The Home Bartender Guide: Classic Cocktails for Beginners

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Knowing how to mix a cocktail within your own home is a nostalgic power move. Whatever the reason – you want to learn a new skill, save money, or maybe you’re simply thirsty, creating cocktails is fun, and as someone once told me, an art.

Classic cocktail recipes aren’t hard to make. In this bartender guide, I’ll walk you through the supplies and ingredients to create simple cocktails. The basics of cocktail making is easy; however, as with anything, there are common rookie mistakes that can be avoided.

At the end of this how-to cocktail making for beginners, you will walk away with the knowledge to create both a stirred and a shaken cocktail: an old fashioned and a gimlet.

Barware for Cocktails

To begin making classic cocktails, you’re going to need basic barware, or use household items as substitutions. For creating cocktail recipes, the barware you’ll need includes:

  • Boston shaker
  • jigger or speed pourer
  • bar spoon
  • mixing glass
  • hawthorne strainer
  • julep strainer
  • fine strainer
  • juicer
  • muddler

If that seems like a lot, it is. You can buy an inexpensive cocktail set on Amazon that includes everything but the juicer. For the bare minimum of making cocktails, all you need is a shaker, a hawthorne strainer, a jigger or speed pourer, and a juicer.

***HACK ALERT ***

You don’t need any of these things. Tupperware with a tight lid can be used instead of a Boston shaker. A mixing glass is…a glass. A measuring cup and spoons can be used in lieu of pour spouts or jigger – just convert the ounces to tablespoons. I used a cheese grater as a strainer this past weekend. A wooden spoon or potato masher works as a muddler. You can also juice limes and lemons by rolling the fruit firmly with your palm against a table to loosen the juice, cutting it into quarters and placing a fork in the middle of the flesh, turning the fork as you squeeze the fruit.

It’s not easy and you’ll make a gigantic mess out of your kitchen, but you’ll still have alcohol to drink when you’re done. And what’s really important? A delicious drink or having every surface of your kitchen sticky?

I made these Mint Juleps with tupperware and a spaghetti strainer. Then I hid the evidence for the IG photo.

***OKAY, HACK OVER***

But, if you have the desire to buy barware, what are all these things?

How to Use Barware

The muddler is for crushing fruit or herbs, like in a mojito, or in the case of an old fashioned, crushing sugar cubes. No one really bothers with sugar cubes anymore – maybe at higher end places, sure. But most bars opt to use simple syrup since it dissolves into the liquor easier and faster, which is essential at a busy bar. But making cocktails at home provides the time to muddle away if you want, as long as there aren’t ten people waving money at you asking for drinks. If there are, I wonder what kind of home you live in and I would very much like to visit.

You might be wondering, “why so many strainers? You just said you once used a cheese grater.” Well, they each serve a purpose. Julep strainers fit into mixing glasses better and hawthorne strainers create a tight seal around shaker. If you have to choose between the two, get the hawthorne. It can be used interchangeably unlike the julep. Using the julep strainer on the Boston shaker will end with most of your drink all over the floor, and oh man, that sucks for a bunch of reasons.

The fine strainer is used for removing fruit pulp and herbs from cocktails. Neither the julep or hawthorne will adequately catch all the little bits. Can you get by without it? For juice and herbs, sure. But I would definitely double strain if your cocktail involves egg whites or cream. Fine straining your drink ensures the texture will be smoother. Nobody wants creamy chunks in their drink. Absolutely nobody.

The mixing glass and bar spoon are for stirring cocktails and the Boston shaker is for shaking drinks. And with that said, let’s talk about stirring and shaking cocktails.

Stirring vs. Shaking Cocktails

From both guests and co-workers I’ve been asked, “How do you know when to shake or stir a cocktail?”

It’s all about the juice.

The general rule of thumb for shaking versus stirring is if the cocktail has juice, you shake. Both methods dilute and chill the drink. However, shaking creates air, emulsifying the juice (or cream or egg white) adding texture and integrating ingredients cohesively. I encourage you to stir a cocktail with fresh juice and then make the exact same drink but by shaking. Then taste. There’s a difference, right? The air and water that is added to the drink makes it undeniably superior.

Now, then. The stirring and shaking techniques. When mixing cocktails, always fill the mixing glass and shaker full of ice. The more cubes, the merrier.

