Since a lot of us will still be playing bartender at home this year, we thought it would be fitting to brush up on some of the basics of bartending. Former NYC bartender Mikey Diehl worked in the industry for almost a decade and has some helpful tips and tricks to share for stepping up your mixology skills. Consider this a crash course on bartending and a guide to better drinks.
Tip #1: Stock up your home bar
Before you can dive into the actual cocktail crafting, it’s important to make sure you have a well-stocked bar cart or liquor cabinet. Here are the essentials:
- Liquor: Start with at least the main four — rum, vodka, whiskey and tequila — and expand as you can!
- Mixers: simple syrup, grenadine, cocktail bitters, club soda, fresh fruit juice, cola
- Equipment: Boston shaker, jigger, strainer, bar spoon, bottle opener, corkscrew
- Garnishes: lemon, lime, orange, olives
- Ice (ice, baby!)
Tip #2: Follow ratios, not rules
Mikey believes that making cocktails is not meant to be serious. He says, “There are no rules; we’re not saving lives. Just have fun playing around and experimenting with different ingredients. That way, you can determine your individual preferences.”
Instead of focusing on rules or techniques, he suggests that it is more important to think about ratios when you’re first starting out. “A jigger can be very helpful to make sure your proportions are on point. If you’re making a spirit-forward drink, like a martini, aim for 2.5 to 3 oz. For other standard drinks, like a margarita, aim for 2 oz. But don’t forget to play around!” says Mikey.
Bartenders come up with drinks the same way that chefs come up with new recipes: trial and error. You don’t have to shoot for perfection every time. Mikey encourages you to use your imagination and ingenuity to experiment and explore!
Tip #3: Select your spirit wisely
Spirits might just be the most important ingredient in your drink. However, Mikey says that you shouldn’t overthink the proper name or form of your homemade cocktail. You can try swapping tequila for vodka or rum for whiskey without it being a cardinal sin.
His only concrete recommendation is to stick to simple drinks with fewer ingredients, like an Old Fashioned or a Gin & Tonic, when using top shelf spirits. That way you won’t drown out the quality with too many flavors.
Tip #4: Don’t ignore the ice
Ice is a key cocktail ingredient that is often overlooked. It can make a major impact on your drink. Mikey said that the ice we sell at Molly’s is great for most cocktails, but he prefers to use his own silicone ice mold to create bigger cubes. The main advantage of bigger cubes is that it allows you to sit with your drink longer without worrying about dilution. So, are the artisanal ices worth it? He’d argue that the extra cash should be spent on the spirits.
Tip #5: Not all sodas are created equal
Mikey made sure to explain that “not all sodas are created equal.” If you’re going to commit to using high-quality spirits, it doesn’t make any sense to use cheap mixers. The brands he recommends are Fever-Tree, Q Drink and Goslings. Canada Dry is a great economic option if you’d rather spend those hard-earned dollars on the hard stuff.
Tip #6: Practice makes perfect
Here are some techniques that’ll make you feel like a master behind the bar (even if you’re a total beginner):
- Shaking: Shaking is a technique where you use a cocktail shaker to mix ingredients together and chill them simultaneously. Mikey says, “Although it might feel fancy, you shouldn’t shake for too long. Ice is just water waiting to happen, so your drink might get diluted if you overdo it on the shaking.”
- Stirring: “Stirring is better when you’re mixing ingredients with similar viscosities. Grab a spoon or swizzle stick and get to work,” says Mikey.
- Straining: When it comes to straining, Mikey believes that mesh strainers are an important tool to have on hand. This way you won’t have to worry about chipped ice or stray pulp in your drink.
- Muddling: Some cocktails require fresh herbs, spices and fruit. This is where the muddler comes into play. The process of muddling involves crushing up these fresh ingredients to release their flavor into the drink. Did someone say mojito?
- Building: Although building a cocktail can take a lot of practice and precision, the technique itself is actually pretty simple! All you have to do is pour the ingredients into a serving glass on top of each other and mix as needed.
- Layering: Layering is a great technique to use while working with creams or liqueurs. You can practice by slowly adding lighter ingredients on top of heavier ones. Mikey highly recommends the Dark & Stormy as his favorite layered cocktail.
