Bartending 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Great Cocktails

Getting into wine or craft beer is as easy as doing a lot of tasting and getting a few glasses for your kitchen. For the cocktail crowd, enjoying your favorite libations at home involves a little more know-how. After all, no one wants to sip a drink that’s watered down and too sweet.

To get schooled in all things cocktail, we caught up with Darnell Holguin, bartender at Bathtub Gin. With more than a decade of experience, he has plenty of wisdom to share for those who are just getting started. The first step? “Don’t be afraid,” Holguin said. “If something tastes bad, you’re at home. You can always fix it.”

To minimize your chances of concocting something gross, we quizzed him on everything from finding the right spirits to learning how to properly build a drink in the shaker. He also shared a recipe for a daiquiri that’ll blow you away. These tips will have you making a mean cocktail before you know it.

1. Get the right gear

DArnell Holguin making a daiquiri using a jigger

Darnell Holguin using a jigger to make a cocktail | Christine Skopec/Culture Cheat Sheet

Though bars are overflowing with all sorts of gadgets designed to optimize each beverage, you really don’t need that much to make great drinks at home. Holguin said you can easily get by with a sharp knife, a jigger, a mixing spoon, a Boston shaker, and a Hawthorne strainer. The last two are great because they can stand in as suitable substitutes for more specialized equipment.

The Boston shaker beats out other models for home use mostly due to its functionality. “It’s multi-purpose,” Holguin said. “Not only does it work for being able to shake up a good cocktail, you can also utilize the small, glass portion for stirring cocktails.” The other reason to opt for a Boston shaker is because, since it only has two components, there’s one less part you have to worry about losing.

Versatility is also the main reason for choosing a Hawthorne strainer. Professional bars also keep julep strainers on hand, but they’re not crucial. “The Hawthorne with the springs gives us a tighter strain,” Holguin explained. If you don’t have a julep, that’s OK because you can still make this work in a mixing glass.

As for jiggers, they’re really a must-have for the sake of consistency. “Very often, you just have fun pouring and will think, ‘This is amazing! What did I do? What did I pour?'” Holguin said. “This helps you maintain that control.”

2. Choose your booze

Darnell Holguin adding ice to a shaker

Darnell Holguin adding ice to a cocktail shaker | Christine Skopec/Culture Cheat Sheet

Even if you have one spirit you always lean toward, keep in mind you’ll probably be making drinks for friends every so often. “I like to keep a basic array of spirits: a vodka, a gin, a rum, a tequila, and whiskey,” Holguin said. As for the specific whiskey, he recommended going for whatever type you prefer, be it Scotch or something else.

Figuring out the specific brands you want to keep on hand can be a little trickier, especially if it’s a spirit you don’t typically drink. The easiest way to get around this problem is by chatting with your bartender. “More often than not, they’re going to be happy to say, ‘I really like this brand,’ and offer you a little taste,” Holguin said. If the bar has a no-sampling policy, he suggested just purchasing a shot. “It’s an ounce and a half that you’re going to spend a few minutes tasting versus buying a full liter you may end up hating,” he said.

3. Stock up on essential ingredients

Darnell Holguin straining a daiquiri

Darnell Holguin strains a cocktail | Christine Skopec/Culture Cheat Sheet

When it comes to necessary ingredients outside of spirits, bitters are at the top of the list. Holguin said, “Angostura and orange are two classic, basic bitters that should be in pretty much every bar.” Those two will get you by for most cocktails, but anyone who likes a Sazerac is going to need to invest in Peychaud’s bitters as well.

Sweeteners are also a big player in drinks, and you don’t just have to go with sugar. “I like to use honey as well,” Holguin said. Just be sure to turn it into a syrup first so it fully incorporates into the cocktail you’re making. Holguin also recommended keeping agave and maple syrup on hand.

Any basic bar setup also needs plenty of fresh citrus. “If you find you’re not going to have a lot of lemon or lime juice throughout the week, you can always just get yourself a citrus squeezer and do it as you go,” Holguin offered. This method might even be preferable to juicing batches of fruit. “You’ll get optimal taste because it’ll be the freshest possible,” he said.

Lastly, consider your ice. Though you don’t need to worry about chiseling your own, you do need to make sure you have clean ice to avoid any off flavors. “That’s completely possible from just having a clean freezer, an ice cube tray, and maybe some distilled water,” Holguin said. If you want to have fun, you can always add other herbs of flavors. One of Holguin’s favorite experiments was ice made with a mint solution that he added to a watermelon mojito.

4. Get familiar with simple techniques

Darnell Holguin shaking a daiquiri

Darnell Holguin shakes a cocktail | Christine Skopec/Culture Cheat Sheet

When building a cocktail in a shaker, most people start with ice already in the tin. While that might be standard, it’s also a big mistake. “If I’m throwing my ice into the tin and then adding my ingredients, that trip it takes on the way down to the bottom — it’s going to become diluted,” Holguin explained. “It’s going to throw everything off and that ingredient isn’t going to be useful.”

There’s also an order of operations to follow when you’re adding ingredients prior to the ice. “When you’re building a cocktail, you want to add all your ingredients starting from your least expensive working to your most expensive,” Holguin explained.  He elaborated by saying, “If I start with the sugar and I accidentally pour too much, I can just dump that out. Once I start with booze first, that’s money I’m throwing away.”

Once you start shaking, you want to make sure you’ve adequately chilled the drink without diluting it too much. Holguin said you’ll want to pay attention to how cold the shaker feels, the sound, and the feel of the motion. “As you start to feel the weight is less of a block shifting back and forth and more of a fluid weight happening, that’s when you know you’ve shaken enough,” he said. And keep in mind this will happen quicker with smaller, thinner ice cubes.

5. Know your basics

Daiquiri garnished with lime sitting on a bar

Daiquiri at Bathtub Gin | Christine Skopec/Culture Cheat Sheet

To get started, Holguin recommended familiarizing yourself with a handful of classic cocktails. His list of go-tos for beginners consists of a gimlet, a daiquiri, a Negroni, and an Old Fashioned. “An Old Fashioned is definitely one that everyone should know how to do,” he said.

But again, there’s no pressure to be perfect when you’re not mixing drinks for paying customers. “I have a lot of fun when I’m doing cocktails at home,” Holguin said. “It’s like, let’s see what I have in my pantry and what kind of funky thing I can do today.”

Daiquiri

Ingredients:

  • ¾ ounce simple syrup made with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water
  • 1¼ ounces fresh lime juice
  • 2 ounces light rum
  • Ice
  • Lime wedge

Directions: In order, add simple syrup, lime juice, and rum to a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice, cover, and shake until combined and well chilled. Strain into a glass and serve garnished with a lime wedge.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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