Home bar hacks
Elevate your cocktail skills and happy hour at home with these easy tips and tricks from our expert drinks writer
More people than ever are embracing cocktail-making at home, from pre-dinner spritzes to Friday night martinis and margaritas (see our guide to easy three-ingredient cocktails).
For novices, whipping up a classy drink (or two) in your kitchen can seem complicated, but with a little know-how, some simple prep and a few clever tips and tricks up your sleeve, levelling up your mixology skills couldn’t be easier. Here’s how to get started.
Looking for an affordable and eco-friendly way to keep your drinks cool? Check out the best reusable ice cubes and cocktail ice cubes.
How to create your own home bar
Create a capsule collection
You don’t need to buy lots of specialist ingredients when filling your drinks cupboard. Invest in some key spirits and other ingredients, and expand from there. Start with a high-quality white rum for daiquiris and mojitos; a blanco tequila for margaritas; bourbon for whisky sours, old fashioneds and manhattans; and gin and vodka for martinis. At least one vermouth (see more below) is useful, as is an orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau, an aperitif for spritzes such as Campari or Cynar, and bitters such as Angostura.
Pre-batch sugar syrup
Sweeteners are essential in cocktails and sugar syrups are a common ingredient in many recipes. You can buy sugar syrup (try brands such as Monin) but it’s usually easier – and cheaper – to make it yourself at home. To save the hassle of making it fresh every time you want a drink, make a big batch to keep in the fridge until needed. Check out our sugar syrup recipe for making it, and store in dash bottles for easy serving. Once you’ve mastered this, try experimenting. Brown sugar syrup is delicious with cocktails made with dark spirits such as bourbon and rum, or try using other ingredients including honey or even coffee to make sweet syrups.
Choose your ice carefully
The type of ice you choose is important. Standard ice cubes are a useful all-rounder for most cocktails but you’ll get better results if you tailor the ice to the drink. For example, cocktails that need dilution – such as mint juleps – are best made using crushed ice that melts more quickly. Cocktails such as negronis and old fashioneds, as well as neat spirits, need ice that melts slowly so as not to water down the drink too much. This silicone ice cube tray will produce big, chunky cubes perfect for the task, or try these ice sphere moulds for aesthetically pleasing balls of ice that melt even more slowly.
Flavoured ice cubes
Don’t assume you can only use water in your cubes. Flavoured ice cubes are easy to make and add an extra dimension to a drink. Try chopping up your favourite herbs (rosemary, basil, mint and thyme all work well), put them in ice cube tray compartments then fill with water, freeze and serve with drinks – they work particularly well in G&Ts. We also love doing the same with olive brine for dirty martinis, or try filling up an ice cube tray with left-over coffee to add to iced coffees in warm weather – this will ensure your brew doesn’t get too watered down.
Invest in vermouth
Fortified and aromatised wines are the versatile workhorses of your drinks cupboard. Vermouth in particular forms the foundation of many different cocktail recipes. It’s worth keeping a sweet red vermouth for drinks such as americanos (it’s also delicious drunk chilled over ice with a wedge of citrus) and a dry white vermouth for martinis. The latter is also useful as a substitute for white wine in dishes such as risottos. Both varieties will keep for weeks in the fridge. Check out our guide to vermouth here.
If you’re out of vermouth, other fortified wines work equally well in a pinch. White port and fine sherry work beautifully in martinis, while ruby port makes a fruity swap for vermouth in a negroni. Pedro ximénez sherry is magic in a manhattan, as seen in this recipe.
To shake or stir?
Dilution is a key concept in cocktails, and is essential when it comes to choosing whether to shake or stir your drink. Spirit-forward cocktails such as martinis should be stirred with ice to limit dilution and ensure a silky, smooth texture. Any recipe that calls for fruit juices, dairy or citrus should be shaken, as this aerates the drink and increases dilution, marrying together the ingredients in the cocktail.
Swap and substitute
The more you make cocktails and become familiar with their flavours the easier it will be to make swaps and substitutions when you’re missing an ingredient. It’s okay to break the rules! For example, if you’re missing gin and craving a negroni, trying using rum for a softer take on the cocktail, or even mezcal for a smoky edge. Using bourbon gives you the rather sophisticated boulevardier cocktail.
Obsessed with margaritas but lacking triple sec? Blanco tequila works well with other fruity and floral flavours – try swapping your regular Cointreau for elderflower or cherry liqueurs for equally delicious effect. Use agave syrup (available in most supermarkets) to make a Tommy’s margarita – the syrup amps up the agave flavours in the tequila.
Chill your glasses
Refine your home bar experience by making sure glasses are properly chilled – they’ll really elevate the final drink, ensuring cocktails stay colder for longer. It’s essential for drinks served straight up without any ice, or for drinks on the rocks where you want to ensure the ice doesn’t melt too quickly. The best method is to stash your glasses in the freezer for maximum frostiness. Aim for at least 30 minutes but an hour is best. If you’re short on time, fill your serving glass with ice while you make the drink, then discard the ice and pour the cocktail into the glass. Just remember to avoid the freezer method for crystal glassware or especially delicate wine glasses, and make sure the liquid you’re pouring into the glass is also cold, otherwise the temperature difference can shatter the glass.