- Flaming: Flaming is a technique that is great for both theatrics and taste. Putting the oils in citrus fruit to a flame makes for a distinctive taste. Mikey said that it’s also a good way to add some excitement to the night. Just be careful not to make the night too exciting.
Tip #7: Use the right glassware
Believe it or not, your drink might actually taste different depending on the glassware you choose. Here’s why:
- Martini glass: Sure, sipping out of a martini glass might make you feel fancy, but there’s more to this classic glassware than you think. The long stem on martini glasses help to control the temperature of your alcohol, especially since your drink likely won’t have ice. The cone shape also helps to maintain temperature, keep ingredients pushed together and provide a nice large surface area for aroma.
- Rocks glass: Whether you call it a rocks glass, an Old Fashioned glass or a lowball glass, most people are probably familiar with this short, rounded tumbler. A rocks glass is primarily used for cocktails that contain more alcohol than mixer and have plenty of room for larger ice cubes. It also has a big opening that allows for easy access to stir and sniff your drink.
- Highball glass: Also referred to as a Collins glass, highballs are used to serve tall cocktails and other mixed drinks. Mikey believes this is a glass worth having on hand because it promotes bubble retention when mixing with sodas. Mojitos are a classic example of a drink served in a highball glass since smell isn’t quite as important.
- Snifter glass: Although this glass might make you feel a tough guy (or gal), it has key functionalities that go beyond looks. The snifter is perfect for aged brown liquors like bourbon, brandy or cognac on the rocks. It has a short stem which allows you to cradle the glass, keep the drink warm and easily swirl to trap more aromas as you sip.
- Coupe glass: A little known fun fact about the coupe glass is that it was shaped after Marie Antoinette’s breast. She asked for this shape specifically so that her court could toast to her health. The glass is very easy to hold and maneuver, so that you won’t have to worry about spillage once you’re a few drinks in. A classic drink served in the coupe glass is a Manhattan.
Tip #8: Garnish with real fruit
Mikey says that the main tip to keep in mind with garnishes is to ALWAYS opt for real fruit. (He could not emphasize this enough, so we put it in bold. Hopefully you’ll listen now.)
Garnishes are more than just decorations. They can actually affect how your drink tastes since your nose is the first sense in use while sipping. Adding fresh fruit as a finishing touch is an easy step that can truly elevate the taste of your cocktail. His favorite way to use garnishes is expressing lemon or orange zest on the top of the cocktail. He also recommends practicing using olive oil as a garnish since it can significantly change the mouthfeel of the drink.
Bonus Tip: Brush up on your bartender slang
Along with these tips, Mikey also shared some insider lingo so that you can walk the walk and talk the bartender talk:
- “Brown” — used to describe indistinguishable (usually booze/stirred) cocktails. “It doest say much… just tastes a little meh and brown.”
- “PSI” — an extra minute detail, such as the psi (pounds per square inch) on a carbonated beverage. “I’m working my butt off tonight and he’s over there workin on his PSIs or whatever.”
- “Sandbagging” — a guest who orders one drink at a time, often the same drink multiple times. Generally any guest who doesn’t have their order efficiently prepared. “Hey can I get a beer, a vodka soda… no, two beers, a vodka soda, a gin and tonic, just one beer, and another vodka soda.”
- “Staff Meeting” — a shot with your fellow bartender. “The 2 a.m. crowd was rough! How bout a quick staff meeting?”
- “86” — indicates the bar is out of something. “86 on that whiskey they requested”
- Cocktail orders that you would get from someone that act as a (not so subtle) way of saying, “Hey! I’m a bartender, too.” This list includes:
- “Can I get a Negroni with mezcal?”
- “Ever heard of a ‘Jungle Bird’?”
- “Can I get a shot of Fernet and maybe one for yourself?”
While talking to Mikey, his passion for bartending and extensive cocktail knowledge was clear. One of his favorite memories was bartending downtown on New Year’s Eve. He said it was a great way to meet and learn about people, which he misses a lot in the COVID-era world.
The main tip he wanted you to leave with: there’s no “wrong” way to craft a cocktail. Advancing your skills and experimenting can be a rewarding and delicious process worth pursuing. We couldn’t agree more.