Sunday 18 September 2011

Mixology and Home Bartending for Beginners: Ingredients

In this blog post I want to talk about some of the key elements that go into the drinks we all love.  When we think of our favorite cocktail, it is the alcohol contained in that specific drink that we tend to focus on.  Often forgotten are those other indispensable ingredients such as juices, syrups, bitters and ice.  A cocktail without any of the latter would not be a beverage I would not want to indulge in.  So for this post in my mini-series for beginner mixologists and home bartenders I will be highlighting the following topics; fruit juice, syrups, dairy products, bitters and ice.

Fruit Juice
That old saying "fresh is best" could not be more relevant than with fruit juice.  Leave the bottled OJ for breakfast.  You will need to purchase a hand juicer for your citrus juice.  For juice that requires a more of a labor intensive procedure to extract the juice, organic bottled juice will Suffice.  If you're set on sourcing all your juice fresh,  peel, chop, puree, and strain the juice through a fine mesh strainer.  Be sure to use fresh juice as soon as possible.  Fresh juice starts to show its age well with in an hour, so be sure to use up all your juice with in a time period of at least two hours.

One of the four primary ingredients of the classic cocktail (Spirit, Sugar, Water, Bitters) syrups can be found in classics like the Toronto and Mint Julep.

You'll often come across a cocktail recipe calling for "simply syrup" which is simply, water and sugar.  Don't waste your money on store bought simple syrup, it can be produced at home for a fraction of the price.  Place equal parts sugar and water in a pot over medium heat until all the sugar has thoroughly dissolved.  Let mixture cool then bottle and keep refrigerated.  Home made simple syrup should last upwards of one month.  If a recipe calls for "rich simply syrup" just increase the amount of sugar to 2 parts sugar, 1 part water.

Syrups have evolved past the simple to more complex with flavors ranging from straightforward fruit to complicated concoctions of herbs and various spices.  Adding fresh fruit, herbs, spices, tea and nearly any desired flavor can take a great drink up a notch.  Included below is recipes for three syrups that are my personal favorites.

Dairy Products can become a topic of discomfort for some people unfamiliar with the lack of health concerns associated with raw eggs and dairy products.  There is not much of a concern associated with dairy such as cream and milk, but when raw eggs begin taking up room in the cocktail shaker, that is when the problems begin.  The facts are simple, the percentage of coming in contact with a egg containing salmonella is a 0.0003% chance. Remembering that salmonella is - generally- only present on the outside of the shell, so a gentle bath in warm water and mild soap will dramatically reduces these chances even more.  You have a far better chance of dying in a car accident (1 in 18 000) then dying from salmonella.  I will not stop driving because of a small chance of death and I certainly won't stop enjoying a pisco sour either.

When using an egg white in cocktails always add the egg white to your cocktail shaker first.  This will ensure that you don't ruin the entire drink incase the yolk breaks.  Before adding your ice and shaking like you would for any other shaken cocktail, add the spring from your hawthorn strainer and shake the ingredients without ice for approximately  20-30 seconds.  The spring will act like a whisk and help froth up the egg white.  Then remove the spring, add your ice and shake.  Alternatively us a cappuccino frothier to mix the drink before shaking.  Whisk drink for 30 seconds before adding ice.  This procedure involves less mess, as egg whites tend to build pressure in a cocktail shaker without ice.  Over time the seal may begin to break slightly, which can result in a sticky mess.

When it comes to cocktail ingredients, nothing is more misunderstood then bitters.  While bitters are exactly what their name describes; bitter, its presents in moderation will not make a drink bitter.  Bitters are used in small dashes and drops to add an extra layer of depth to a libation.  An easy culinary comparison to bitters is spices.  A spoon full of paprika is just as appealing as a glass of angostura bitters.  Three dashes of grapefruit bitters to a Margarita or a dash of orange bitters in a dry martini makes a world of difference in the final product.

Here is a drink that utilizes all the above ingredients.

Pisco Sour
- 2 oz Pisco
1 oz Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
- 0.5 oz Simple Syrup
- 1 Egg White
- 2-3 Dashes Angostura Bitters

- Add egg white to mixing tin
- Add pisco, simple syrup and lime juice to mixing glass
- Shake with no ice for 30 seconds
- Add ice and shake for 15 seconds
- Double Strain into chilled cocktail glass
- Add 2-3 gentle dashes of angostura bitters atop of cocktail's foam

Pisco Sour

For over 200 years ice has been an expected ingredient in nearly all cocktails.  Ice is to a bartender as fire is to a chief.  Without ice a mixologist's options are limited to few drinks beyond the hot toddy, blue blazer and other scalding concoctions.  Before assuming any old ice will do when assembling a cocktail there are several key factors to consider.  Water quality, ice size and where the ice has been stored.