For stirred cocktails, stir with the mixing spoon until you feel the outside of the glass becoming cold. Usually, this takes about 15 to 20 seconds. But, the length of the shake depends on the cocktail you’re creating. A drink that incorporates egg whites should be shaken longer than twenty seconds and a rocks drink might only need a quick 5 second but vigorous shake.

With a Boston shaker, make sure the top is on tightly. A quick hit with the heel of your hand should snap it into place.

Ah, now, finally, the shake! Who doesn’t love that maraca sound of ice pinging against the tin? I do. In some ways, shaking a cocktail is harder than mastering a maraca. More on that soon.

Shake with both hands. Place one on the bottom and one on the top. If you feel confident and your hands are large enough, place one hand near the middle of the shaker – holding tight near the seam – and shake away. Holding the tin perpendicular to you and over your shoulder, shake until the tin feels cold to the touch, again about fifteen to twenty seconds. Or, in another method, you can place both palms at the top, fingers extending to the seam, and shake the drink at chest level, away from you.

Oh, and try to shake in a circular motion.

(Are you getting all this? See what I mean about the maraca?)

Why does this matter? Allegedly, shaking the tin in a circular motion is meant to create a smoother texture. If all this amount of information about shaking drinks is getting out of hand, which it is, a simple back and forth motion is fine, too. I honestly don’t know if there’s a discernible difference, but when I did use a circular motion, it seemed like the cocktails had a smoother texture.

With so many elements affecting shaken drinks, there is an entire science behind shaking cocktails that you learn through experience. Or some intense studying.

Just wait until you find out about ice and what that does to drinks. There are books on ice!

If some of this seems overwhelming or even unnecessary, it can be. But it’s a craft and, some would argue, an art. Even though I was a bartender for fifteen years and spent three of those years creating cocktail menus, I always had imposter syndrome until the day I stopped. Am I shaking the tin right? Will other people like this drink?

No matter how you do it, it’s fine.

For you, home bartender, no matter what, your cocktail will be a tasty because you made it.

So, that’s what you need to make classic cocktails at home! Of course, you’ll also need glassware. I could go into an entire diatribe about glassware, but that’s for another time. For now, grab anything out of the cupboard and let’s get to the good stuff – the drinks!

The Stirred Cocktail Recipe: Old Fashioned

  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye – your preference
  • .25 ounces of demerara or simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • muddled orange and cherry (optional)

Fill your mixing glass with ice. You can also add a cherry and orange to be muddled at the bottom of the glass (before adding ice) or simply as a garnish. Add the 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, which can be found whenever people sell liquor. Add the syrup, simple or demerara. I prefer demerara because it adds a molasses aspect to the drink and pairs perfectly with rye. And finally, add the bourbon or rye, whichever you prefer, even though I just tipped my hand on which one I prefer.

Stir, strain into a cocktail glass with ice, and enjoy!

The Shaken Cocktail Recipe: The Gimlet

  • 2 ounces gin or vodka
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce simple syrup
  • lime swath (optional)

I love this drink. It’s so simple and perfect.

Fill a shaker with ice. Add the lime juice and simple syrup. Then, add gin or vodka. I am a gin gimlet girl, everytime, because juniper and lime is a magical combination.

Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Add a lime swath as a garnish if you’re feeling fancy!

Well, that’s it. You now have the knowledge and capability of creating professional quality cocktails in your home. Your liver is in for a treat.

6 Ways Bartending Destroys Your Body

She worked seven doubles in a row.

Sometimes a sycophantic co-worker will say, “I want to learn how to bartend!” Typically, they’re dressed super cute, maybe some heels going on because their job requires delicate tasks, like seating guests or coat check. They’re young, usually having just turned legal drinking age, so bars are still novelties to them.

I’m wearing clothes that are garbage because I’m always damp, from sweat, dirty dish water covering my jeans, spilled drinks and olive juice marinating my shirt. There might be anywhere between one to five cuts on my hand from a dull fruit knife or shattered wine glass. Exhausted, my hair falling out of a shitty bun while eyeing the drunk guy at the end who I have to cut off or the couple who might run out on their tab, I say, “Yeah, it’s really fun.”

What I don’t tell them is the list of physical maladies that read like symptoms of a flu strain busting out of Asia. It’s no secret bartending can be back breaking work. The amount of physicality varies depending on where you work, but make no mistake, slinging drinks takes its toll.

