Having worked briefly as a chef and loving spending time in the kitchen at home, I often draw parallels between the bar and the kitchen - but also between making a dish and making a cocktail. Obviously you're working with flavours and need to make sure it's edible, but there are many comparables that I think make it easy to translate experience in your (home) kitchen to putting together a cocktail. Many people are comfortable cooking at home, but are a little flustered when putting together a drink.
On the surface if it, the starting points are the same. Pick up a recipe, follow the proportions and the basic techniques, then begin to adapt and substitute until you're happy with a result that reflects your tastes.
The techniques are also often much simpler with cocktails than they are with food, but the fundamentals are less taught then they are with the kitchen. A lot of food preparation comes naturally or has been taught through basic hygiene and cooking shows. The same basic hygiene rules apply to cocktails, but there are a few pointers that should form the fundamentals of making a drink at home:
- Treat it like a high end dish; you have to put good ingredients in (and a little care and attention) to get good out.
- Much like with a cooking, it's hard to do cocktails en masse without a professional set up. Make life easy (and tasty) by making a drink for one or two, or batching up or making a punch if there's a bigger group you need to serve.
- Fill your freezer with ice (a point I've covered before, and one that may seem a little ironic). What else do you need in there aside from ice except maybe some frozen peas and ice cream?
Following on from this, bear in mind the temperature and dilution of your drink. Much as the same as in the kitchen these have a key effect on the end taste. Drinks, like dishes, taste best just as they're made. They have the perfect chill, the right amount of dilution (which is key to opening out the flavours) and if shaken, have a light airiness. This dissipates quickly, so drink your drinks fresh (this goes for in a bar too) and make them for the moment.
- Work from your kitchen preferences. There'll no doubt be flavours and combinations you like. Treat your booze in the same way; if you know you like orange and coriander seed as a pairing with lamb, try it with a golden rum.
- Start small. Much like you wouldn't attempt a recipe from Modernist Cuisine on your first kitchen soirée, don't attempt a Ramos Gin Fizz on the first go. You'll pick up a lot of understanding from a few goes, and you'll understand your own tastes and balance pretty quickly (again, much like your food, taste as you go along). This will mean you can attempt the more complicated and delicately balanced drinks later.
- Use your local bar. They will offer advice, but also are a base to try out new things. This might be cocktails, combinations or simply products. There's no point buying a bottle of Chartreuse to knock up a Last Word if you find out you hate herbal liqueurs. That said, there's a few 'store board' reliables that are worth stocking:
Angostura bitters - cocktail seasoning! The bottle will last you a good while, but like a can of WD-40 you'll soon find numerous uses for it.
Vermouth - a bottle of sweet and dry (and soon enough you'll be wanting Bianco, Rosé and a variety of Quinquina and various other fortifieds). Find uses for them to keep them fresh, and store them in the fridge.
Absinthe - buy a small bottle; like bitters a little will go a long way. Little dashes perform pure magic on your favourite drinks.
Good mixers. Simple hi-balls are some of life's simplest pleasures. With a good bottle of spirit, some proper ice and a quality mixer you have a fantastic cocktail. Buy smaller bottles for occasional use so they stay fresh and bright. Fevertree do 4 packs of 200ml bottles that are ideal and available in the supermarket.
Any other herbs or liqueurs can become your modifiers, so again, follow your preferences and leads from the kitchen. As I've covered before, there are numerous starting points, but an easy start is certainly by using your experience from the kitchen. Of course a lot of the herbs and fruits can easily be transferred across, but also think on mood and occasion like you do with a dish. Certain meats and vegetables lend themselves to heartier dishes. These combinations can form the base of richer warmer cocktails by using products that also move towards this way - think aged rums, whiskies and cognac. Whereas ingredients such as fino sherry, gin and tequila take on some of the lighter, brighter nuances you find in salads, fish and summery dishes (although, once you're more confident you can invert this too). This is a great way of starting to pair your cocktails and food too!
The best duck a l'orange I've had had a touch of anise to it that cut through the fat. It's the inspiration behind this drink. Like the best duck a l'orange, it takes a little effort, but it's worth it.
40ml Diplomatico Reserva
20ml Lillet Blanc
25ml orange juice
Teaspoon set honey
1 egg white
Fevertree ginger ale to garnish
Add all ingredients to a shaker and shake without ice. Add a cup of good quality ice and shake hard. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass and top with a dash of Fevertree ginger ale.