The higher the purity of water the less undesired flavors will be imparted into the cocktail.  When comparing a cocktail made with ice using tap water to a cocktail made with filter water ice cubes there is a noticeable difference is quality.  Filtered water is an absolutely fine source for your ice.  While distilled water may be purer it is more expensive and impractical for large scale use.

Where you store your ice can negatively influence flavor into your ice.  Storing your ice adjacent to your frozen salmon and broccoli will not resolute in ice fit for stirring an Old-Fashioned.  If possible store your ice in a freezer containing only ice, glassware and any desired alcohol.  If this is not an option package your ice in zip-lock bags furthest away from any particularly pungent smelling foods.  Use the oldest ice first.  The longer the ice sits in your freezer the more likely unwanted orders will impart it's self into the ice.

The last factor to consider when choosing the proper ice for you cocktail is the size of your ice.  I group ice sizes into four categories;  crushed, cracked, cubed and custom.

Crushed is a key ingredient in classics such as the Mint Julep and Mai Tai.  Crushed ice is idea for tiki and other tropical tipples.  The easiest and most cost effective way of making crushed ice is by using a lewis bag.  A lewis bag is a canvas bag in which you place your ice in.  Next comes the fun part, with a hammer or mallet take out your frustrations on the ice filled lewis bag.

Cracked ice is simply cubed ice that has been cracked with the back of a bar spoon.  This creates a larger surface area which speeds up chilling and dilution.  Cracked ice is idea for stirring a classic cocktail or use in highballs like the Tom Collins or Mamie Taylor.

Cubed ice is just regular ice extracted from your ice cub tray.  Cubed ice is best used for shaking a cocktail as well as serving short cocktails on the rocks.

Custom ice includes over sized cubes, ice spheres and any other configuration of ice out of the norm.  Custom ice is idea for stiffer drinks like the Old-Fashioned and Vieux Carre.  The large surface area of a ice sphere will dilute a drink slower while still keeping it at a desirable temperature.  You can purchase a mold for ice spheres at

Honey Cinnamon Syrup
- 1 Part Organic Pure Honey
- 1 Part Water
- 5 - 7 cinnamon sticks

- Add all ingredients in a pot over medium heat for 5-10 mixture stirring constantly to stop mixture from boiling over.  Once an even consistently is achieved let cool, bottle and refrigerate.  

Raspberry Syrup
- 1 Cup Fresh Raspberries
- 1 Cup Sugar
- 1/2 Cup of Water

- Add sugar and water in a pot over low heat.  Stir until sugar has completely dissolved into water.  Then add raspberries to mixture.  Press raspberries until no whole raspberries are left.  Let mixture simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.  Let cool and strain through a fine mesh strainer.  Bottle and refrigerate. 

* Fresh fruit syrups don't last as long because of the addition of fruit.  Make sure you use it up with in 2 weeks at the latest, but the sooner the better.  If you don't plan on using your fruit syrups that quickly add a ounce of over proof vodka (50%) for every 2 cups of syrup.  This will give your fruit syrups a bit longer of a shelf life.  I'll admit, I don't always use fresh fruit.  Frozen is more of a practical solution for making fruit syrups year round.  No one will no the difference either.

Lapsang Souchong Syrup
- 1 Cup of hot brewed Lapsang Souchong Tea
- 1 Cup of Sugar

- Add tea and sugar to a pot over medium heat. Stir until sugar has completely dissolved.  Let cool, bottle and refrigerate. 

* If you leave the tea leaves in while making the syrup, make sure you strain before bottling.  I get all my tea from Silk Road here in Victoria.

I hope this blog post was helpful to any just discovering their love for cocktails.  Stay tuned for my next blog post for beginner mixologists which will take you through all the small nuances of making drinks.  As well as recipes that will utilize the above syrups.  Thanks again for visiting,  following me on Twitter @spirit_imbibing for blog update notifications and links to other great cocktail/bartending resources. 


  1. As for the fruit syrups, unless you have a cheap source for freshly picked fruit, frozen is often better. Frozen is always picked in season when ripe and locked in that way. Many fresh fruits were picked unripe and shipped (unless you get it at a farmers market). And the lack of attractiveness of frozen fruit is meaningless once you bring it to a boil.

    And for the ice part, there were plenty of Scaffas, Pousse Cafes, Slings, and other room temperature drinks. There is a trend (such as in Beta Cocktails book) to bring back this art form.

  2. I agree with you on the frozen fruit part Frederic. Unless in season, any of my berry syrups I make (raspberry, blackberry etc.) are made with whole frozen berries. It still tastes delicious none the less! I'll edit the post to make a note of this. Thanks for the reminder.