I’m a firm proponent of craft cocktails. But with that said, not just any cocktail is worthy of the label, “craft.” Just like not every spirit is really craft when it says so on the label. For all intents and purposes this should be your rule of thumb. According to the American Distilling Institute, which is the go/to for all thing that are craft in the United States, a spirit may qualify as a craft spirit if and only if they produce fewer than 52,000 cases of that spirit per year in their own distillery. So not to confuse you, this means 52,000 cases of a spirit distilled under their own roof qualifies.
If you are buying a spirit and it says craft on it, you cannot be guaranteed by the label alone because there are not implicit rules. Many spirits actually print on their label that they are “small batch, craft, hand-crafted and hand-made.” And nothing here means that they are truly American Distilling Institute Certified Craft Spirits. So be careful of what says “craft,” it may not be craft at all!
That brings us to the first rule of making your cocktail sing.
1. Craft Spirits
The first way you can make your cocktail better is by using better spirits. No one is saying that your usual go/to is bad. Far from and you should know by now that paying more does not absolutely mean better. What you like may be the best in the world! I can only make suggestions of what to pour because if I was buying, I could be opinionated!
Since you are buying, it’s completely up to you what to pour. Good thing I got that out up front because these drinks all call for craft spirits. Your package store should have at least basic training by their liquor distributors- who is making good liquor, and who is making craft spirits. Save your coin and try something that is craft by the very quality of the ingredients and the passion/care of the distiller.
2. Simple Syrup
If you are using a corn syrup-based simple syrup to sweeten your drinks, throw it out right now. To make the highest quality drinks and up your game (“Raise the Bar” is what bartenders call it), you should stop using cheap, corn syrup-based sweeteners.
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You’re contributing to poor health by making your drinks too sweet. That’s pretty basic. When making your simple syrup, try using an alternative sugar-like coconut, or Demerara, or Turbanado — they really taste like sugar is supposed to taste: kind of funky and rich.
3. Great Ice
Great ice does not have to be crystal clear, but it wouldn’t hurt to up your game and use a product like Gläce, which crafts just about the finest ice I’ve ever seen on the open market — one you can use at home and completely blow away your friends. If you don’t want to buy your ice- you can make pretty fabulous ice at home. I do it a couple ways. The first is freezing a quart container that would hold milk, then peel it open and cut— very carefully— the cubes that you want using a serrated edge knife.
You may want to wear one of those gloves used for cutting seafood to protect your tender fingers, or get accustomed to cutting yourself, ice is slippery, be careful. You can also buy those silicon ice cube trays in any big box store or online. Never wash them in the dishwasher though. They’ll be a one-use container that way. Before freezing your water, consider using distilled water, or twice boiling your tap water. Or just use a bottle of good quality artisan spring water- because your cocktails will absolutely taste better when made with great ice!
A thick-walled glass will make your cocktail taste like milk. And since I don’t drink milk, a glass of this stature and weight is never going to be at my bar. Unless I’m making a hot-toddy, then and only then is this glass acceptable. Or maybe not at all. Shopping for glassware-barware is easy when there are estate sales around.
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It’s amazing the quality of glassware that can be had for very little codder. Let your eyes do the heavy lifting and don’t ever be afraid to bargain for that perfect coupe for a Manhattan, or unique hand-blown Collins glass for a Ramos Gin Fizz.
If you are only using Angostura in your home bar, you’re missing the point of bitters entirely. Bitters are meant to add balance and depth to a craft cocktail. There are literally dozens of brands on the market, each offering a different place for your palate to visit. There are spicy bitters and smoky bitters. Tonic bitters and Sarsaparilla Bitters, bitters with chocolate and herbs and bitters that evoke healing, one drop at a time. Bitters are not just for a bellyache any longer!
6. Fresh Citrus Fruit
Peeled with a paring knife instead of a peeler. Peelers are impersonal, and peelers are fast. Peelers don’t connect you to the past. They are just that. Peelers. A most famous barman, Gaz Regan once said to me that you should use a paring knife to cut your citrus fruit. Sure, it takes a bit longer, but we are taking an often-mundane art of mixing drinks and producing a thing of rare beauty. Use a paring knife and make sure that it is sharp!
7. Cocktail Mixers
They’d better not be made with corn syrup. Brands that stand out are Fruitations, Royal Rose, Pickett’s Ginger Beer (Syrup), Jack Rudy, Tomr’s Tonic (syrup). Soda (pop) that stands out to raise the bar are mixers like Q-Drinks, Fever Tree, Polar, Poland Spring, Perrier grapefruit and lemon and orange… Always pick something made with pure cane sugar over corn syrup any day!