The most common feedback that I get from both readers and my friends that know of my “hobby” is “I want to try some of these things, but don’t even know where to start!”. Lucky for you, this is not a difficult thing to get into at all. Below I have outlined the basic items, both hardware and liquid-ware, that in my experience, you need to get started. From just these few items, many of which you probably already have, you will be able to master the art of the cocktail and impress your guests.
These 5 items are all that is really needed to make 90% of the drinks that we write about, and if there are any more that you need, you can likely use the below to improvise a way to do the job.
I prefer to use a small and large metal shaker for my shaken drinks, but a pint glass will work fine in place of the small shaker, albeit a bit heavier. This is your basic shaker to use for mixing, both shaken and stirred, cocktails. If you really want to be rustic, a mason jar can also make a pretty cool shaker, but with the screwing and unscrewing it will probably get a bit tedious after a while.
On the topic of stirring the bar spoon is the ideal. Yes you can use a butter knife or regular spoon, but a bar spoon is both more convenient, and serves to be a vital measuring item.
To continue with the measuring idea, get a good jigger and pony, or two, and you will be set for almost all measuring applications. I like to stick with the 1oz and ½ oz model as it is easy to scale up recipes if you start there, this can be more difficult with the larger ones. The longer and skinnier versions are also a lot easier to not spill, a good thing to remember after 2 or 3 cocktails :).
Ok, technically this is 2 items but if you try to only have one or the other you will be limiting yourself. Without a cocktail strainer you will make a mess, and without the double strainer you will need to learn fast how to pick things out of your teeth if you ever use mint/basil/fresh berries/etc in a drink. However if you don’t use fresh ingredients you can hold off on the double strainer for a bit, but you will want it eventually.
This is something that you can either buy specifically for cocktails, or just re-purpose something else to do the job. I prefer a nice metal one as it is easier to clean but I do admit that it always looks pretty classy to use a nice wooden one, bonus if it is hand-made.
See that wasn’t all that much right? For liquids my main advice is start small, and start with what you like, no reason to buy 3 types of whiskey if you can’t stand the taste. However below are what I consider the basics to make sure you can make the classic drinks.
At minimum Angostura, and depending on your preferences you may decide to get a few more. Peychaud’s is a great second purchase, as is a lemon/orange, its really up to if you like more herbal bitter flavors or citrus. Also if you are partial to any other flavor such like grapefruit or even black walnut, someone probably makes bitters with it, and you can probably make a great drink with it!
Both dry and sweet, yes it may not taste very good alone to you (yet), but without both you can never make a Martini, Manhattan, Negroni, ……. you need it! Although tempting I would advise not to buy the cheapest stuff here, and always refrigerate. This is wine, and as such will go bad if stored at room temperature.
Or Cointreau or Grand Marnier, but a cheap triple sec will do at first. The orange flavor is critical and goes well with anything.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you “but I don’t like gin”, the reality however is that you need the extra botanicals to make a good drink. Vodka will not successfully replace it (unless you have no taste buds), that would be like saying that margarine is just as good as butter, it just doesn’t work that way. If you really don’t like gin though I would suggest starting with a more mild gin like Tanqueray or Beefeater, if you like gin, well then I guess you will know where to start.
An Italian Bitter:
My favorite here is obviously Campari, but if you don’t like the intense bitterness (yet) than you could start with something a bit less intense like Aperol. Both can be used, but if you sub one for the other you will have to adjust your ratios to compensate for the difference in strength.
Sweetened Lime Juice (but real limes are better):
Rose’s is the typical choice here but I have found other brands to be good as well. However as far as classic cocktails go, with how long Rose’s has been around, it is probably the exact ingredient that the recipe you are reading is asking.
Real fresh lime juice is almost always better, and I would advise using it in anything other than a gimlet (need Rose’s here). Sometimes though if you just are adding a touch, the juice can be a bit more convenient.
At this point you may be thinking “you just gave me a list of stuff to buy, that does not mean I can make good cocktails”. That is absolutely true, but now it is up to your imagination and flavor combination skills to go the rest of the way. Although the items above are about all you need to start, adding your favorite liquors will be a fun next step. Although Gin is pretty good for mixing, you will probably want to explore drinks with Rum, Bourbon, Congac, Brandy, Tequila, Scotch, Mescal, Scotch, Pisco, and even more once you get going, and for inspiration you know are already in the right place. Just check out the “by ingredient” section to your right and have fun. There are also countless other great blogs that exist on the topic, and even many books that are very good.
If there is anything you think that I am missing here please comment and let me know.