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As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on and the boredom began to set in, I started searching for more and more ways to occupy my time. I’m not sure exactly how this reflects on me, but I eventually turned towards cocktails.

At first, grabbing recipes online was sufficient, but it felt like something was missing. So, I bought a cocktail recipe book to expand my horizons in the cocktail world. The Essential Cocktail Book, edited by Megan Krigbaum, has been invaluable in my endeavours, but I have been bombarded with new terms, techniques, tools, spirits and ways to prepare it all. 

The world of cocktails seems daunting, but once someone dives in, it’s a blessing rather than a curse. There are some tools of the trade that need to be learned and experimented with. But, a homemade bartender will soon learn they can easily create the perfect drink for themselves and – when we can all meet in person again – their friends.

The main lessons that need to be ironed out are the types of spirits, the tools, the ingredients, the glassware and the preparation process.   

Spirits

Spirits are the base of any cocktail the most dynamic ingredient. There are many varieties, but the five core alcohols would be rum, vodka, gin, whiskey and tequila.

Rum is typically made from a base of distilled cane sugar. There can be multiple compilations of ingredients in the process of making the rum, creating golden, dark, spiced and light varieties. Each type has a different flavour profile suited to specific drinks – such as light rum in a mojito.

In its base form, vodka is colourless and more or less tasteless. But it does have a harsh bite that gives it some versatility in making drinks. The famous Moscow mule being an example.

Gin can be made in multiple styles, like sloe gin, and can be further complicated through different infusions. The one thing tying all gin together is the main ingredient of juniper, a tart, pine-like flavoured berry. This gives gin its unique botanical flavour and aroma.

Whiskey is complicated since there are multiple subsets of whiskey, those being bourbon, scotch and rye. Bourbon is the best known and the sweetest, making it the most accessible subset of whiskey and the perfect spirit for an old fashioned. It’s also a good drink if you want to spend a bit more money on your liquor as it will be the predominant flavour.  

Tequila is made from the heart of the agave plant. The most common types of tequila are aged or blanco. Blanco tequilas are particularly harsh and are best experienced in mixed drinks. Aged tequila and golden tequila are easily enjoyed on their own in drinks like an Oaxaca old- fashioned.

These are the alcohols found in most drinks and make up most of an amateur bartender’s liquor cabinet. This may seem excessive and a little hard on the bank. But, as Kathy Hearn, one of the owners of the Metropolitan School of Bartending – a school catering towards amateur homemade bartenders as well as professionals looking to enter the industry – explains, this doesn’t mean you need to experiment with all of them.

“If you aren’t loving something, don’t go and buy the big bottle. Vodka, bourbon, rum, those basic ones, you can buy a mickey so you can experiment without breaking the bank,” she says. “Choose something that will allow some flexibility, adding different juices and other ingredients allows you to spend less, and you can get a sense of how many drinks you can make with that limited amount.”

Tools

Many drinks require different tools to perfect, and the preparation is just as vital as the ingredients in the drinks. It’s more than just mixing everything together. The basic tools include muddlers, strainers, peelers, swizzle sticks, etc.  If you wanted to really get into the process, tools like smoke guns add an extra flair to your drinks, but for just getting started, tools like muddlers  – which are used to crush and release the juices of certain ingredients – will suffice, as London Richard, manager of Soros Lounge, explains.

“A good ice mould, in all honesty, goes a long way. The quality and style of ice can go a long way in a drink, whether it be a large cube or crushed ice,” he says. “Decent glassware makes a big difference. Bar spoons and jiggers for measuring would be a good place to start. You definitely don’t need to break the bank making cocktails.”

Ingredients and glassware

Cocktails are more than just the base spirits. There are a myriad of extra ingredients that add to the fullness and flavour of each cocktail. Different quantities and tweaks to specific ingredients can completely change a drink, for example, the difference between a gin sour and a gimlet. Both consist of gin and simple syrup, with the only difference being lemon and lime juice, respectively.

“To me, when I think about cocktails, I think about parties, socializing, laughter, celebrations, the fun aspects of life.”

Rob Patenaude

The main types of ingredients would be syrups, juices from different fruits, bitters, herbs and spices. Simple syrup is a good place to start. One cup of sugar and one cup of water mixed together over low heat provides one of the essential cocktail ingredients. It’s used in so many drinks and is a breeze to prepare, so this should be an amateur bartender’s essential item.

Glassware seems unimportant, but different styles of drinks require different types of glasses. Some common glassware examples would be the collins glass, which is used for long drinks over ice like its namesake, the Tom Collins, or a rocks glass, which is used for short drinks over ice like the old fashioned. More specialized examples would be something like a mule tin, which is supposed to be the exclusive glassware for the titular Moscow mule.

Preparation

Finally, bringing it all together is the preparation process. Different drinks require different types of preparation, from shaking to stirring. Knowing how to mix the drink will let you add a flair of your own, like a salted or sugared rim, as well as allowing for special drinks. For example, cocktails that involve egg whites often need to be shaken forcefully and for a certain length to create the delicate froth on top.

A gin sour. 2 oz., of gin, ¾ oz., of simple syrup, ¾ oz., of lemon juice, with a citrus peel to garnish. This is a little unorthodox since the citrus is actually supposed to be a lemon peel, not an orange. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD

This all seems like an ordeal, more trouble than it’s worth. But, as Rob Patenaude – also from the Metropolitan School of Bartending – explains, the process is an investment for the future when COVID-19 is over, and we can all gather around the living room with friends again. 

“To me, when I think about cocktails, I think about parties, socializing, laughter, celebrations, the fun aspects of life. So, this hobby is also for people who want to learn how to entertain from home,” he says.“This allows them to learn more about the alcohol they’re serving, the taste profiles, the combinations, things like that. If they make the effort, they’ll be able to introduce new drinks for their dinner parties.”

In the future, I want to take this sort of advice to heart, and I’ve begun seeking out more unique recipes and twists on my favourites so I can share them with friends and family when the pandemic has passed.