Like many people who were stuck at home during the pandemic, my husband Nick and I invested in a home bar and got into making cocktails. We were helped by a tight group of like-minded friends who ended up forming the Wednesday Night Cocktail Club! At the beginning, we got together over Zoom to learn from Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana’s Mixology Masterclass and make that class’s cocktails. Over time, we began to “host” each other via Zoom, deciding on a new cocktail to share with the group and delivering cocktail ingredients to each other’s doors so that we could raise a glass together through our screens! Finally, once we were vaccinated and restrictions loosened, we were able to get together in person and shake up some cocktails for real.
Our weekly cocktail club, over the past couple of years, built our skills and our palates. We began to realize our personal preferences, how different ingredients tasted (separately and together!), and how to riff on classics to create something new. It took time to build this comfort with mixology, but it is a completely achievable goal for anyone!
Mixology—the art of cocktail making—reminds me of my favorite high school science class: chemistry with Mr. Sweetser. Chemistry class was my favorite, in part because of the “Sweetser-isms,” the chemical humor, running inner monologues, and puns that only true chemistry fans and sleep-deprived teenagers who needed the laughs to stay awake during class would appreciate. Luckily for Mr. Sweetser, I was both. I also loved chemistry class because of the mathematical, scientific certainty of chemical combinations. Chemistry follows regular patterns at the molecular level: if you do X in a certain way, you will get Y. Not many things in life are as beautifully certain as chemistry!
Cocktails are similar. There are patterns to the measurements and combinations that help you get a surefire result. All you need to do is follow the three T’s: taste, technique, and try.
Everyone’s taste buds are different. There are tons of different rums, bourbons, tequilas, and gins out there. Consider spirits as similar to wines—you have to taste things to see what you like! So seek out spirits tastings (sometimes for free, at places like Total Wine & More!) and settle into a bar stool at your local spot to see how different spirits taste.
It’s not always easy, especially for the novice drinker, to enjoy a straight sip of liquor! So taste also includes trying the spirits in a cocktail—and keeping in mind that the cocktail recipe itself is subjective and can always be tweaked to suit you. The little secret of cocktails: There may be the “first historical record” of some cocktail, but that’s not the “definitive” recipe. Cocktails are living, changing entities. (Case in point: the many different recipes for a cocktail like the champagne sidecar!) The point is, you can learn a lot from the bars, mixologists, and books out there—but ultimately it comes down to what works for your taste.
“Harry now squinted at the next line of instructions. According to the book, he had to stir counterclockwise until the potion turned clear as water. According to the addition the previous owner had made, however, he ought to add a clockwise stir after every seventh counterclockwise stir. Could the old owner be right twice? Harry stirred counterclockwise, held his breath, and stirred once clockwise. The effect was immediate. The potion turned palest pink.” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, p. 190
Technique matters when making cocktails. But with the right equipment and a willingness to practice, you can handle whatever is necessary! A mixing glass and a long spoon to stir ice into a drink to chill it, a good cocktail shaker that makes you feel confident in both shaking and pouring, the appropriate glassware to display your creation. And your choice of ice: It’s important to use one large ice cube or a glassful of crushed ice if that’s what the recipe calls for—it really will make a difference. Like Harry Potter found out in Potions class, the right technique does matter. And practice makes perfect!
Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try. Except when it comes to cocktails.”
My motto is, there is a bourbon drink for everyone! (And a tequila drink, and a rum drink, yada yada yada). You may think you don’t like X or Y, but there is probably a way that you can like it, with the right combination of ingredients and the right technique. You may hate margaritas on the rocks (served over ice), but you may love it shaken with ice and strained into the glass (served “up”). The margarita recipe may call for 2 ounces of tequila, but you may find you like it better with only 1.5 ounces of tequila in proportion to the rest of the ingredients. Jose Cuervo might not work for you, but what about Patron? Or what if you combine tequila with grapefruit, bubbles, and simple syrup into a Paloma instead of a margarita?
There is something out there for you—but the only way to find your go-to cocktail is to try. Be adventurous and courageous. Sit down at a great cocktail bar, trust the bartender, and go outside your comfort zone. Look up some recipes and experiment in your home bar. What’s the worst that can happen? You can always mix up a new cocktail!
Follow Jocelyn Sage Mitchell’s Mixology recipes at this link!