Tuesday 17 January 2012

7 Ways To Make Better Drinks

So you picked up some tools and booze and you're starting to make drinks at home, but they're not tasting nearly as good as when you go out to your favourite bars. First of all, they never will because your favourite bars have really good bartenders who've been making these drinks for years and you haven't. But, they got good by making drinks, testing ideas, balancing, tasting, talking to people, learning, reading, and once again making many, many drinks for a long time.
I'd like to go over a few things that will really help you move your mixology education forward and help you make better drinks at home - or in the bar.

1) Keep notes.
I feel like every time I make a drink I get a little better because every time I make it and taste it I have an idea what I might have done a little differently to make it taste, smell, or present better. I keep a cocktail journal where I not only write down drinks I enjoy and recipes I glean from bartenders when I go out, but also with notes as to what makes the drink taste better. Some take more dilution, some take extra straining, some work better with a certain brand of spirit, etc. I also tend to be a little forgetful, so keeping a record of drinks I really enjoy saves me time trying to remember which of 20 gin cocktails on a website I made last week and enjoyed (because chances are I made at least 5 of them).

2) Use ice wisely. 
Ice is SO important to making cocktails. Serving cocktails cold makes a huge difference with regards to taste, and diluting the ingredients not only takes off the edges, which can distract from taste, but also really balances flavours. Each drink is a little different, so again, make notes. Something complex like a Lucien Gaudin (gin, Campari, dry vermouth, Cointreau) takes a lot of dilution to taste right, whereas a lot of juice cocktails just take a good shake. Stir your cocktails unless they have juice, cream, or egg, or it's a Martini (which tastes best as cold as possible).

3) Use good quality ingredients. 
This makes a bigger difference than a lot of people realize, and apparently a lot of bars. Most bars you go to will serve Beefeater or Gordon's, Canadian whiskey or Jim Beam, Martini & Rossi, etc. [ And p.s., nothing again Beefeater or Jim Beam, I love them both ;) ]. They won't have higher end spirits because they don't really care if their cocktails taste good. They'll also use crappy ice, and too much of it, sour mixes, and bottled or tap juices. The better quality your ingredients, the better quality your drink. ALWAYS use fresh squeezed juice (it's easy and cheap, so there's no reason not to). Pick up spirits you like instead of just the cheapest one (and in certain cases, great products ARE cheap, like the aforementioned Beefeater gin). If you splurge and buy yourself that nice bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon or Hendrick's gin you've been eyeing for a while, your cocktails will taste better and you'll enjoy making drinks even more.

4) Taste what you make. 
This may sound weird, but hear me out. A lot of the time you'll make a drink for someone else rather than yourself and thereby you might not have tasted it. Taste everything you make - WHILE you're making it. Use a straw (dip the straw in, put your finger on the end to trap a little liquid, then pull it out and taste), or if it's just for you taste your spoon or take a tiny sip. You won't know exactly how much dilution is necessary unless you taste it first, and tasting it during the process will show you how much of a difference this makes. You may taste a drink while you're stirring and realize something isn't balanced right and you need to add a little more spirit, syrup, or whatever. When I started tasting my drinks as I made them I feel like my skill really skyrocketed.

5) Understand what you're adding.
Don't just follow a recipe blindly. Be aware of the ingredients you add and what they're doing to the cocktail. If you make a Manhattan, the sweet vermouth is both taking the edge of the whiskey and balancing the bitterness from the bitters. If you make a Daiquiri, the syrup is balancing the sour from the lime, and both the sweet and sour flavours are taking the edge off the rum. Paying attention to these details will give you a good idea of how to balance a drink if it doesn't taste right, and will enable you to start experimenting with your own ideas and concoctions. I am going to do a post soon on the different types of taste and how they affect each other (thanks to the ever informative and interesting Darcy O'Neil on www.artofdrink.com).

6) Get the proper tools. 
I had a post already on the 6 things you need to start your bar at home, but chances are you went the easy route on a few things. So did I. I'm not ashamed to admit that when I first starting mixing at home I used measuring spoons for baking to measure out drinks. I stirred with a butter knife. I served drinks in wine glasses. I measured juice by guessing that 1/2 a lemon was about 1oz of juice. Then, when I got a beautiful vintage portable bar set from my lady on my birthday, things changed. I got a proper jigger, a proper bar spoon, and by then I had purchased proper cocktail glasses. Measuring out ingredients exactly, juicing fruit rather than guessing at it, stirring with a spoon, pouring into a cocktail glass, etc, all not only contributed to being more accurate in making drinks, but also made me feel like I was part of a serious process rather than throwing something together in the kitchen. A huge part of enjoying a cocktail is the experience and presentation - including when you make one for yourself. Measuring in baking spoons, stirring with a knife, and drinking with a wineglass after mixing your cheap whiskey and stale vermouth does not make a good experience. Using my vintage barset, measuring things properly, serving in a proper glass, and also making drinks for both myself and my lady before sitting down for a good movie makes for a great home experience. The more you enjoy it the more you'll care, and the more you care... the more you'll enjoy it.

7) Be curious.
I've learned the most by watching good bartenders and asking questions. Ask what they're doing, why they're doing it, what ingredients they just used and why (but not too much because they are working). Watch them make other people's drinks, not just yours. Furthermore, learn! Go to websites, read books, read articles. The BC government liquor store has a free magazine you can pick up that has tasting notes, recipes, and interviews with local bartenders and restaurant owners. Pick up a good book like Imbibe! by David Wondrich, or go to informative websites like www.artofdrink.com or www.ginandtales.com or www.smallscreennetwork.com. I probably learned the most and got the most inspired at home by watching Robert Hess, Jamie Boudreau, and Charlotte Voisey make drinks and give tips on the Small Screen Network. It's an amazing resource for mixologists and enthusiasts.

Most of all, have fun!

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