General Aches and Pains

Have you ever been beaten with a sack of doorknobs? Neither have I, but I know the feeling. Waking up the morning after a busy bar shift will leave you wondering who broke into your bedroom during the night and pummeled you with a baseball bat. Once you get up and moving, the general achiness will subside, as well as other methods to reduce stiffness, but you will wonder who stuffed your sleeping self into a industrial clothes dryer.

Cacophony of Cracking

I would say this next ailment drowns out the sound of morning song birds, but you heard those when you got home at 5 a.m. Now it’s two in the afternoon, you’re stretching in bed only to hear bones clicking and snapping back into their sockets like a first year biology teacher’s classroom skeleton being assembled. Don’t worry, there’s nothing pathologically wrong, those are gas bubbles popping around joints. Some of us may have more cracking joints than others, due to genetics, but typically, the symphony of sounds emanating from your joints is from hypermobility. Now, if there’s pain associated with the cracking, that leads me to my next point.

“Did I leave the oven on?”

Chronic Pain

From pinched nerves to plantar fasciitis to tendonitis, chronic pain is something we would like to ignore, like that greaseball waving frantically at you for drinks only to turn around and ask his friends what they want when you finally get to him, but we can’t. The pain is there and it’s not leaving until it’s dealt with (or served a vodka soda, an old fashioned, a Bud Light, a shot of Yaeger, and “whatever Madison wanted”). There are ways to prevent injuries, but bartending requires you to be on your feet for hours upon hours, moving – usually quickly – and lifting kegs. So, of course, stretch whenever possible, drink tons of water, wear comfy shoes and watch your posture, but injuries still might happen. Slip on a wet floor and you have a wretched knee to deal with. If injuries do happen, don’t ignore them by drinking more shift drinks than usual, deal with them immediately. Trust me, they’ll only get worse and cost you more pain and money in the long run.

Persistent Fatigue

Once, after suffering cold symptoms for almost two weeks, I went to a primary care physician who dismissed my symptoms as a cause of “well, you’re a bartender, so you probably go out all the time.” Or maybe there’s bacteria building a subdivision in my sinuses, Doctor. Some might assume your constant exhaustion is substance abuse, which does make people tired. However, as a bartender who rarely drinks, the fatigue that accompanies bartending, as well as anyone who works on their feet, is real and unavoidable. Standing on your feet for forty hours a week will affect anyone. You’re going to be a little sleepy. Yes, you can go to the gym to increase your physicality, drink tons of water, eat well and sleep seven hours a night, but, c’mon, still sleepy. And for introverts like myself who found their way into a lifetime of customer service, your energy will be drained. Energy vampires are real.

Constant Exposure to Illness

Speaking of doctors, good luck ever taking time off work to see one. Despite the exposure to hundreds of people and their airborne illnesses every shift, the service industry is notorious for allowing, or demanding, their employees come to work ill. Hospitality workers having paid sick days is more rare than painite and they usually can’t afford to miss a shift. We’re not exactly millionaires. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford a day off when you’re dying with the flu, calling in sick without a doctor’s note usually means you’re required to find someone to cover your shift. If not, you’re working, unless you have a merciful manager. And speaking of doctors, hospitality workers are usually paying for private health insurance. And with the rising cost of healthcare, how many workers can actually afford the steep insurance premiums?

Fungus and Cavities, Oh My!

Now, for the closers, fungus and bacteria. Ah, fungus. We love you as mushrooms, but I do not want you on my toes. Once, I had a hole in my boot while bartending in a flooded bar which rewarded me with six weeks of athlete’s foot. Hands are constantly wet from alcohol, sanitizer water and fruit juice chapping your skin raw, resulting in the cutest term, bar hands. Like Edward Scissorhands, but touching a dry cotton polishing cloth will make you scream in pain. Another fun side effect is the prevalence of cavities. While I blame the majority of my dental care on my sugar addiction, there’s a definite cause and effect in alcohol and tooth decay. Tasting cocktails that you make to ensure consistency is part of the gig, but drink water afterwards because the acids in booze will rip through your teeth enamel like a tornado.

Bartending can be a rewarding job. The money is usually great, the people are sometimes great and guests respect you because you have knives and flammable liquids within reach. But you do have to have a thick skin – both emotionally and physically.