Everyone should know how to mix a drink. In my humble opinion, it should be a requirement that every person at the beginning of the journey of life works in the service industry, particularly behind a bar. That way, we all know what it’s like to work on tips, deal with assholes, and that back aching, feet hurting feeling of a day’s work serving other people.

Everyone should also know how to mix a damn fine drink because there is nothing better in this world than a well-made cocktail. Good food, strong drinks, and great company make life worth living. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy,”—or more commonly paraphrased on t-shirts around America: “Beer is proof that God loves us.”

Odds are that you will be asked to host one of these evenings at some point and time. Whether it is a late-night soiree, an after-party, or simply dinner at your place with some friends, everyone needs to know how to bartend.

Wine is always a great choice, as is serving a few beers. However, since the invention of the barcart, there is simply more charisma in cracking up a few craft cocktails in a shaker. Gone are the days when it was socially acceptable to clear the dinner table and line up a few red solo cups (although, if the evening calls for that, there is nothing wrong with it).

A well-stocked bar and the knowledge to use it are two of the sexiest things alive. Luckily, you do not need to spend a decade barbacking in New York to know how to make a decent drink. Like your English teacher told you about Shakespeare, the classics matter.

3 Bartender’s Secrets

Bartender adding ice cubes on a cocktail glass at the bar counter
Bartender adding ice cubes on a cocktail glass at the bar counter

Here are a few tricks learned along the way to make your drink just a little bit better than the bar. Master the basics. Like baseball, fundamentals matter. All drinks are basically one of two things: a cocktail or a sour. Know them both and the world is your oyster.

Get the right ice

First of all, size matters. The kind of ice you use actually makes a difference. Typically in a shaker or a mixing glass, you want one big ice cube and several crushed ice pieces. The one big ice cube displaces a lot of liquid, and the smaller crushed ice helps dilute the drink (which is part of making a cocktail).

Shake properly

Second, when making a shaken drink (not the Martini), you do not need to “hammer” the shaker shut. There is, believe it or not, a proper way to shake a cocktail. Shaking a drink is like making love, it’s the motion of the ocean. Start slow and then, depending on your pleasure, get rough. The reason is that the slow start actually seals the shaker to prevent leakage, thus saving any embarrassment or high-quality blazers.

Quality over quantity

Lastly, invest in quality over quantity, always. While a typical cocktail does not need Pappy Van Winkle or some gin forged in Tibet between the iron buttcheeks of a Buddhist monk, the speed rack is not your friend either. Low-quality alcohol makes for low-quality drinks. The kicker, of course, is that price is not an indicator of quality. Every liquor has a price point. Stay within that range to make the best drinks, and opt for fresh ingredients when available (although there is nothing wrong with cheating with fruit juices).

Otherwise, make the drink you want to drink. Cocktails are like art, that’s why we love them. Every Old Fashioned is slightly different, just like every Martini is unique to the drinker. Good drinks are about good conversations and great memories that you inevitably forget.

So, cheers.

The Old Fashioned History

Old fashioned cocktail with bourbon, cane sugar, orange slice, cherry and orange peel garnish
Old fashioned cocktail with bourbon, cane sugar, orange slice, cherry and orange peel garnish

This drink experienced a much-needed renaissance thanks to AMC’s Madmen. However, Don Draper’s drink of choice is actually an Old Fashioned No. 2 and should never grace the glasses of your guests (unless you enjoy the taste of ashtray and orange). The real Old Fashioned, on the other hand, is arguably the King of Cocktails.

In the world of drinks, there are two families: the cocktail and the sour. Specifically, a cocktail refers to a drink that combines a spirit, a bitter, and something sweet. While a sour is anything that combines fruit juice and a spirit.

Originally a breakfast drink served at room temperature (ice was for Juleps), the Old Fashioned has gone through many iterations. Potentially starting as a gin or genever cocktail, transitioning to whiskey, morphing into a wild abomination, settling back into its roots before being mashed into a pulp by the 20s, and then dying off due to marketing (thanks Vodka) before resurfacing during the modern cocktail revival, the Old Fashioned has a long history.

Since its inception, the Old Fashioned has been a misnomer. By the 1860s, every bar had its own version of the “Cocktail” that included absinthe, bitters, curacao, syrups, and boat loads of fruit. The term was meant to invoke “the old way,” or pre-1860s, and make a “simpler” drink. Thus, they nixed the syrups and opted for a bitter soaked sugar cube and the drink became its recognizable form.

Today, luckily, we can make the drink the way we want. By combining the highlights of the improved whiskey cocktail pre-1860s and the simplicity of the post-1860s Old Fashioned, we can get a damn fine drink (no muddling).

