There’s a reason people fawn over slick-fingered mixologists and it’s not just because of their product’s effect on your libido. Sure, these tattooed alchemists are purveyors of the finest booze and therefore providers of good times. But more than anything, they’re just so damn cool. They take humble parts and sum them into something so much more.
They also do it in ways that makes a close-up magician look arthritic. Because the key to a perfect drink is technique, technique, technique. Ever wondered why James Bond was so picky about the mixing of his martinis? Well, how you build a cocktail affects everything from piquancy to mouthfeel. The best mixologists have each method down pat.
But what if you don’t know your stir from your shake? What if ‘rimming’ and ‘flaming’ conjure decidedly different pictures in your mind? We picked the brains of four expert mixologists and muddled their advice together into a handy cheat sheet. So no excuses for defaulting to a G&T when you get home on Friday night.
Sophie Bratt, assistant bar manager at OXO Tower Bar and Crystal Head Vodka International Startender (try fitting that on your business card) defines muddling as “a process used to extract flavour from ingredients through pressure.” Essentially, bashing the bejesus out of fruits and herbs. For instance, when making a mojito, lime and mint are muddled together until they release enough juices and aroma to give the cocktail a proper kick.
“Different ingredients require different tools,” says Martin Siska, bar manager at Scarfes Bar at the Rosewood, London. “Mint should be slightly pressed with a spoon, whereas berries need more pressure, and therefore we use a muddler.”
A muddler is a type of pestle, approximately 6-8 inches long and around 1.5 inches in diameter. You’ll find wood, metal and even plastic muddlers, and whichever choice you make really comes down to personal preference.
It’s worth practising, though, as a lot of cocktail rookies make the mistake of over-muddling their ingredients, resulting in a mushy mess in the bottom of your glass. Instead, think of muddling as gently nudging the ingredients toward a tastier future.
“Shaking is all about creating the seamless balance between the ingredients and the ice to ensure the perfect dilution of the drink,” says BULLDOG gin’s James Coston. However, reaching this perfect dilution is not as simple as you might think.
“You need to consider what shaker you are using, the shape of the ice you are using and which shape of shaker you will use,” confirms Siska. “The most common tool for shaking is the Boston shaker or the three-piece shaker, though you use them for different drinks.” A martini works best with a three-piece, while a fruity drink demands a Boston.
What you do with each shaker, however, remains the same. Add ice (if you’re using it), then fill with your chosen ingredients. Then shake it like Outkast’s photographer.
“The longer you shake, the colder the drink will become but it will also become weaker, as the ice melts, diluting the alcohol,” says Siska. So basically, James Bond likes his drinks weak. “The whole argument about shaken or stirred martinis comes down to personal taste,” says Bratt. Just do your bartender a favour and forget the Sean Connery impression.
Before you skip to the egg-sucking tutorial, know that stirring a cocktail isn’t just about swirling a straw. Like shaking, it’s all about achieving the perfect dilution of liquids while monitoring the temperature drop in the cocktail. “Stirring gives you more control than shaking,” says Coston.
It’s mostly used for spirit-based drinks and uses a bar spoon or cocktail stirrer, not whatever clean cutlery you can find in your kitchen. Add some ice to your mixing glass, then your ingredients, then stir. Keep the pace slow and steady.
“Stir the cocktail gently to chill the liquid, but make sure you don’t over-dilute it,” warns Siska. “Ten or 20 seconds should do it for most cocktails. However, one drink you should stir for longer is an Old Fashioned, as it’s quite strong.”
Layered cocktails are the peacocks of the mixology world, nefarious little beasts dressed up in party frocks and best left in 1990s nightclubs. “Layering cocktails is a thing of the past,” says Rosco Nolan, head bartender at London’s Little Tape. “It’s had its time. Although I’ll still layer a Dark and Stormy.”
The technique entails layering different types of alcohol on top of one another, the varying densities of the liquid meaning each stays distinct. Drinks containing higher amounts of sugar will generally sit lower in the glass, while pure spirits will float at the top.
To create perfect layers, it’s wise to ascertain the density of your ingredients before starting. Use the rounded part of a bar spoon and rest it against the side of your glass, before slowly pouring your liquid down the spoon and into the glass.
“It can look quite effective and impressive,” says Bratt, although its now-dated connotations mean you’ll rarely see it at the UK’s top cocktail bars. Although it will impress your nan when she asks for her post-Christmas dinner Irish coffee.