Easy kit swaps
Missing a cocktail shaker? No need to worry – use a jam jar instead. Build your cocktail, screw on the lid and shake with ice, then use a small sieve or even a fork to strain out any ice or solids when serving the drink. If you don’t have a jigger, use tablespoons instead – three is equivalent to 50ml. Instead of the long bar spoons typically used to stir drinks in cocktail shakers, try using a single chopstick instead.
Freeze your egg whites
Egg whites are the secret to cocktails with a creamy layer at the top, such as an amaretto sour. But separating the whites from the yolks is a fiddly job to have to do every time you make a cocktail. Instead, next time you have left-over egg whites (such as when making this delicious hidden-egg-yolk ravioli), freeze them in ice cube trays and defrost when needed.
How to make drinks vegan
Cocktails containing egg white, dairy and honey are easy to make vegan. For drinks such as amaretto and whisky sours, swap the egg white for 1 tbsp of aquafaba (the liquid from a can of chickpeas). For creamy drinks like white russians, swap the milk or cream for your favourite plant-based milk or cream – we like oat-based varieties best for this. Honey in a cocktail can be swapped for agave syrup, maple syrup or date syrup.
Pre-batch your cocktails
Planning a social gathering? Prep ahead of garden parties and barbecues by pre-batching your cocktails for easy serving. Check out our jug cocktail recipes here, or try bottling cocktails ahead of time. Booze-forward drinks such as old fashioneds and manhattans work best done in advance, as time gives the flavours a chance to mellow and settle; anything containing fruit juice or citrus is best made on the day; and cream-based cocktails are best made to order rather than being bottled, as the contents can spoil easily.
Don’t waste your citrus
Citrus is an essential part of many cocktails. Lemon is commonly used but if you don’t have it, lime or grapefruit will also work. And don’t just discard the fruit after squeezing the juice. Add strips of citrus peel to homemade kombucha and carafes of drinking water for flavouring (ginger peel also works well for this), or muddy citrus zest with sugar and leave for a few hours. The sugar extracts the fragrant essential oils from the peel, creating a flavourful syrup called oleo saccharum that can be used to sweeten drinks.
DIY pink gin
Turn your gin a pretty rose colour by stirring together 50ml of gin, three dashes of Angostura bitters and a little ice in a cocktail shaker, and strain into a chilled glass. Top up with a little tonic water or sparkling wine.
Create your own liqueurs
Elevate your cocktails by making your own infusions and liqueurs. The easiest place to start is with seasonal fruit. Chop it up, mix with a little sugar and a spirit, leave for a few weeks and you’ll be rewarded with a delicious liqueur – we love this recipe for rhubarb gin, which works beautifully in spritzes and G&Ts. Alternatively, try raiding your spice cupboard for inspiration. Infuse vanilla pods in vodka to use in a passion fruit martini, or try doing the same with cacao nibs and rye whiskey in this recipe for a chocolate old fashioned.
Don’t forget about storage
Here at olive we love a chic drinks trolley – we’ve rounded up a few of our favourite ones here. We like having a larger one to store our whole drinks collection, as well as a smaller one that you can use at parties and social events – for example setting up a DIY cocktail station so guests can make their own.
Buy some bitters
Think of bitters as the seasoning to a cocktail, amping up the flavours. There are hundreds of varieties but good ones to start with include aromatic bitters such as Angostura – perfect for adding spicy depth to dark rum and whisky cocktails – and orange bitters for martinis and bourbon drinks. Later, you may want to branch out to floral bitters for G&Ts and other gin cocktails, and chilli bitters for margaritas.
Know your ratios
While some cocktail recipes can be complex, the true classics are actually very simple to make, and you don’t always need a recipe to hand if you’ve memorised a few simple ratios in your head. The following are a good place to start.
Negronis – 1:1:1 each of Campari or other bittersweet aperitif, gin and vermouth
Martinis – a dry martini is generally 6:1 gin to vermouth, but you can play around with this ratio depending on your taste. A wet martini is 3:1 gin to vermouth
Spritzes – 3:2:1 of sparkling wine, aperitif or liqueur, and sparkling water. Check out our classic Aperol spritz recipe here.
Sours – 2:1:1 of spirit, sour (like citrus) and sweetener. Sours are a huge cocktail family and include daiquiris, margaritas and sidecars.
Cocktail rinses – coating the inside of a glass with a thin layer of liquid then discarding the rest – are a great way to add flavour to cocktails. In a sazerac an absinthe rinse adds a lifting hint of anise but lets the whisky take centre stage. Rinsing works best with bold flavours – such as single-malt scotch or mezcal – or sweet liqueurs. Try experimenting with your next drink.
Beer in cocktails
Beer makes for a versatile cocktail ingredient. Try these four ideas... Mix wheat beer and Aperol for a spin on a spritz or IPA with Campari for a hoppy, bittersweet drink. Add a dash of espresso and crème de cacao to stout, and mix lager with a little worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and lime to make a spicy michelada, served in a glass with a chilli-salt rim.
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