The Old Fashioned Recipe
  • 2 dashes of Orange Bitters
  • 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
  • Bar Spoon of Simple Syrup
  • 2 oz. of Bourbon (or Rye dealer’s choice)
  • Stir in glass
  • Garnish with a Maraschino Cherry
  • Twist of Orange (Bourbon) or Lemon (Rye)

The Hemingway Daiquiri History

Hemingway Daiquiri with Lime and Grapefruit
Hemingway Daiquiri with Lime and Grapefruit

Before you get excited about busting out the blender, slow your roll. A daiquiri is not what they serve at Chilis during two buck chuck. What we are striving for is a more modern daiquiri or a rum sour. A daiquiri, at its simplest, is nothing more than rum, sugar, and lime. The origin of the drink is disputed as it is an old, old Cuban word, and likely an old, old Cuban cocktail.

Remember, there are two basic paths for drinks. The cocktail is one, the sour is the other. A daiquiri in its purest form is a sour.

While this simple sour is a perfectly drinkable drink, it won’t exactly wow anyone with its flavors or the process of making it (and besides, we already have a margarita on the list). Therefore, to zest up spirits, we call upon The Lost Generation.

Papa Hemingway could hold his liquor. The epitome of masculinity who spent his years fishing (and drinking) down in the Florida Keys and cavorting with Cubans, Ernest Hemingway loved his daiquiris. He was also a diabetic.

Therefore, he asked the bartender to come up with a less sweet option of the island favorite. Thus, the Hemingway Daiquiri was born. Also, by removing the simple syrup from the cocktail, one could drink more of them ostensibly.

This is not the drink you drink at the beach. This is the drink you drink at the hotel bar of the beach, or when you want to feel like Jimmy Buffet and James Dean at the same time. The addition of grapefruit and Maraschino Liqueur, a bitter cherry flavor that subs in for the syrup, and like Brylcreem “a little dab’ll do ya,” make this a classic cocktail that will wow guests. Served in a coupe or martini glass, this drink is a sophisticated, clean, and delicious libation.

The Hemingway Daiquiri Recipe
  • 2 oz White Rum
  • ¾ oz lime juice
  • ¼ oz grapefruit juice
  • ¼ oz Maraschino Liqueur
  • Shake over Ice, Strain, Serve
  • Garnish with Lime Wheel

The Martini History

Martini cocktail on dark stone table
Martini cocktail on dark stone table

Gin. It’s made with gin. A “Vodka Martini” is a Kangaroo Cocktail.

Did James Bond drink them shaken? Yes. Why? Well, allegedly, it’s because the drink is so tasteless that he would be able to tell if it had been tampered with. Additionally, if you are an assassin on assignment, you might not want to get snockered. Therefore you need a watered-down drink (that’s why it’s shaken). Besides, if Bond is your measuring stick, drink the Vesper Martini, a delicious, classier alternative.

Now that we’ve cleared the air, the Martini is a great drink that reeks of sophistication and class. It’s a drinkers cocktail. Usually, martini drinkers are the best tippers, as long as you get their drink right. Twist? Dirty? Dry? 50/50? There are as many versions of the Martini as Batman has gadgets on his belt; however, the one to stick with, unless otherwise instructed, is the Dry Martini.

Much like The Old Fashioned, the “Dry” Martini has nothing to do with how much Vermouth you use. However, bartenders regularly make that mistake. Instead, it refers back to the days when the sweeter Old Tom Gin or Genever was more popular than the London Dry Gin.

Today, London Dry gin dominates the market and is the standard. However, there is a gin renaissance occurring with Old Tom and Herbal Gins making a comeback.

Additionally, there is a famous anecdote from Winston Churchill about the Martini. He said he liked his martinis with a London Dry gin and a “nod to the French.” While Churchill quipped and quipped well, here he was wrong. Vermouth is a fantastic spirit that can make or break a drink, and when it is essentially half of the cocktail (depending on whether or not you add bitters) it is something that needs attention.

Vermouth is another oddity to Americans. People believe that Vermouth is like any other spirit and can be kept on the shelf. It cannot. Vermouth is a fortified wine, but it’s still wine and will go rancid if not cared for properly. Therefore, most people who hate Martini’s hate bad Vermouth. Vermouth goes in the fridge, and after a few weeks, needs to be thrown out.

Remember this: this drink is one of those cocktails that the garnish makes or breaks it. Gin can have a few simple botanicals, or it can be wild and herbal. Likewise, Vermouth has a laundry list of ingredients that can be highlighted by a proper garnish.

Honestly, the best way to go with a garnish is a twist of citrus fruit. Depending on the gin, it can be lemon, orange, grapefruit, anything really. While gins are catering to the savory crowd out there in modern times, the olive is another shot at covering the flavor of lousy Vermouth.

The Martini Recipe
  • 2 oz Gin
  • 1 oz Dry Vermouth
  • 2-4 dashes of Orange Bitters
  • Stir over ice, strain
  • Garnish with a citrus

The Negroni History

Summer alcoholic cocktail Negroni with dry gin, red vermouth and red bitter, orange slice and ice cubes.
Summer alcoholic cocktail Negroni with dry gin, red vermouth and red bitter, orange slice and ice cubes.

