As bartenders we’ll often receive some sort of booze for Christmas and whether it’s mini gift sets with a spirit miniature and branded glasses to a full bottle of that whiskey you’ve been lusting after, there are a few essential cocktail ingredients that you can keep on hand to make the most of whatever you get on Christmas morning! Oh, and if you’re not finished with your Christmas shopping yet, check out our gift guide here!
100% Essential items
Sugar (simple) syrup
Be sure to have sugar syrup on hand at all times – you don’t have to buy commercially made stuff, check out our guide to making your own simple syrup at home and you’ll save money as well as knowing exactly what’s in your syrup. No need for e-numbers, preservatives and stabilisers here, you can make small batches of you like and it lasts ages anyway!
Next we need something to balance out the sugar, so try to have fresh citrus on hand. In general lime works better with light spirits (vodka, gin, light rums, tequila) and lemon with darker spirits (brandy, whisk(e)y, dark rums), though in a pinch at home you can mix and match, and experimenting is always fun.
For best results always use fresh fruit and squeeze to order (though some find the flavour better around an hour or two after squeezing). You can use commercially produced juices (check the baking isle at the grocery store for lemon and lime), but having fresh fruit on hand also gives you the option of muddling, expressing oils from the skin of the fruit and a generally better flavour. Avoid powder mixes and pre-sweetened Sour mix or margarita mix though to give yourself the control over the balance of your cocktails.
Bitters are the seasoning of cocktails, just as chefs use salt and pepper to bring out the natural flavours of food, bitters will enhance the flavour of most cocktails (when used with sensitivity). The standard go to is of course Angostura Bitters, but the market for bitters has exploded in the past few years with chocolate, tobbacco, celery and even rhubarb bitters all now easily found, to name but a few. The classic peychauds bitters are also still popular, it’s a matter of tasted but if you’re only going to have one bottle at home, go for angostura, it will last you years.
Ice is a vital ingredient in 95% (or more) of cocktails so make sure you have plenty on hand. You can buy bagged ice from the local store easily, but better is to make your own and you’ll get more control too. If you have lots of freezer space try making a nice big block of ice, and play around with how to make perfectly clear ice if it takes your fancy. Pick up some silicone moulds to make 2″ cubes or spheres if you want to have some nice big blocks to reduce dilution in your drinks.
Raid your cupboards
There’s so much that you will have on hand that you can use to make drinks more interesting that’s already in your home. Check out the herbs and spices and see what you can use to make interesting syrups or infusions. Take a look at the random bottles that people have bought you over the years and see what you can make use of. Sherry, Port and fortified wines in general are becoming more popular in cocktails all the time so revisit the bottles there (assuming they’re unopened, if you have dusty open fortified wines they’ll almost certainly be spoiled).
Champagnes, Prosecco, Cava and other sparkling wines can also be mixed to create some great cocktails, and are also the kind of thing you may not buy yourself but often get as a gift. Don’t worry which is called for in recipes, at home you can certainly use any sparkling wine interchangeably, whether it adjusts the flavours or not, bartending is all about experimenting!
Of course there are lots of alcohol free mixers that are worth having on hand, bitter lemon, ginger ale and beer and soda water. Sodas are always best when the bottle is just opened or even better, freshly made, so consider investing in a soda syphon for an amazing retro look too, or go for the easy option with a SodaStream to make sodas on the fly!
You may well already have milk or cream in your refrigerator if you’re into creamy drinks, likewise regular sodas like Colas or other fruit juices – just make sure you have the stuff you love and you’ll be set. The essentials will give you easy mixes for almost anything that comes your way though!
What have we missed out? Let us know in the comments if there’s anything you can’t live without!