Beginner's guide to mixing cocktails

Caroline Cassidy

The art of mixing cocktails is one that takes years to perfect but with a few basic tips and a bit of experimentation, mixing your own drinks means you don't have to rely on a gin and tonic or pricey, ready-mixed bottle when you next throw a party.

mixing cocktails
mixing cocktails

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Cocktails date back to the 19th century when punch or 'fizz', generally made up of a base alcohol, water, bitters and something to add sweetness, became popular. These early incarnations were not confined to nightclubs and bars, but were taken each morning to boost energy.

Of course, we wouldn't recommend that now but the basic principles of mixed drinks remains much the same today.

Getting the balance right is essential and as such, it's important to get an understanding of the relationships between strong, weak, sour and sweet.

'Strong' generally refers to alcoholic components such as vodka, rum or whiskey, 'weak' to less potent alcohol such as liqueurs and fortified wines, 'sour' to added citrus elements like lemon and lime, and 'sweet' for the sugars and syrups. As a general rule, starting with the strong and sour elements enables you to add the weak and sweet elements to taste.

What do I need?
Professional mixologists boast a wide array of tools but the basic equipment you'll need is as follows: a measure (or jigger), a cocktail shaker, a mixing spoon with long handle and a tea strainer. With these you should be able to prepare the majority of basic cocktails.

Basic ingredients
Cocktail recipes include many wonderful (and sometimes weird) ingredients, but you will need to stock up on the basics - for the strong elements whiskey, gin, Bourbon, rum, vodka, brandy and tequila always come in handy, while liqueurs such as Vermouth, Amaretto, a cream (such as Bailey's) and an orange liqueur (ie Cointreau, Triple Sec) are useful 'weak' components.

Mixers are, of course, essential so varying fruit juices, sodas, sours and bitters will enable you to add those finishing touches. Where possible be sure to use good quality ingredients.

The Importance of Ice
Just chucking a couple ice cubes into your cocktail creation isn't necessarily the best way to do things - pay a little attention to the type and quantity of ice for the best results. For example, the large surface area of an ice cube means it melts more slowly, thereby causing less dilution so is ideal for most types of cocktails (including shorts) and it is common to fill a glass or shaker two thirds full with the standard cube.

Crushed ice, on the other hand, will melt more quickly and is therefore best used in long drinks and is not recommended for shaking as it will dilute the alcohol too much and too fast.

Shaken or stirred?
We all know how James Bond liked his but how do you know when to shake and when to stir? As a basic rule, cocktails that include fruit juices, cream liqueurs, eggs, dairy of other thick mixers are best shaken. At first your shaken drink will appear cloudy and effervescent when strained but this will clear given a little time.

Stirring is a much more gentle technique which combines a perfectly balanced drink more delicately. It is traditional to stir only those cocktails that are made entirely of alcohol.

With the basic ingredients, equipment and techniques, you'll be knocking up Manhattans, Margaritas and Mojitos in no time, but as your confidence and knowledge grows you may just end up creating your very own concoction.