Except for the Aperol Spritz and this classic, the American palate is behind on bitter. Around the world, bitter cocktails hold their own weight, just ask the Italians about the quality of their Vermouth.

Within the past few years, however, more and more Amaros are creeping into the scene. Bitter is a critical component of cocktails. Learning that bitter is not bad, but another flavor, opens doors to a whole new kind of imbibing. Be warned: once you master this drink and enjoy it, it’s a brave new world.

The beauty of the Negroni is it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted. The bitter citrus combines with sweet Vermouth in a perfect way that is only enhanced by the right gin. This is the perfect before dinner cocktail as the bitterness of the drink sparks the appetite, but is rounded off by the sweetness of vermouth and the strength of the gin. In a world of perfect cocktails, the Negroni stands strong. However, it’s typically a one a done sort of thing. Not many people want to line up four or five Negroni’s in a night, so the bartender better be acquainted with the rest of this list.

Side note, if you’re looking for the lighter fare for whatever reason, leave the gin out and sub in club soda for an Americano. James Bond’s second drink of choice, the Americano, carries the same flavor profile of the Negroni minus the punch.

Like all excellent drinks, simplicity is vital. The drink depends on quality ingredients. While Campari is the given, this drink lives and dies on the quality of the Vermouth.

Rule of thumb here, forgo the cheap stuff. If you make a Negroni, then fork over the dough for Antica Carpano (the best with rich vanilla flavors) or Dolin (at the minimum with more Christmas spices). Remember, quality over quantity.

The gin is almost an afterthought. Don’t waste the alcohol with anything less than London Dry. Herbal gins are too weak to stand up to Campari’s robust flavors, so opt for something with a lot of Juniper (think Tanqueray or Plymouth).

The Negroni Recipe
  • 1.5 oz Campari
  • 1.5 oz Sweet Vermouth
  • 1.5 oz London Dry Gin

The Margarita History

Lime margarita alcoholic cocktail with silver tequila, liqueur, lime juice, salt and ice,
Lime margarita alcoholic cocktail with silver tequila, liqueur, lime juice, salt and ice,

I’m going to level with you: I’m not a fan of margaritas. However, bartending is not about you, it’s about the consumer. And if you have folks over to your place for drinks, odds are someone will request a margarita.

Honestly, this is not a blender drink. Much like the daiquiri, margaritas are better as cocktails than frozen treats. On a hot day, by the pool or the beach, sure go to Margaritaville. Otherwise, save yourself the trouble of cleaning a blender out at the end of the night and make this drink in a shaker.

Here’s the reason: a smoothie is basically ice. Ice waters down a drink. It is an essential part of mixing a drink as dilution is part of shaking and stirring. However, anytime you add the amount of ice needed to make a smoothie or frozen drink, you are basically drinking water.

Also, much like the Old Fashioned, a lot of abominations have been done to this fan favorite. For one, never add Grand Marnier to this drink. The only reason anyone has ever put Orange Brandy into a Margarita is to charge more. It does nothing for a margarita.

Does it need something orangey to round out the flavor? Yes. Do you need to be a 90’s rapper pouring an overly expensive liquor into a simple drink? No.

Orange Curacao, Triple Sec, or if you are really, really wanting to spend more money, Cointreau is acceptable. However, the margarita lives and dies with the quality of tequila you use. Look for 100% Agave, Reposado, if you are looking to amp it up a notch with flavor.

Lastly, this drink’s garnish, if necessary at all, is the salt rim. This isn’t Applebee’s happy hour and you don’t need sugar lime juice. Simply rim the outside of the glass (just the outside) with lime juice and dip in coarse salt. Salt is a flavor enhancer. Many bars use saline solutions (dirty secret revealed) to enhance many drinks’ flavors because salts boast natural flavors.

The Margarita Recipe
  • 1 oz Lime Juice
  • 1 oz Orange Liqueur
  • 2 oz Tequila 

One final word about cocktails. While the recipe can change depending on your taste, always measure. Buy a jigger or a decent bartending kit and save your friends the trouble of eye-balling it.

You’re not making Trash Can Punch, Hunchpunch, Swamp Juice, or any other High School Kegger Concoctions. Cocktails are a lot like cigars. They are meant to be enjoyed with friends. They are intended to be experimented with. Once you learn a few recipes like the ones above, you can make a myriad of drinks: notice the daiquiri and the margarita are practically the same. Just like the Martini is the Manhattan is the Martinez with different ingredients.

Above all else, drink responsibly. There is a long history of drinking. Someone grew the ingredients to make the mash that went into the still that brewed the liquid that went into the barrel that sat for 4 to God-knows-how-long that ended up in the bottle sitting on your shelf. Someone, a long time ago in a country far, far away, concocted the above drinks to bring a patron some sliver of joy in this life. Don’t disrespect that process and waste yours.

What is your favorite home-made cocktail recipe? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.