It’s not just bodybuilders that chug raw eggs. While egg whites don’t change the flavour of a cocktail, they add texture and are used widely in sour and fizz cocktails. In fact, they’ve been mixed with booze since the 17th century. “When you see the word ‘sour’, you know the drink will contain lemon, sugar and egg whites,” says Siska.
When you break down the proteins in the egg, it foams. “Egg foaming emulsifies the ingredients,” says Coston. “By binding them in this way, it creates a smooth, creamy, rich and luxurious texture, with no separation.”
How you do it depends on the drink. “There’s a lot of conversation at the moment about the best way to shake an egg white,” says Bratt. “Normal, dry shake, reverse dry shake. I say find what works for each drink and enjoy it.”
These might sound entries in the kama sutra, but you’ll actually find them in any cocktail handbook. Dry shaking means shaking all the ingredients before adding ice to the mix. Reverse dry shaking means shaking all the ingredients with ice first, before re-shaking sans ice afterwards.
Alternatively, you could just use a hand blender.
Straining is a key part of finishing the cocktail, for when you either want to omit an ingredient from the shaker, like mint leaves, or you want to strain out the ice before serving. But, as with all things cocktail, it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. You can’t just use your tea-stained sieve here. There are many types (and even more techniques) but Bratt and Coston both recommend a Hawthorne strainer.
“It’s important to know which strainer to use,” explains Siska. “Select the thickness of the strainer depending on the kind of cocktail you are making. You could use a basic strainer for simple cocktails without fruit, but for something like a Strawberry Daiquiri, use a fine strainer.”
“Depending on the drink, you can either single strain (using one strainer) or double strain a cocktail,” says Nolan. “Double straining is especially useful when using fruit, to ensure the final product is smooth.”
Setting things on fire while liquored up might seem like the milieu of the teenage yob, but it’s actually a bartender’s most theatrical flourish. But fire is fun for the tongue as well as the eyes.
“Flaming is when the oils in the citrus fruit are released over a naked flame, which creates a burst of fire,” explains Bratt. “It is most often done with a Cosmopolitan – it looks good and adds a rich warm citrus aroma to the drink.” Nolan, however, is more likely to take a torch to his harder concoctions. “I flame any of my cocktails that require absinthe,” he says.
Depending on the strength of your booze, you might want to be careful, as some liquors will ignite faster than others. A safer way of achieving the same effect without scorching your eyebrows is to pour a small amount of alcohol into a spoon, and light it away from the drink. Pour it gently over the drink before serving, making sure not to add any more alcohol once the brew is aflame. Kaboom.
The simplest mode of cocktail making, building does what it says on the tin. Using your individual ingredients, you build the cocktail – without shaking, stirring, layering or flaming.
“The best example is a G&T,” says Siska. “You add the alcohol and the ice, and you build the drink in the glass. You don’t need any special tools.”
Stop giggling. Rimming a cocktail glass means wetting the edge then dipping it in salt or sugar, for added wallop.
“For a margarita, you’d use a lime wedge around the rim, followed by salt. A sidecar would use lemon and sugar,” says Siska. “For a redsnapper, to create more flavour, you’d use celery around the rim, then add salt and pepper,” says Coston.
If setting fire to your carefully cultivated masterpiece feels a touch gauche, a citrus garnish could be more your speed. Using a standard vegetable peeler, remove a section of lemon or lime, then leave it to rest for a few minutes before shaping it.
“The options for shapes are endless,” says Siska. “Squeeze the peel over drink to release the essential oils for a great aroma, but make sure you slice off the white, pithy side of the peel. It’s bitter.”
“Roll the peel between your fingers for about five seconds,” says Nolan. “It will release the oils while zesting your drink and glass.”
Top Tips For Making The Perfect Cocktail
Martin Siska: “Keep it simple. The cocktail should be tasty and well balanced. I prefer to use homemade ingredients or syrups rather than the ones you buy at the grocery store, because the quality is much better.”
Sophie Bratt: “Don’t force it; sometimes things just don’t work out the way you expect them to and it can throw you. If you’re creating for a guest on the spot, make sure to listen to their personal tastes, but never assume. I once interviewed a male bartender about how he would recommend drinks to guests and he replied, ‘Well, to you I’d recommend a lighter drink, probably pink in colour’. For the record, a martini, a beer and a shot would be my choice.”
James Coston: “Be precise with the ingredients and measurements, so that you are able to replicate the cocktail exactly every time. Be sure to also use fresh ingredients where possible.”
Rosco Nolan: “It’s relatively simple once you’ve got the knack. It’s all about finding the balance of flavour.”