sultry silkiness to the mouthfeel. No one has yet sent back my Luxardo cherry bourbon sours with egg white and a maple syrup base, and I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.